When Wrestlers Act: Doom (2005)

Andrzej Bartkowiak

Karl Urban - John “Reaper” Grimm
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson - Asher “Sarge” Mahonin
Rosamund Pike - Dr. Samantha Grimm
Richard Brake - Dean Portman
Deobia Oparei - Roark “Destroyer” Gannon
Ben Daniels - Eric “Goat” Fantom
Raz Adoti - Gregory “Duke” Schofield
Al Weaver - Mark “The Kid” Dantalian
Dexter Fletcher - Marcus “Pinky” Pinzerowski

Genre - Horror/Action/Science Fiction/Video Games

Running Time - 113 Minutes [Unrated Director’s Cut]

As a lot of movie goers know, the process of adapting a video game property into a feature film [and vice-versa] hasn’t had the greatest percentage of succeeding. Ever since 1993’s SUPER MARIO BROS., Hollywood has struggled to capture what made the video games so popular into a live-action film format. While each adaptation may have a highlight or two within their respective films, only a few adaptations can be considered good. 1995’s MORTAL KOMBAT is a fun and cheesy flick that, at least, managed to adapt its source material as much as possible for the time. 2001’s TOMB RAIDER is a pretty solid action flick and turned Angelina Jolie into a huge star. The RESIDENT EVIL series, as divisive as they are, proved that audiences will latch on to a property if there’s enough fun things going on within it. 2006’s SILENT HILL is actually a pretty solid and atmospheric horror film that still works. And 2019’s POKEMON: DETECTIVE PIKACHU proved that not straying away from the source could reap some huge rewards commercially. 

Unfortunately, the major of video game adaptations are either really bad, or just extremely disappointing due to its unfulfilled potential. I feel 2005’s DOOM fits under this criteria - an adaptation of one of video game’s most important and influential first person shooters that didn’t appeal to many despite casting Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a lead role. It’s also surprising the film didn’t do better considering one of the franchise’s most popular entries, Doom 3, was released a year prior to great success. But with a $70 million dollar budget, the film only made about $56 million at the box office - not only making DOOM a box office bomb, but continuing a trend at the time for one Dwayne Johnson, who was struggling with maintaining his supposed star power. 

I hadn’t watched DOOM in about 13 years, not remembering it fondly and considering one of Dwayne Johnson’s biggest flops in his movie career. Even Johnson himself dislikes this film, feeling it never lived up to its potential. But my interest in rewatching DOOM comes at a time where the video game franchise has gained a lot of strength and good will in the last few years, especially with Doom Eternal being considered one of 2020’s Most Anticipated Games. Netflix is even streaming a quasi-sequel to this film, DOOM: ANNIHILATION, that isn’t considered to be any good but is at least praised for capturing the essence of the source material better than this film did. Considering all the negativity surrounding it, is DOOM really that bad? Were we expecting too much out of this adaptation fifteen years ago? Or does it deserve to be destroyed by a BFG for good?

A team of space marines known as the Rapid Response Tactical Squad, led by Sarge (Dwayne Johnson), is sent to a science facility on Mars after somebody reports a security breach. There, they learn that the alert came after a test subject, a mass murderer purposefully injected with alien DNA, broke free and began killing people. Dr. Grimm (Rosamund Pike), who is related to team member Reaper (Karl Urban), informs them all that the chromosome can mutate humans into monsters - and is highly infectious.

Rewatching DOOM again after so many years, I didn’t hate it as much as I had previously. In fact, I can tell there’s a good film in DOOM somewhere if it had been written and executed better in its final form. And while the film does have some positive things going for it in hindsight, DOOM still remains a heavily flawed film and a video game adaptation that could have and should have been better on so many levels.

Let’s get the positives out of the way first. The highlight of DOOM, which many who have seen the film will probably agree with, is during the final act where we see the recognizable first-person Doom point of view as Reaper shoots and dodges creatures trying to kill him. Director Andrzej Bartkowiak shoots the scene pretty close to the style of the video game, giving us five-to-seven minutes of hope that someone on the production team actually cared about using the source material to cater to fans of the video games and put a smile on their faces. The Unrated Director’s Cut is the way to go when it comes to this scene, as this edition adds more of the first-person-shooter aspect and makes us wish more of this aspect had been implemented throughout the rest of the film during the action scenes. It stands out against the rest of the standard and generic visual presentation, still holding up pretty well and proving that video game adaptations could be fun if you just gave the fans what they want.

Speaking of the visual presentation, I also liked the Universal opening logo using Mars instead of Earth, which is a nice touch. I wish more films with certain themes would do that more. And the closing credits with the first-person-shooting isn’t as good as the one within the actual story, but it’s still cool that the producers knew enough to use it. It’s not too hard to cater to the fan base while making the material more Hollywood, as long as it’s not forced or overdone.

I thought that while the creatures didn’t look as cool as their video game counterparts, at least there seemed to be a focus on making them look good. The monsters seemed more practical than CGI for the most part - maybe besides the Pinky monster - and I liked their designs. They looked threatening and stood out enough to make an impression. I also didn’t mind the futuristic set designs and the gory moments that thankfully pushed DOOM into an R rating. Cool monster bites on necks, vicious wounds, and multiple severed body parts compensated for other things that lacked in this film.

I also didn’t mind much of the acting in DOOM. A lot of the actors don’t get a whole lot of dialogue, especially good dialogue. But the main actors try to make good with the material given, even if they’ve done better work on other projects before and since. Karl Urban and Rosamund Pike struggled with their accents at times, but I liked their performances as both Reaper and Dr. Grimm. Urban is great at brooding and always looks believable when performing action scenes, so I thought he fit well here. Pike is mainly there to be the token female and say science things that drive the plot, but she does it like a champ. I found it funny, though, that Urban and Pike shared a more romantic chemistry than a sibling one, which made watching DOOM pretty uncomfortable at times. There was an interesting vibe there. I also liked Raz Adoti as the flirtatious and loyal Duke, sharing some genuinely cute and funny moments with Pike. It presented a nice change of pace from the rest of the film. And I enjoyed Richard Brake as Portman, playing up his trademark unhinged performance that he’s perfected ever since this movie, especially in his appearances in recent Rob Zombie movies. A lot of the actors weren’t allowed to display any sort of personality since they were directed to play gruff soldiers. But Brake seems to enjoy hamming it up as a lunatic and it more than worked for me.

Now we get to the things that aren’t so good about DOOM. And it pains me to put him here since he was the draw at the time. But Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson just seems off in this film and I don’t fully blame him for that either. I’m not saying his performance is terrible because it isn’t at all. He does a commendable job playing Sarge and shouting orders like you’d expect a drill sergeant would. But this man is one of the most charismatic movie stars in the world and for whatever reason, he’s not allowed to display any sort of fun or swagger in this acting. It’s not sure if Andrzej Bartkowiak directed him to play the role straight, or if Johnson’s agent and/or manager at the time convinced him to be less “Rock” and more “Dwayne” - wanting him to a more serious actor by not playing up to the persona that made him a star to begin with. Johnson just seems checked out, even when the twist happens. Johnson, himself, has stated a few times that DOOM is his least favorite project for various reasons. Judging by his lacking, yet competent performance, I can see why.

And then we get to what really brings DOOM down - the script itself. There are a lot of issues with the story here. For one, this is a pretty loose adaptation of the source material. Instead of fighting demons invading space from Hell, DOOM is nothing more than an ALIENS ripoff mixed with what studios felt worked in the RESIDENT EVIL film series at the time. Doing any film resembling 1986’s ALIENS is automatically going to make that movie look inferior, especially when the most you know about the characters are their nicknames. And it sucks that the demons from Hell were replaced by infected zombie-like people from a Mars lab. At least I think it was Mars, since we barely see anything outside of the lab. The switch was probably due to budgetary reasons, but it just turns DOOM into another zombie film influenced by the much more popular RESIDENT EVIL films. The characters saying scientific stuff, as if the actors playing them knew what the hell they were talking about, is unintentionally hilarious at times though. I hear the new DOOM film caters more to the demons from Hell deal than this one does. It’s kind of disappointing. 

And I like I wrote earlier, the characters don’t have much depth really besides nicknames that pretty much tell us a certain personality trait or their job within the squad. Sarge just shouts at his troops and wants to have things his way by any means necessary. Reaper is haunted by his parents’ death and is the group’s best sharpshooter. The Kid is the Rookie. Portman is the token crazy member. Duke is the flirt. Goat is the religious one. And Dr. Grimm probably has the most character as she’s the smart scientist with a tragic past with connections to several members of the squad. Even when a certain character turns to the dark side, there’s no real reason for it to happen besides the film needed a human antagonist besides the zombies. Unlike the films DOOM is trying to emulate, the characters don’t share a ton of chemistry with each other because they’re not really allowed to. Regardless of how you feel about those RESIDENT EVIL films, at least they have the characters form some sort of relationship with each other to build character and enough depth for audiences to care enough to sit through six films. You don’t really care about what happens to these people because you’re really not supposed to. It’s not like the video games have deep protagonists anyway, since you’re mainly just a shooter who travels through corridors and bases to shoot demons until you beat the game. But DOOM could have at least tried harder, since you feel disconnected as if you’re watching someone play the game rather connecting to it if you were playing it yourself.

And while some of the direction is decent, especially in the film’s final act, there is a lot to be desired visually for majority of the film. For one, why is DOOM so freakin’ dark? The color scheme within the corridors of the Ark are nice, with blues and reds. But these scenes are barely lit, making it hard to see the monsters or whatever action is going on when the characters are walking inside of this location, which is more often than not. It’s not like the creatures look terrible, because they don’t. And maybe at the start, using darkness could build some tension and anticipation for what we’ll eventually see. But I shouldn’t have to squint during a film to figure out what I’m seeing. It was frustrating and made me wonder how anyone believed this was a good idea. Gritty is a mood, not a lighting scheme. 

And when there wasn’t any action happening, the vibe of the film just fell flat. There wasn’t a whole lot of energy when the characters would interact with each other via dialogue. A lot of action films usually have decent pacing because even the non-action moments buzz and build to the next action sequence. You don’t really get that with DOOM. At least the dialogue scenes lead to other scenes, unlike a lot of video game adaptations, but I wish they grabbed you more.

And the soundtrack is pretty much nondescript. You get a remix of a Nine Inch Nails song and a generic nu-metal type score. I barely remember it as I type this, to be honest with you. Solid…

DOOM is not the worst video game adaptation to have ever been presented in a live-action film format, but it’s not a good adaptation either. The film is lit too dark, the characters have no depth at all, and it’s barely based on the games themselves besides a few names, the concept, and some of the weapons. And Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, one of the most charismatic personalities in any media, acts as if he doesn’t want to be in the film and gives one of his flattest performances against Karl Urban and Rosamund Pike, who clearly outshine him here. But the film does look polished, has a great video game moment with that awesome first-person shooter sequence near the end, displays cool creature designs inspired by the games and above average acting from most of the cast [especially Urban, Pike and Richard Brake]. And the silly dialogue has its unintentional moments of entertainment that elevate a film that could have and should have been better. A lousy video game adaptation, but an average ALIENS meets RESIDENT EVIL rip-off.

2 Howls Outta 4


Original vs Remake - Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) & The Grudge (2004)

Takashi Shimizu

Megumi Omina - Rika Nishina
Misa Uehara - Izumi Toyama
Misaki Ito - Hitomi Tokunaga
Yui Ichikawa - Chiharu
Takako Fuji - Kayako Saeki
Yuya Ozeki - Toshio Saeki
Takashi Matasuama - Takeo Saeki
Yoji Tanaka - Yuji Toyama
Kanji Tusda - Katsuya Tokunaga
Shuri Matsuda - Kazumi Tokunaga

Genre - Horror/Supernatural/Ghosts

Running Time - 92 Minutes

Takashi Shimizu

Sarah Michelle Gellar - Karen Davis
Jason Behr - Doug McCarthy
KaDee Strickland - Susan Williams
William Mapother - Matt Williams
Clea DuVall - Jennifer Williams
Grace Zabriskie - Emma Williams
Bill Pullman - Peter Kirk
Rosa Blasi - Maria Kirk
Ted Raimi - Alex Jones
Takako Fuji - Kayako Saeki
Yuya Ozeki - Toshio Saeki
Takashi Matsuyama - Takeo Saeki

Genre - Horror/Supernatural/Ghosts

Running Time - 92 Minutes

With the latest remake/reboot of THE GRUDGE starting the 2020 movie season, I figured I would look back at the 2002 original Japanese film and its first remake from 2004 - both films that seem to look like bigger successes than the current film that’s been released if the critical and commercial response is any indication. With films like 2016s TRAIN TO BUSAN and even 2019’s PARASITE prove, Western audiences are willing to enjoy horror films from an Asian market without an Americanized adaptation to boost name recognition for some Hollywood studio. That wasn’t always the case, as a bunch of Americanized remakes of Asian horror films were constantly released in the 2000s to varying success. Obviously, the most successful and probably best remake to come out of this era is 2002’s THE RING, a well-made American version of 1998’s RINGU. In fact, I think THE RING is a slight improvement over RINGU, taking what made the original film good and expanding on it a bit to great results. And considering how lame many of the remakes that came after THE RING ended up being, it’s pretty safe to say that the 2004 remake of 2002’s JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, THE GRUDGE, is the second best Japanese-to-American remake of this era. Both films were huge hits, creating many tropes and visuals that would get copied into other horror films dealing with the same subject matter even today.

It had been about fifteen years since I had sat down to watch either JU-ON: THE GRUDGE or THE GRUDGE, even though I pretty much remembered the many similarities and some differences both versions of the same story [directed by the same director no less] had. And it was interesting to see why audiences were so gravitated to these films, as they felt fresh and narratively original at the time - but feel very dated today. Even though neither film holds up all that well in my opinion, I still think they were important in the history of the horror genre and are both worth a look. The question is if I would have to recommend just one of these films, which one would I choose? Let’s see the pros and cons of both of these films.

In Tokyo, multiple characters enter a so-called haunted house where a terrible murder-suicide took place between an angry and jealous husband and his wife, which unfortunately included their young son and family cat. In Japanese culture, this type of hateful act creates a vengeful spirit known as The Grudge, possessing and imprinting on those who step foot where the scene of the crime occurred. Whether inside that very house or outside of it, the spirit will spook its victims, creating mysterious deaths while passing on its curse to anyone who has entered that home. Figuring out what’s going on, characters attempt to break the spell before the curse spreads across multiple victims.



With the huge success of 1998’s RINGU and its American remake, 2002’s THE RING, it’s not surprising that JU-ON: THE GRUDGE was as successful and an easy target for its own American version. What many probably don’t know is that JU-ON: THE GRUDGE was actually the third installment in that series, with the first two films being made for television. I guess those films were successful enough to warrant a theatrical release for the third installment, which helped build its brand since on a worldwide level.

It’s easy to see why JU-ON: THE GRUDGE appealed to so many. While it did take aspects of RINGU, especially when it came to a curse being passed through some means and a dark-haired spirit haunting people, JU-ON: THE GRUDGE forged its own path to stand out from a lot of the other Japanese films coming out at the time. While the scare factor is probably not as strong as it was almost 20 years ago, it’s obvious that director Takashi Shimizu was more focused on creating this haunting and sinister atmosphere rather than telling a memorable narrative. The visual presentation is still JU-ON: THE GRUDGE’s strongest aspect, still managing to creep you out somewhat with its creepy visuals and tension building scenes. While meme’d and parodied since, those moments where the vengeful spirit Kayako crawls down the stairs with a creaking sound that’s still very effective today are so well shot that it brings a sense of unease most modern horror films lack. The little boy, Toshio, is also presented well, as he’s always hiding in a window, a corner, under a table, or in a closet with a wide-eyed stare that’s unsettling. The meowing is a bit silly, even back then, but it gives Toshio character and presents something most mainstream audiences hadn’t really seen in a film. There are barely jump scares with loud noises, which strengthen the film’s power, letting the tension build enough to turn those lights on while watching. I also think Takashi Shimizu films the Tokyo interiors and exteriors so well, bringing something foreign even to people who live there. In a lot of ways, I think JU-ON: THE GRUDGE is a better directed film than Hideo Nakata’s RINGU, as I get a sense of fear more out of the former than the latter.

Unfortunately, style over substance is a risk that could either elevate or bring down a film. And JU-ON: THE GRUDGE does suffer from the lack of a linear narrative that tries to explain things out of order, but doesn’t really. While we’re given title cards at the start of the film explaining how the curse of the Grudge is created within Japanese culture, not much is done with that other than knowing the cause of the creation of this curse. We never learn why this curse spreads to other people, strangers even, who seem perfectly happy with their lives and had nothing to do with the situation. It doesn’t help that the story is told through segments rather than some sort of linear structure. You’re watching Act E before you’re watching Act B, but Act C will play out before you even get to Act B. It’s kind of a mess because you’re not really sure how each segment connects to the other besides the curse itself. And when you do figure out how each segment fits with the others, you just wish it was told in a somewhat linear way so it would flow better and actually build a lot of tension and suspense as the film nears its end.

This fragmented storytelling also hurts character development, as there never seems like there is a main protagonist throughout the entire film. This creates lack of depth for every one of the victims, as we soon learn that they’re just there to react to some evil spirits haunting them before killing them. That may work in a slasher film, but a ghost movie needs more substance in its narrative for audiences to really care what’s going on other than what they see visually. The closest we have to a main hero is social worker Rika, whose entrance into this home is the catalyst for the rest of the scenarios that are displayed out-of-order to let us in on what’s going on. But we don’t spend enough time with her to root for her and she isn’t as proactive in her actions after the fact to make her a hero. The segments themselves are perfectly fine and each have great storytelling moments within them. But JU-ON: THE GRUDGE has too many characters and when you do start to know them, they’re quickly disposed of. By default, the only characters that get some development are the Saeki family. Even then, we only know about what happened to them and why they all became evil spirits. And even their haunting and scaring people starts to become tedious two-thirds into the film. At least the actors are all solid and help elevate a weak script. Otherwise, this film would be worse off.


As for the 2004 American remake, most of the film is pretty much shot-for-shot the same as the original film. Considering it’s the same director, the film doesn’t tread too far from what made the original a success. You have similar characters who are dealing with the same vengeful spirits who meow, croak, etc.

However, there are some differences that do make THE GRUDGE a worthy companion to JU-ON: THE GRUDGE. Since the film is mainly cast with American actors in a Japanese world, the story has to change a bit to accommodate them. The main character, Karen, is our Rika substitute - playing a fish-out-of-water social worker who enters the haunted home and never leaves it the same woman. But instead of being tossed away for majority of the film and not doing much of importance like how Rika was portrayed, Karen actually has enough depth for us to care about what she’s doing. She has a boyfriend who supports her and cares about her very much. Even though she’s out of her element in a foreign land, she seems driven to be a caring social worker. And when she’s confronted by Kayako and clan, she actually decides to research the house, what happened to the family that had lived there, and investigates in how to stop the curse from hurting others. This edition to the plot actually helps drive the film to its inevitable conclusion, giving the audience more substance to chew on when it comes to this ghost story. It also helps us side with Karen, as she’s willing to do anything to stop the insanity, which is more than I can say for her counterpart.

More storytelling differences? Less characters, as a segment wasn’t repeated in this version. I actually enjoyed the scenes with the school girls in the original, but it wouldn’t have added much in this remake. We also learn more about the man Kayako was apparently in love with - a college professor who she started to crush on, but was only one sided as he was a married man. This crush led to the deaths of the Saeko family, eventually leading to some bad things for the professor as well, as he entered the house after-the-fact to discuss Kayako’s feelings and let her down - only to find their corpses instead. And probably the biggest difference is that the storytelling takes a more Hollywood approach, crafting a more linear series of events rather than a narrative that’s all over the place. Some flashbacks do take place like in the original, but it only happens when it wants to explain why certain characters are behaving as they are. If the remake has anything that trumps the original, it’s that the story and plot are much more assessable for audiences and actually help elevate the story into something more sensible. I think the tension and suspense are allowed to build much better in the remake, which is a definitely plus.

That being said, while Takashi Shimizu directs his remake as much confidence as he does the original, the power he visually displayed is lessened the second time around. Even if you don’t watch both films back-to-back, there are things that visually work for another culture that don’t work for an American one. The original film has a more quiet presentation when it comes to the scares, never really alerting the audience of danger until you hear that creaking sound that sends chills down your spine. In the remake, those loud audio cues to make the audience jump are here, making the same scenes feel less than. Also, Shimizu edits a few of the scenes, giving less time for these moments to cook, which takes away some of the impact. But I will say the film looks a lot better than the original in terms of cinematography, looking extremely polished and making Japan a beautiful place we would love to visit. It also flows better due to the story structure being stronger. And while the film does have questionable CGI at times, I don’t think it looks all that bad honestly. I’ve seen effects a lot worse than THE GRUDGE during this time frame, and I feel the use of CGI ghosts doing cool things adds to the visual presentation. I really liked that severed jaw bit and some of the faces that morphed into other things. 

The acting is also pretty decent. THE GRUDGE was meant to make Sarah Michelle Gellar a movie star after her memorable run on Buffy The Vampire Slayer had ended in 2003. She does well enough as Karen, giving us someone to care about as she tries to figure out what’s going on. I think she’s an odd fit at times, as her acting could be a bit stronger when bad things happen. But her name value at the time allowed audiences to root for her and she seems invested in the role enough to take it seriously. I’m surprised the success of this film [and her previous television work] didn’t place Gellar on the A-list. She’s not bad here. 

The rest of the actors had less to do, but filled their roles adequately. Jason Behr, fresh off of the original version of TV’s Roswell, plays Karen’s boyfriend Doug. Considering the two worked together on an episode of Buffy and hung out in the same circles, Behr’s chemistry with Gellar feels natural and you can buy them as a couple trying to figure out Japan. I wish he had more to do, but at least he helped add depth to Karen and had a decent presence in the film’s final act. The other two actors of note are Clea DuVall and Bill Pullman. DuVall doesn’t do a whole lot either, but she does the best that she can in her short role. And Pullman is always a welcomed presence in any project he’s a part of. He was given more to do than both Behr and DuVall, getting to believably create a bit of depth to his college professor character. His reactions of fear were nicely convincing, so I appreciated him here. Also, shout out to Ted Raimi. Again, small role but I like that guy, so win. 

JU-ON: THE GRUDGE was a critical and commercial success, while its 2004 American remake may not have been as big of a hit with critics but made a ton of money at the box office at the time. Both films have their pluses and their minuses and you’re probably better off watching both of them if you’re interested in this franchise for whatever reason. But if you only have time for one, it depends on what kind of moviegoer you are. If you’re willing to sacrifice a more understandable and linear plot for a more effectively creepy visual effects and sound design with really good acting, stick with the original. But if you’re willing to deal with a lesser creep factor and a more Hollywood presentation of horror for a stronger story with deeper characters with logical motivations, 2004’s THE GRUDGE is for you. I personally feel both films are two sides of the same coin, each side depending on what you look for in a horror film like this. And considering what I’ve been hearing about the 2020 reboot for this series, you’re probably better off watching either one of these two films anyway. 

JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2002) & THE GRUDGE (2004)
2.5 Howls Outta 4

JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2002) Trailer

THE GRUDGE (2004) Trailer


Lunar Cycle - December 2019

Since I don’t have as much time to write longer reviews than I used to, I figured I would just post shorter reviews for horror/cult films that I feel deserve your attention. Expect these Lunar Cycle posts once per month.

INTO THE DARK: POOKA! (2018) - **1/2 out of ****

Directed By: Nacho Vigalondo

Starring: Nyasha Hatendi, Latarsha Rose, Jon Daly, Dale Dickey, Jonny Berryman, Bryan Billy Boone, Caden Dragomer

Genre: Horror/Thriller

Run Time: 83 Minutes

Plot: A struggling actor gets a holiday season job as a Christmas character in a plush suit to promote the hottest toy of the year, Pooka; he slowly develops two personalities - one when he’s in the suit and one that’s outside it.

Continuing through Hulu’s Into the Dark TV-movie anthology series, I decided to watch last year’s Christmas episode POOKA! - one of last season’s most talked about episodes. Using the holiday as more of a backdrop than as a true focus like PILGRIM did for Thanksgiving, POOKA! still manages to use the idea of toys during the holidays to push its narrative along. Not knowing much about the film, I figured POOKA! would just be like a CHILD’S PLAY clone with some evil dolls would become sentient and cause chaos during Christmas. But I wasn’t expecting this deep and serious psychological thriller about a struggling actor who is hired to be a popular toy’s mascot, only for him to use this new persona to satisfy his more evil side. Maybe that’s why POOKA! doesn’t work fully to the story’s premise, as it’s trying to be a lot of things at once.

POOKA!’s make focus is on main character Wilson, who has moved to a new city for a brand new start. The holidays seem to be especially hard on him for some reason, but he forces himself to audition for some mystery acting gig that leads him into becoming the global mascot for a Pooka doll - pretty much a Teddy Ruxpin talking doll that records certain phrases and has a nice and naughty meter that changes occasionally - blue light means nice, red light means naughty. The Pooka doll is the Christmas toy sensation, with Wilson having to dress up as a life-size Pooka doll to promote the toys. Things seem to be going his way. He’s made friends with an eccentric neighbor. He’s met a beautiful real estate agent who is also a single mom, starting a relationship with her. Plus with the toy’s success, he’s making a lot of money. But strange things seem to happen, especially when the Pooka suit is on. Wilson starts getting violent and angry, lashing out on others. However, there are times where Wilson isn’t wearing the suit, watching the Pooka hurt people as an outsider. So is he having a split personality? Is someone else in the outfit? Is it all in his head? What’s the deal?

Even though these questions are answered by the film’s end, I do feel that the journey getting there could have been a lot better and more assessable to a certain portion of the audience. I’ve never seen director Nacho Vigalondo’s other films [I’ll probably get to some of those in 2020 as catch up] but I’ve heard he thrives on non-linear storytelling like POOKA! So I can’t compare how this matches up to his other projects. For the most part, I thought the story was well written and quite compelling. While I wish hints were given along the way about what was really going on, I was pretty invested in the film, constantly wondering what was the real deal and how it would all be resolved. I would think the film was going one way, when it would take a stranger direction that made me question what I was watching. I’ve read some people claiming they felt the last act was predictable, but I honestly didn’t see it coming. Even then, I still had questions though and wondered about the film’s narrative time and space. As a strange character study of a man conflicted by seemingly two halves of his personality, I think it’s an interesting one to see play out. But I’m not sure if it worked to its fullest potential since I felt a bit unsatisfied by the film’s end and wish POOKA! was told in a more linear way where the hallucinations and different perspectives would ground the story more and give audiences a more conclusive narrative that would provide enough answers that could keep the mystery intact. I respect that screenwriter Gerald W. Olson made POOKA! feel surreal and dreamlike from beginning to end. But being too vague sometimes will turn people off, especially when the final few minutes tell you what’s going on, but at the same time don’t really. Interesting story, but I think the execution could have been a bit tighter and more easier to digest. I felt like POOKA! explored a lot of things about past trauma while not exploring them enough for me to feel like I got my 90 minutes worth. There shouldn’t be new questions made during the film’s resolution.

I’m also sort of torn on how I feel about how the Christmas aspect was used in POOKA!. On one hand, I’m glad that we see Christmas trees, lights, and even media craze over a popular toy like I used to see all the time on the news back when I was younger. But I wish more was done with it, because I honestly feel POOKA! could have taken place during any other holiday besides Christmas and not much would have changed. I think Christmas is the right call if you want to really explore past trauma, since it’s a family holiday. But it just felt like it was more of a backdrop than a holiday that actually plays into much of the film’s narrative. I do feel it did more with the holiday than FLESH & BLOOD did with Thanksgiving. But besides objects and mentions of it, POOKA! didn’t really feel like Christmas to me for much of the film.

I do think Vigalondo directed a nice film here visually. The film is well paced and Vigalondo maintains a good creepy tone throughout. The use of colors would make Dario Argento proud, with his use of reds and blues flooding the screen at times, depending on Pooka’s mood. It creates a ton of atmosphere and a surreal feeling, as if you’re watching reality turn into some colorful nightmare or mind f*ck that could only happen in someone’s unstable mind. I also thought the use of blinking red and blue lights, resembling an emergency siren, were a neat touch considering what the colors would represent later in the film. The film also looked really polished and I loved the commercials and news segments looking different from the rest of the film. I haven’t seen any of Vigalondo’s V/H/S’ segments or COLOSSAL, but if his direction is supposedly better on those, then I’m definitely going to cover those in 2020. I dug his style a lot.

The acting is also quite good. But the real star here is Nyasha Hatendi as Wilson, portraying so many emotional layers in a quick, yet believable span. You root for him. You fear him. When you learn the truth about his situation, you feel conflicted. It’s almost a commentary on a man suffering from mental illness due to his past haunting him in ways he’ll never recover from, which Hatendi plays perfectly subtle. I enjoyed seeing him playing both sides of his personality - good and evil - slowly deteriorating by the film’s conclusion. Without Hatendi’s strong performance, POOKA! wouldn’t have worked.

Overall, POOKA! is a decent Christmas Into the Dark installment. Nacho Vigalondo’s direction is pretty solid, greatly using colors to create a bit of surrealism to showcase the dissociative state of a fractured mind during the holidays. Nyasha Hatendi’s performance as a man who is slowly losing his sense of reality while trying to rebuild his life in a new place is fantastic and keeps the film’s narrative strong. While POOKA! has a compelling story that twists and turns towards a somewhat logical conclusion, the non-linear structure getting there doesn’t work as well as it should. Plus POOKA! has one of those endings that answers the mystery while creating another one, leaving you both satisfied and unsatisfied at the same time. I preferred both Thanksgiving stories over POOKA!, but POOKA! is worth a watch if you’re a fan of this Hulu series and need a bit of Christmas terror in your December viewing cycle.

INTO THE DARK: A NASTY PIECE OF WORK (2019) - *** out of ****

Directed By: Charles Hood

Starring: Julian Sands, Dustin Milligan, Angela Sarafyan, Natalie Hall, Kyle Howard, Nico Greetham, Molly Hagan

Genre: Horror/Thriller

Running Time: 78 Minutes

Plot: A mid-level corporate employee finds out he’s not getting the Christmas bonus he was expecting, but his boss invites him to earn a promotion by beating his professional rival in a violent competition.

Review: One of the better installments of Hulu’s and Blumhouse’s Into the Dark series and slightly ahead of last year’s POOKA! episode, 2019’s A NASTY PIECE OF WORK doesn’t really celebrate the Christmas holiday all that much, but the film carries its influences really well to give us a story that will probably continue to resonate with some people for many years to come. Instead of focusing on Christmas, the film is more focused on class differences and the idea of capitalism having to destroy morality and ethics for one to get ahead in life. This theme of class politics seems to have been a common one in 2019, especially when you have films like KNIVES OUT and READY OR NOT really using it to give their respective stories substance. 

The same can be said for A NASTY PIECE OF WORK, which uses the idea of workers not getting a Christmas bonus [influenced by NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION] to persuade them into hurting and even killing each other to get a promotion at their workplace that the bonus will go to. The story takes three couples - the manipulative boss and his unfulfilled wife, the main character and his wife [who both have morals] and the main character’s elitist rival and his trophy wife - and brings them together to subject them in embarrassing and revealing situations that will force the two male employees to hurt each other for a job. Or maybe the boss and wife are just having fun at the expense of two couples they see lesser than them because they don’t own nice things or have power of any kind that matters to them. In a way, the film pretty much showcases the reality of working in a competitive profession - having to step on others to get ahead in terms of status and salary, creating a “survival of the fittest” environment that creates a lot of drama. 

I won’t go into major details about things that revealed by all parties involved or give hints as to how it all ends, but A NASTY PIECE OF WORK tells its story in a very satirical way that sort of makes fun of the situation at hand, while also criticizing the selfishness that comes with capitalism. Both employees try to one-up the other, first with their brains until they realize that none of them will get what they want unless physical violence comes into play. The use of shotguns [that may hold blanks or not], large hammers, and other objects give way to some decent gore and death sequences that push forward the agenda of the movie. And when things start to unravel, you start to realize that maybe no one is the good guy in this situation. It’s well written in a black comedy sort of way rather than a horror film, still managing to make you cringe at points because of how messed up this all is.

If I did have issues with the story, it’s because there are plot points introduced that don’t get enough attention to really mean much. There’s this deal where a story comes up about someone living within the walls of the boss’ mansion, leading to situations where someone is peeping on the characters through holes in the wall. But it never really goes anywhere, wondering why you wouldn’t do more with such a creepy plot device. There’s also a thing where murders also happened at this mansion, but we’re never really given any information about those. I’m guessing it has to do with other people competing for some sort of promotion, but nothing much comes out of it. But the twists and turns the story takes are quite fun and definitely worth investing in.

I think the one thing POOKA! does have over this film is the visual style of the film. While POOKA! used a lot of colors and had strangely surreal visual cues that made you wonder what you were watching, A NASTY PIECE OF WORK is a pretty simple one-location type of set up that feels like a TV movie rather than some sort of cinematic experience. Charles Hood does a good job presenting the story in a simple manner that we can all follow. But I felt like the film could have been more tense and suspenseful visually. It’s well framed, shot, and even uses the violent portions in an entertaining manner. But the film could have used a bit more flash, considering how grounded the premise was. It doesn’t have to be over-the-top, but a bit of style every now and then wouldn’t have hurt. 

The acting is also pretty good. All the actors play their roles well - like Kyle Howard’s kiss-ass, yet moralistic Ted and Angela Sarafyan who plays his supportive wife Tatum. Dustin Milligan isn’t too bad as the douchey Gavin either. But the film definitely belongs to both Julian Sands and Molly Hagan, as the boss and his bothersome wife. Sands, the friggin’ WARLOCK, is always an awesome presence in any film or television show he appears in. He brings so much class along with him, giving us a boss character that you want to hate but can’t help be charmed by. He plays the role very seriously until you see a certain gleam in his eye that makes you see how much fun he’s having being the bad guy. Hagan, who Sands has great comic chemistry with, is more boisterous in her performance as a seducing and alcoholic wife who enjoys tearing down her husband and his employees every chance she can get. While Sands is more matter-of-fact, Hagan is more playful and livens up the film quite a bit. Hagan made me laugh quite a bit, making me understand why all the characters were pretty annoyed with her behavior.

Overall, A NASTY PIECE OF WORK is one of Hulu’s Into the Dark’s best segments. While it could have used the Christmas holiday more to create a certain atmosphere, as well as tie up loose ends that are brought up but never addressed much afterwards, the film still manages to be a fun black comedy that satirically looks how the class warfare still affects many especially in the workplace. The twists and turns of the characters’ personal information unraveling to elevate the drama between them is well done. I also thought the more horror-thriller aspects of the film were handled well, despite Charles Wood’s a-bit-too-simple direction. The actors make the story fun, especially the always awesome Julian Sands and Molly Hagan, who embrace their devilish characters and show how much fun they’re having being bad. Not as good as similar films this year like KNIVES OUT or READY OR NOT, but still very watchable and worthy of a look for those interested in this anthology series.

ANGEL HEART (1987) - ***1/2 out of ****

Directed By: Alan Parker

Starring: Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, Lisa Bonet, Charlotte Rampling, Stocker Fontelieu, Brownie McGhee, Dann Florek, Kathleen Wilhoite, George Buck

Genre: Mystery/Horror/Satanic/Voodoo

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Plot: Down-and-out private detective Harry Angel is ordered by the mysterious Louis Cypher to go on a mission to find a mission person. His routine failure soon leads to a bloody spar with himself, as he goes on a supernatural journey into his own soul.

1987's ANGEL HEART is a film I watched quite frequently for a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as my late uncle was a huge fan of the film. While I remembered a couple of things that happened, the adult storytelling and themes went way over my head. I had been wanting to watch the film again for a while, seeing it pop up on streaming sites for the last few years. Before 2019 was over, I decided to take the plunge and see why my uncle enjoyed this film so much and why I barely had a recollection of it besides the voodoo stuff.

As a child, ANGEL HEART won’t grab you on a narrative level, even if it might visually at times. But as an adult, I have a whole new appreciation of this film and really get why my uncle and so many others praise it so highly. In a way, ANGEL HEART is a pretty underrated horror-noir flick that doesn’t get a whole lot of discussion. But it absolutely should since it has a lot going for it in terms of direction, mystery and especially the acting.

Getting too deep into the story would spoil things for people who haven’t had a chance to watch ANGEL HEART. But what I will say that while the mystery is pretty obvious [especially now that I understand the references as an adult], the screenplay is still well constructed and builds onto the film’s shocking [not shocking?] climax that poses new questions that never get answered. It captures the neo-noir feel well and as detective Harry Angel continues along his investigation within a supernatural world of voodoo to uncover the truth, you stay interested and committed to the film’s narrative. The characters all have dimension, like the charismatic yet haunted Harry Angel, to the dark and mysterious Lou Cypher [how did I not see who he was right away as a child?], and the captivating and sultry Epiphany. The deep characters help build this bleak universe in the 1950s where there is more than meets the eye, leading to answers that not only satisfy the viewer, but damage the characters who are blindsided by the conclusion they’re given. It’s an intelligently written film that’s truly meant for mature audiences who will get all the hidden meanings and adult subject matter that encompass this world. ANGEL HEART could have been cheesy, cheap and shocking for all the wrong reasons. But the story has class and wants to legitimately entertain the audience it’s appealing to.

The story is helped by Alan Parker’s direction. Prior to ANGEL HEART, Parker directed some high-profile films like 1978’s MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, 1980’s FAME and 1982’s PINK FLOYD: THE WALL - later he would direct 1988’s MISSISSIPPI BURNING and 1996’s EVITA. The man knows how to create mood and atmosphere, especially when it comes to period pieces. ANGEL HEART is no different, maintaining the look of 1955 with a grittiness and bleakness one wouldn’t expect from that time. Old school New York City is wonderfully created and New Orleans really captures this surreal and sweaty locale that will change many of the characters’ lives. In many ways, Parker doesn’t direct a horror film at all, letting the story itself slowly build tension and fear. Parker is more focused on the drama between the players, giving us glimpses of who they are when they’re alone and especially when they interact with one another. Focusing on Harry Angel makes him an unreliable narrator as we suspect that he was hired for the investigation intentionally, as if he’s meant to find out the truth for his own good as well. But Parker does give us glimpses of the dark side of voodoo, with chicken blood pouring on people during erotic situations, making blood almost sexy in a gross way. And the use of hallucinations and visions only add to the visual presentation, giving audiences a puzzle they need to think about and solve by the film’s conclusion that doesn’t insult their intelligence. And while we don’t see the acts of murder until the very end, the aftermath is pretty gruesome at times. Parker directs a solid mystery-thriller that’s super confident and grounded, despite the themes that inhabit the narrative.

And ANGEL HEART has some solid performances. Mickey Rourke is at his peak here, in my opinion, looking like the epitome of a grizzled private eye who will do anything to find the answers. He’ll sleep around. He’ll bully people for information. And he’ll place himself in situations that will probably do him more harm than good. Rourke takes the role seriously, playing all aspects of the character perfectly. He’s believably cool and charming, while also convincingly haunted and disturbed as he gets deeper into the mystery. It saddens me that he did so much plastic surgery on himself because Rourke was a good looking dude with solid acting chops that should have made him a bigger star. He’s amazing in this film. Robert De Niro also gets to chew up some scenery as Lou Cypher, the man who hires Harry Angel for this particular assignment. It took a lot of convincing for De Niro to appear in this film, as he was originally courted for the Harry Angel role but refused because he wanted a smaller role with less to do. Plus he wanted concrete locations and direction for his character before signing up to do it. Lou Cypher is more of a cameo role than anything, but De Niro certainly makes his presence as this mysteriously sinister figure who seeks answers, even if these answers aren’t meant for him personally, but for someone else. It’s a quieter role than De Niro usually does and it works for the film, especially when you figure out his true intentions. A nice casting coup for Parker - one that worked out very well. The other major actor in the film is Lisa Bonet as Epiphany, the daughter of a voodoo priestess. Bonet is wonderful as a sultry distraction for Harry Angel, who looks innocent but those looks may be deceiving. She shares quiet chemistry with Rourke and their sex scene almost led to ANGEL HEART having an X rating - it’s that intense. While her performance is memorable, it was unfortunately overshadowed by Bill Cosby being displeased with the role and firing her from The Cosby Show at the time, moving her into the spinoff A Different World instead. That’s kind of funny, considering Bill Cosby was far from a saint himself in his personal life. We also get smaller performances from Charlotte Rampling, Stocker Fontelieu, Dann Florek, Kathleen Wilhoite, and George Buck that add nicely to the film and the film’s mystery. 

Overall, ANGEL HEART is one of those underrated horror-thrillers from the 1980s that still holds up extremely well after all these years. While the mystery is probably fairly predictable, the storytelling is still strong and well-written enough to bypass that. The characters are fleshed out, the universe they live in is given depth, and the build up leading to the climax flows extremely well and feels mostly satisfying. Alan Parker’s confident direction helps create an awesome neo-noir thriller with interesting imagery and moody set-pieces that would fit right in the genre. And the acting from Mickey Rourke [especially], Robert De Niro and Lisa Bonet are wonderful, bringing the script to life in a believable way and makes you empathize with some of the characters when the mystery is solved. As a child, I had no idea what was going on with this film besides the voodoo aspect of it. But as an adult, I can truly appreciate ANGEL HEART as a classy and thrilling film with a soul that probably deserves more mention than it actually gets.

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