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
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
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
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.