I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
After creeping us out Christmas 2018 with “Pooka!,” the Hulu horror anthology series Into the Dark returns this weekend with a spring-flavored sequel.
“Pooka Lives!,” directed by Cuban filmmaker Alejandro Brugués (Juan of the Dead), involves a group of 30-something-year-old friends (Malcolm Barrett, Lyndie Greenwood, Felicia Day, Jonah Ray and Gavin Stenhouse) from high school who create their own Creepypasta about a children’s product for laughs. However, evil flashes its bloody fangs when their joke goes viral on the internet and manifests murderous versions of the fuzzy rabbit creature.
Fresh Fiction reviewed the film earlier this week (read here) and recently had the opportunity to discuss the feature-length chapter of the monthly-spun show with its director. Brugués talks about weaving societal ills into his work, navigating the narrative’s horror and comedy aspects, and what it took to achieve originality in an established series.
Preston Barta: The best kind of horror films can subvert the narrative to reveal an alternative, deeper meaning. How do you master using horror tools to carve out a story steeped in a social commentary?
Alejandro Brugués: “The thing for me has always been to use filmmaking as a tool to say something about the society around me. That’s why I did Juan of the Dead. It was a zombie movie, but the part that was interesting to me was the social and political commentary. [The 2011 genre film takes many hits at Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution and celebrates the endurance of locals who’ve survived on a crumbling island and were starved of resources.] I managed to get away with so much stuff. For someone who is not Cuban, it may not mean as much. But right now, I look at that movie, and there are elements there that have me baffled that we got away with what we did and I’m not in jail. That’s the beauty of it; I used genre as a shield.”
“The reason why horror lasts through the sands of time is because of that aspect. Just look at The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In the history of the genre, it’s been about social commentary. The monster may be a metaphor for ourselves, our innermost fears. It’s been the focus for me whenever I write plays or have material brought to me. That was the case with ‘Pooka Lives!’”
Considering everything ‘Pooka Lives!’ entails, have you noticed a shift within yourself since doing it? Was there a particular area of the film that deeply spoke to you?
“I think as a filmmaker, you have a certain duty to talk about what’s going on in the world, but you also have to have fun. I enjoy horror comedies. When I read the script, I recognized that it was in my wheelhouse. It is a sequel [to Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo’s original 2018 ‘Pooka!’ film], but it also explores different areas than the previous entry. I responded to the horror-comedy aspect of it. I’ve done movies from different genres, of course. But I enjoy this arena, and I enjoyed coming up with ideas with the writer [Riese series creator Ryan Copple].”
Is it a challenge to navigate a tone like this? Obviously, you have a history working in horror-comedy, but there are many more things at play here, such as the character-focused nature of it and building genuine dread in scenes of horror.
“The tone wasn’t too difficult for me because I’m overly familiar with it, doing segments for the From Dusk Till Dawn series, ABCs of Death 2 and most recently with Nightmare Cinema. Then, you have the chance to create with the actors, and we had an amazing cast for ‘Pooka Lives!’ I wanted them to have fun, so the viewer can watch this and gather that. You want that to be able to translate.”
How does all that come together for a scene like the one featured in the trailer, when that dad goes to inspect his daughter’s room? He checks the closet and then a Pooka-themed light turns on, shining countless images of the creature’s face on the walls until it moves perfectly where the monster is in the room. It’s effective to watch, but how do you know if it’s working on set? Is comedy the same?
“Yes. Let’s dissect that one. That scene had a very complicated practical effect, which was the night lamp. The Pooka eyes have to land right on the monster. We shot that part first because if you shoot the rest of the scene and the effect doesn’t work, you don’t have anything. I was the one wearing a Pooka head. So, I stood in the corner wearing the Pooka head, to show where I wanted the eyes to land. Once we have that, it cranks up the tension.”
“Now, I can be a pain in the ass, and I was. I love Jonah Ray, who plays the father, Matt. I love Felicia Day, who plays the mother, Molly, too. But Jonah had to walk in the room and look around. I was the one who was acting as his daughter behind the camera, because the little girl wasn’t there anymore. I was screaming all kinds of stupid stuff to get a reaction out of him, like: ‘Up your ass!’ He was great and did a great job.”
“Then you move on from the rehearsal period to the film stage. I like to run the set in a way where you can have happy accidents. When Jonah jumps over the bed and wraps himself in the bedsheets, that was a happy accident. He jumped and got all tangled up. I loved it and asked him to do it for the next ten takes. So, yeah. It’s one of those things where you put it together as you go along, and it feels good. When a film feels good, you know it’s going to work.”
That’s great to hear. I’m sure it made it refreshing for you (as it was for me) that the titular creature evolves based on what people say on the internet. It’s common in horror movies to have kill scenes be repetitive, but that wasn’t the case here.
“Thank you. I have to say, the different creatures were also a pain in the ass. Nacho warned me before starting this that they were. It’s not easy for the guy in the Pooka suit to work. Every creature had its challenges. When it starts evolving into the demon Pooka, the guy playing it couldn’t see. He was blind in his suit. We rehearsed it first without the mask, so he could see what he was doing and know the movement. Then, we shot it with him completely blind. It was troublesome, but it’s great seeing it in its entirety.”
As we wrap up here, I’m curious about the process of working with Hulu on a project like this that has already been established. How essential is it to familiarize yourself with the other episodes of Into the Dark to make your own, or do you distance yourself from it to make your own stamp?
“I was familiar with the first ‘Pooka!’film because I’m good friends with Nacho. He was shooting here and I got to see what he was doing. I visited him on set. I don’t know everything about the through-line, but I was familiar with ‘Pooka!’ When I started doing this, one of the first things I did was reach out to Nacho. I asked him how he shot Pooka because I wanted to match what he did in some capacity. He explained it to me. However, I was conscious that it also was a different movie. I wasn’t trying to do Nacho; I was trying to do me, which is what I’m good at.”
Into the Dark: Pooka Lives! is now streaming on Hulu.