December 2, 2019 The Tokoloshe (Movie Review)
Almost every culture on Earth has a small but malevolent creature hopping about in its folklore. America and the UK have gremlins, Japan has the kappa, and South Africa has the tokoloshe. It is said they bite the toes off sleeping people, or outright kill them either under a witch doctor’s orders, or for the hell of it. Belief in the tokoloshe apparently might have been the reason why Zulus traditionally slept in raised beds to keep out of the creature’s reach.
They have popped up in media from songs to books, and even films. The latest being The Tokoloshe, straight from debuting South African Filmmakers Jerome Pikwane (Bar Barons 2003) and Richard Kunzmann. Both men wrote the script, while Pikwane handled the direction. A film release back in November 2018, it will now make a USA debut on digital platforms and DVD on Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019 via Uncork’d Entertainment.
It tells the story of Busi (Petronella Tshuma: Avenged 2013, Hatchet Hour 2016), a destitute woman working as a cleaner at a Johannesburg hospital. She has to put up with the corrupt manager Ruatomin (Dawid Minnaar: Die Wonderwerker 2012) just so she can someday get her younger sister away from their abusive father Zondi (Mandla Shongwe: Dead Easy 2004). While working there, she comes across a young girl called Gracie (Kwande Nkosi), who she believes is being tormented by a supernatural being- a tokoloshe. However, to save her from this ruthless monster, Busi will have to face up to her own inner demons.
The film is in a mix of English and Zulu, so be prepared for subtitles. Oh, and for some typical scares. Particularly in the early goings, where things swish past the camera quickly, and shift or disappear between jump-cuts. Busi is on the night shift too, so there are a lot of dark corridors to wind through. They are effective enough, and the scenes show a good handling of light and dark, though they are not exactly unique. Especially if one has seen 2018’s Ghost Stories, or 1977’s Star Wars in one case.
That is without mentioning some of the character archetypes. Whether it is the sceptical co-worker who does not believe in the tokoloshe, or the blind yet all-seeing mystic (Yule Masiteng: The Legend of Tarzan 2016) who knows there are things that go bump in the night. The former is less a character than a red herring, while the latter is the go-to character for exposition about the Tokoloshe, Lumukhanda and other spirits.
Then there is Gracie herself – the tormented girl who is part Cole Sear from 1999’s The Sixth Sense and part Regan from 1973’s The Exorcist. She is simultaneously possessed and tormented at the same time by the tokoloshe. Nkosi’s dialogue is all in Zulu, yet her emotions do come through convincingly enough through the language barrier. One gets sympathetic and scared for her plight. The same goes for Tshuma, playing Gracie’s only guardian while having enough troubles on her plate.
Plus, there are a few nice touches. Some scares are more subtle than others, like the scribbling on the walls, or a neat scene when Busi takes Gracie back home. It is not immediately scary on its own, but makes a nice precis for the more familiar, poltergeist antics that go on. Minnaar makes for a good visible villain in Ruatomin too, given the Tokoloshe exists mostly in quick shots and stunts. He builds up in terror from just being creepy to a monster in his own right.
Does that make it worth watching though? Maybe more so for Horror beginners than veterans. As said, a lot of the scares and character types are quite familiar. An The Exorcist here, a bit of 1982’s Poltergeist there, and little bits of 1980’s The Shining everywhere, coated in a Zulu seasoning. It does not help that Busi’s troubled past (and present) comes with some sexual assault too. Neither instance is particularly graphic, as its suggestion is effectively skin crawling enough on camera. It is just a particularly stale trope that the troubled woman’s troubles stem from rape.
Still, one cannot argue against The Tokoloshe’s execution. Direction-wise, it is solid, with some effective scenes and strong performances. The plot is okay too, despite pacing lulls. Its biggest offence would be that it is rather plain in the scare department. Some scares are overused within the film (something running past the camera), and others are just overused in general.
The South African folklore might help add a dash of seasoning. But otherwise it is like getting a snack from abroad, thinking it’s going to be a new experience, then finding out it is just plain, salted chips. It might taste better or have slightly different salt. Yet it is still something one could have gotten from the supermarket. Good, but not particularly special. Thus, for these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives The Tokoloshe 3 out of 5 stars.