South African movie, in English and Zulu, by Black filmmaker Jerome Pikwane. Busi (it’s pronounced Boo-see–I’ve seen the movie, and I’m still reading it as Busy and I’m getting pissed at myself) (Petronella Tshuma) is living in abject poverty; her apartment building is condemned and she’s getting by on scraps. She vows to scrape up enough money to get her sister Lindi (Lebohang Mthunzi) out of their childhood home, where their father raped them under their mother’s eye. She gets a job as a cleaner at a hospital, where she befriends a neglected girl named Gracie (Kwande Nkosi). She’s being haunted by the Tokoloshe (pronounced toe-ko-loash), the Zulu version of the boogeyman, and Busi quickly finds out that it can–and will–follow Gracie anywhere.
The film depicts conditions of inequality, varying from age, economic status, and sex. The Tokoloshe is established as a creature that preys on “the lost, the weak” and “children and those left alone.” These are the people whose plight is highlighted in the movie. The hospital Busi works at houses children who are orphans or deserted for having AIDS. One scene includes a TV news story in the background, describing the country’s shocking prevalence of sexual abuse. The Tokoloshe isn’t shown onscreen as a literal molester of children (Gracie says of it, “I don’t like the way he plays. He plays rough.”), but Busi’s character arc of coming to terms with her traumatic childhood and battling the Tokoloshe are intertwined in the storyline.
Busi meanwhile, is objectified and even assaulted by men. In her first scene she’s whistled at; her coworker advises her, regarding their boss Ruatomin (Dawid Minnaar), “Keep your tits tucked in and legs crossed and everything will be just fine.” It’s not “just fine,” however; Ruatomin, knowing how much she needs the job, tries to force himself on her. Most of the men in the movie are awful, from a mean bus driver to Jakes (Coco Merckel), a guy who jovially tries to have his way with Busi in lieu of rent, but there is one positive male character, Abel (pronounced Ah-bell) (Yule Masiteng). He’s a healer who makes masks that ward off evil spirits. He tells her, “If you want to be strong, you have to wake up and do something.” Then he disappears from the movie, because this is not a film where heroes come charging to the rescue.
It looks like a low-budget movie, with passable special effects and makeup. But the performances are amazing, particularly Tshuma and Nkosi. And when the Tokoloshe shows up onscreen (late in the movie, like smart filmmakers do), it’s surprisingly eerie. Often what is used–quite effectively, too–in terms of scares is sound. The music is, as described by closed captioning, “ominous,” “sinister,” “tense,” and “chilling.” Then there are ambient noises like “whooshing,” “child laughing creepily,” and “child laughing hauntingly.” In addition, there’s a disturbing feeling of isolation throughout. The film is full of huge (pronounced hugh-je), vacant buildings and vast, empty landscapes. This sense of abandonment is really hammered home in the scene when the Tokoloshe attacks Gracie, whose screams echo all the way into the courtyard, but no one helps her.
Overall, I was impressed with it. There are hardly any cheesy horror movie trappings (Busi does go nosing around the dark, asking “Hello? Is there somebody there?”), and it’s earnest and thought-provoking. Okay, I just gave 2019’s Black Christmas a keyboard-lashing for being unsubtle and preachy, and yes, this movie can be a bit heavyhanded too, but at least it starts with a workable supernatural premise instead of shoehorning in a ludicrious one that barely keeps the metaphor limping along. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for creepiness and social commentary done right.