‘The Tokoloshe’ is Absolutely Devastating

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.

Gracie hiding from the Tokoloshe

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’s really not, but thanks for trying.”

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.

Yeah, shots like these

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.

‘The Grudge’ (2020) is Worth Your Time

Taking place in the mid-2000s, the same time as the first American remakes of the Japanese Ju On movies, the film chronicles the swath of destruction caused by an American nurse, Fiona (Tara Westwood) bringing home the Saeki curse to her own house and spreading it to anyone who steps inside.

“In my professional opinion: ewwwww.”

I wasn’t big on the idea of yet another American take on the classic series, but I gave in out of curiosity, and it won me over. While there are jump scares, they’re pretty effective rather than cheesy and predictable, and the movie doesn’t rely solely on them. The main attraction is atmosphere: the sense of building dread and anticipation of horrible things to come. The creepy AF score by the phenomenal genre pros The Newton Brothers doesn’t hurt, either.

“She’s right behind me, isn’t she?”

The cast is amazing, and the characters are darn likable. Often it’s easy to be detached from more minor characters when there are a lot of them, especially ones that are obviously not going to make it, but in this movie it’s genuinely difficult to see them suffer. I got attached. We have John Cho and Betty Gilpin as Peter and Nina, an adorable married real estate team in charge of the cursed house, who are expecting their first baby.

No, Peter, not the closet! Why?!

We have Frankie Faison and Lin Shaye as William and Faith, the next tenants of the house, a loving couple (of “fifty beautiful years”) who want to stay together as far as the limits of the afterlife will let them, with the help of Lorna (Jacki Weaver), who initiates assisted suicides. (Okay, some people will morally object to liking those characters, but we can all agree that Faison and Weaver are national treasures.) We have detectives Goodman (Demián Bichir) and Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough), good cops who are pulled into the curse by trying to solve the mystery. And the wholesome Landers family that starts the whole thing: mom Fiona, dad Sam (David Lawrence Brown), and young daughter Melinda (Zoe Fish).

She’s nowhere near as scary as Takako Fuji, but she’ll do, I guess

Naturally my biggest gripe is that while avoiding the xenophobia that permeated the first Grudge remake (it’s rife with westerners cringing at Japanese culture and driven by the idea that foreign is automatically scarier), instead everything is whitewashed. The ghosts are no longer Asian but white white whities. There is some diversity in the casting, with Bichir, Cho, and Faison, but mostly we’re seeing from the perspective of Muldoon the white lady (I guess yay for gender equality?). Also I’m thinking those parts were written with white dudes in mind, judging by their character surnames: Goodman, Spencer, and Matheson, respectively.

“What, I can’t be William Matheson? I’m an older Black man, so I gotta be Willie Johnson? Now who’s being racist?” Whoa, I just meant that Matheson is a Scottish name. And yes, you are an older Black man in a Hollywood movie, so I’m surprised your character doesn’t go by Willie.

I happened to awaken at three in the morning the night after I watched this (my reviews average a three-day turnaround), and I found myself dwelling on how creepy it was. I even turned on the light when I got out of bed. I can’t remember the last time that happened, that a movie stuck with me like that. It’s my understanding that a lot of people hated it, and I’m genuinely puzzled as to why. (Besides that it blatantly copies some of the coolest stuff from the original movies, like the fingers appearing in the shower, or maybe that the death rattle noise makes no sense coming from a character who drowned, because it originated with Kayako’s broken neck.) Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something eerie and gory and pulls no punches. (Okay, it pulls one punch, but I won’t tell you what it is.)

You can’t go wrong with Lin Shaye, right?

‘Black Christmas’ (2019): They Meant Well…

Christmas break is approaching, and the students at Hawthorne College are getting ready to party. And by party I mean the men are picking off the women because they’re possessed by the evil magic practiced by the founder of the college, Calvin Hawthorne. It’s up to a feisty band of fighters (with traditionally masculine names, ’cause it’s a slasher) to save the day: Riley (Imogen Poots), Kris (Aleyse Shannon), and Marty (Lily Donoghue).

Left to right: Kris, Riley, Marty, and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady)–Jesse actually doesn’t do anything cool, don’t know why she’s holding a bat

The film has garnered multiple complaints that the filmmakers chose “agenda over plot“, the “agenda” being a woman-centered, girl power, call-out regarding the #metoo movement. A major plot point is that Riley has been raped by big man on campus Brian (Ryan McIntyre), and no one but her friends believe her. It is a female-fronted film, including writer/director Sophia Takal, writer April Wolfe, and most of the cast (even the sorority’s cat, Claudette, was changed from a male to a female–not just the character, but the actual cat). I consider myself a feminist, but I have to agree with the critics, to an extent. In some places the message is so dumbed-down that it’s insulting.

Here’s Cary Elwes as classics professor Gelson–look at that smug bastard!

It opens thoughtfully enough, with the bust of the founder, Calvin Hawthorne. The name Hawthorne evokes Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the many dead white males still worshiped in universities today. Then all subtlety is thrown out the window. Men say things like, “You bitches are all the same,” and “It seems Miss Waterson’s passion for equality cannot be bridled” and “We need more than feelings in this business” and “Boys’ll be…well, you know.” Even a bit of symbolism is driven into the ground; Marty mentions that she likes ants because they’re strong and cannot be separated. Then later she really emphasizes the point: “We’re ants, Kris.” I heard you the first time!

The black stuff leaking out represents toxic masculinity–not a joke

Of course, rape is not a subject to be taken lightly or glossed over. I used to be a writing tutor, and once I was helping a student write an essay about rape on college campuses. She was focusing on ways to prevent it, but when we were researching online, all we could find were tips on dealing with it once it happened. I am one hundred percent serious and speak with no hyperbole. There was nothing about preventing it–it was all about coping. The very college we were at has a history of women getting groped in stairwells and assaulted in the parking lots. Active students get notices about it by text. Non-feminists, this is why some people say we live in a rape culture. But the frat dudes in the movie are cartoonish supervillains–they literally go through a “supernatural hazing ritual”, which really undermines the seriousness of the message the filmmakers are trying to convey, that rape is bad. Instead we get something more like “the emphasis on the superiority of males in colleges makes all men evil rapists, and if they’re not rapists then they’ll stick together anyway, because brotherhood.”

These dudes sexually assault even as they’re getting ready to murder

Men are absolutely vilified. There are only two guys in the movie who aren’t total scumbags: Marty’s boyfriend Nate (Simon Mead) and Riley’s potential love interest Landon (Caleb Eberhardt). Even Nate has his issues. He’ s initially supportive of Marty and her friends, until he gets drunk and explodes that not all men are bad. The scene ends with Marty forcibly kicking him out, Nate all the while complaining about double standards. Landon is a skinny, gangly nerd prone to ugly sweaters. He’s clearly infatuated with Riley, but he’s shy and indirect and nonthreatening. You know, a good guy.

There aren’t many stills of Landon, but that’s him on the far right

There’s an attempt to be racially diverse, though of course Riley, the main final girl, the one around whom the movie really revolves, is white. She screams at Kris for being too woke (yes, that is actually a thing here–we hate men, not racism): “You’re so pushy, Kris!” Kris is the sassy best friend, the wacky gal who is pissed that Hawthorne was a slaveholder, who questions standard college reading material: “Whose classics are they?”

Nope, not even this movie will allow such an uppity main protagonist–who wants to see the action from her point of view?

Despite all my gripes, there are a lot of things I appreciate, especially compared to mainstream slasher movies. The female characters are strong and not given to the helpless hysteria you usually see in the genre. They’re not fashion plates, or scantily dressed–they’re not objectified. They solve their problems without running to men for help. (Except for Landon, who’s practically an honorary lady.) There is a really poignant scene close to the beginning, when sorority gal Lindsay (Lucy Currey) is walking to her grandmother’s house. She’s being harassed by phone, and getting nervous about her surroundings, especially since there’s a dude walking right behind her with his phone out, so she slips her keys between her fingers. This is a scene bound to resonate with women; we’ve all been alone on a dark street that may or may not be dangerous, but sure feels threatening, and many of us have felt safer by trying to weaponize our keys. To male viewers who are paying attention, it conveys the vulnerability that women can experience. No other scenes evoke empathy as skillfully.

P.S., if you’re gonna use keys as a weapon, do it right

To be fair, I did read that Takal edited the movie heavily in order to market to impressionable teenage girls. In that sense, the movie is a success.

“You messed with the wrong sisters.”–actual quote

*All trailers for this movie contain spoilers, but this is the shortest:

The Ramones: “Pet Sematary”

What with all my newfound time quarantined at home, I’m devouring audiobooks like there’s no tomorrow. I’ve read Pet Sematary a couple of times, but the audio is narrated by Michael C. Hall, which intrigues me, so I’m giving it a go. What better way to take one’s mind off a pandemic than with a novel about the cruel inescapability of death?

Also inescapable is the Ramones song from the original adaptation of the book, which is constantly in my head now. If you’ve never seen the video, have a look:

'You Might Be the Killer' is Definitely a Great Time

Sam (Fran Kranz, who’s getting typecast as the guy in a cabin in the woods) is a camp counselor with a staff of twelve. When a masked murderer menaces his campgrounds, he calls his buddy, horror expert Chuck (Alyson Hannigan), for advice on how to survive. Unfortunately, all signs point to Sam being the killer. 

“It was the unicorn, I tell ya! Or possibly the Merman.”

This film, like Tusk, started out as banter between two filmmakers (this one on Twitter), and gradually became a reality. It went to film festivals and then straight to video. Despite not having had a theatrical run, it’s a gem. It’s part ‘70s throwback and part millennial smartassery, like title cards giving a death tally: “Dead counselors (so far): a lot”. I’m not a fan of slashers, but I know the conventions quite well, and the parody aspects hit all the marks.

Our saintly final girl

Chuck’s calm acceptance of the situation adds a lot of humor. This is one clever exchange: 

Chuck: “You said this crazed killer is a guy, right? Okay, so maybe we should talk about the guys out there, you know? See if we can figure out who this asshole is.” Sam: “How does knowing who it is help me not die?” Chuck: “Well, I think figuring out what they want could help you not die.” Sam: “Smart.” Chuck: “Like, is it an old camper who got teased as a kid and is back for blood?” Sam: “No.” Chuck: “Or is it a parent who’s looking for revenge after a counselor let their kid drown?” Sam: “Jesus, I hope not, no.” Chuck: “Or does one of the counselors have a formerly conjoined twin?” Sam: “What movie is that from?” Chuck: “That could be a huge problem.”

“Aw, you chopped his head in half?”–actual quote

The film is populated by strong female characters. Chuck is the film’s voice of reason. (As she says to Sam after he calls her, “Your phone seems to be working fine. Wouldn’t you rather call the cops?”) There’s also champion hole-digger/weapon-maker Jamie (named after Jamie Lee Curtis), played by Jenna Harvey, and badass Imani (Brittany S. Hall), pictured below in the yellow.

She could fight off a killer with her abs alone

The cast is pretty diverse (though our leads and final girl are white, natch). There’s even a gay chick and a fat guy (though he dies seconds after expressing his enthusiasm for s’mores paraphernalia). A Black man, Brad (Patrick R. Walker), is the guy in charge of keeping everyone alive, showing an ability to think on his feet better than Sam. For a little bit the counselors pull together in a really smart way (which also would have made a cool movie). They build traps, gather weapons, and patrol the area. 

Get ’em, Brad!

Overall, it’s as witty and entertaining as it is gory. Check it out if you’re in the mood for a fun slasher spoof. Stay tuned for a neat cameo from Keith David as the sheriff.

'Snatchers': Imagine 'Juno', but with Hostile Aliens

Sara (Mary Nepi) is a teenage girl who’s determined to win back her ex-boyfriend Skyler (Austin Fryberger) by giving him her virginity. Unfortunately for her, he’s been infested with extraterrestrial matter, and impregnates her with alien spawn. She runs to her smart friend Hayley (Gabrielle Elyse), who stands by her when the quickly gestating creature pops out and immediately starts killing people.

Okay, let’s start with the fact that the extraterrestrial infestation originates in Mexico. It’s an “illegal alien.” In one scene, Sara and Hayley connect Skyler’s recent trip to the creatures: “Mexico,” they say, in an ah-ha moment. This bit of racism is poked fun at meta-ly by Sara as “a brief lapse of xenophobia,” but it’s still pretty offensive. But I also must point out the movie takes place in 2012, and the aliens are documented by the Mayans as what is going to destroy the world. So the Mexico thing is logical in that sense? The filmmakers do give us a kickass Latino cop, Officer Ruiz (Nick Gomez). Okay no, he’s pretty awesome.

*Spoiler alert* He makes it

The movie soundly indulges in stereotypes in general. Sara starts out as a snob who threw Hayley over to hang out with her catty, more popular friend Kiana (Ashley Argota) and dumb girls Blair (Amy Arburn) and Tegan (Gabriella Gourdin). She goes for help from Dave the gentle stoner (Rich Fulcher). Skyler is a typical brainless jock. Hayley is a nerd; she’s unpopular, asexual, and smart. And her brother Jerome (Alex Skinner) is the same way. Here’s a gif. It’s as cute as it is cringeworthy: https://images.app.goo.gl/eqEUKJAv7bxsjtNb6

But I really want to like this movie. It’s funny, the two female leads are strong and brave, and it’s a fresh take on the alien subgenre. Once you get past the cliches, Sara and Hayley are super likable. In fact, they’re goddamned adorable.

You just wanna squish their wittle faces!

Even the snappy, slangy patter they spout is endearing. Did I mention they kick ass?

In the end, it won me over. I recommend it.

‘The Black String’ is a Visceral Experience

Jonathan (Frankie Muniz) is a millennial still trying to figure things out in his life. When loneliness prompts him to call a hotline that sets him up with a local single, he meets Dena (Chelsea Edmundson). Despite his intentions to keep it in his pants on their first date, Dena vociferously talks him into nailing her. Naturally, he doesn’t strap it up before they slap it up, and the next morning he finds himself alone and with an absolutely disgusting rash. Jonathan becomes more and more erratic and increasingly paranoid that he’s part of a cult conspiracy dedicated to destroying him.

“Me, America’s sweetheart! Can you believe it?”

It’s a good thing Muniz is still so damned adorable even in his mid-thirties, ’cause this movie is seriously nasty. The visuals are abhorrent. The rash full of pus, the bloody string that Jonathan pulls out of his arm, the portal full of bubbling goo. I felt morning-sickness level nausea throughout. It didn’t make me respect the movie less, but I feel I should warn you.

Yep, get ready for him to lift that shirt and show off that rash many more times, in closeup. And if you guessed that none of the many medical professionals he sees throughout will be able to treat it, you’d be correct.

I liked the movie, but I was seriously puzzled as to how to relate to it until I was looking for images for this post and saw that one reviewer had classified it as a dark comedy. Then it clicked into place for me. I had noticed bits of humor, but to reframe the whole thing as a horror comedy blew my mind. I’m assuming that you, like me, know Muniz almost entirely from Malcolm in the Middle, so he’s safely in our minds as a kid. This casting is brilliant because Jonathan is still hugely immature and unsuccessful from an American perspective: he works a dead-end job (at a liquor store, which he refers to as a “lifestyle convenience boutique”), his parents are paying half his rent, and he’s desperately single. Like a typical movie character with an arc building, he tends to run from his problems. At one point in the film he ends up living at home with his parents: his gruff and bossy father and his indulgent and smother-y mother. This culminates in him jumping out his bedroom window and running away. It further culminates in him having only the clothes on his back (he doesn’t even have shoes), no vehicle, and no money. Somehow he still has his Walkman, which he listens to perpetually while riding around on a stolen bike. Okay, it’s a tragi-comedy.

“You can’t catch me, problems! I’ll NEVER face you head-on!”

But Jonathan is still a compelling character, especially compared to his best friend Eric, who while being slightly farther up the corporate ladder (he’s the shift manager) and therefore of more worth in Jonathan’s parents’ eyes, is a shameless womanizer, referring to being familiar with the collective group of local women as knowing “every pair of tits in this town” and getting high in the stock room. Jonathan has depth. He’s an artist, dammit! It’s not discussed whether it’s a serious dream he wishes to pursue, but it’s clear that every time he gets distracted from it, some bad shit goes down. He’s sketching when a commercial for the dating site comes on the TV. He draws Dena after she insists on coming back to his place. She consistently interrupts him, trying to persuade him to smoke and then just climbing on top of him. This is the last time in the movie he draws; the only other time his hobby is relevant to the plot is when he’s trying to find Dena and using his portrait of her.

“I’m sooooo into you. Nothing about this date is suspicious at all.”

Despite being amusing, the film is also quite disturbing. What is actually happening in the reality of the movie is mysterious. We get glimpses of the supernatural explanation for Jonathan’s problems from a pamphlet a tarot card reader named Ms. Melinda (Mary K. DeVault) gives him. It appears that he’s been targeted by a witch so he can be “seeded” for the “harvest”, in which a creature eats? the black string Dena apparently embedded in him. In order to save himself he has to make a “sacrifice”. I recommend that you be smarter than me and pause the movie to read the entirety of the passages–it’s only for a few seconds, but they’re visible. Plus the illustrations of the hangdog guy in overalls are a hoot. It’s also entirely possible though that Jonathan is just delusional. There’s no actual evidence in the film that what he’s going through is real. It seems real, because we see what he sees, but no one else does. Melinda believes and empathizes with him, but can we trust her?

Just look how messy her hair is in this scene!

Overall, I really enjoyed it. It’s definitely not your typical STDemon movie.

“Hey, little help?”

Richard Stanley’s ‘Color Out of Space’: Stick with it Until the Halfway Point–It’s Worth the Wait

Nate (Nicolas Cage), his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), and their three kids, young Jack (Julian Hilliard) and teens Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) and Benny (Brendan Meyer) have moved to Nate’s late father’s farm. To raise alpacas and grow tomatoes and peaches. Yeah, good thing Theresa has some kind of consulting job that involves talking to clients on Skype. Just the kind of thing you’d want to do where the wi-fi can be spotty. Then a color (it’s magenta) comes out of space and crazy shit goes down that puts their financial worries in perspective. 

“Come on kids, let’s ALL poke the meteor!”

It’s based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. I’m not a fan, so I glanced over the source material for background information. It’s from the point of view of Nameless Guy, who in the story is surveying the land for a reservoir. In the film, this character is named Ward (presumably after Lovecraft character Charles Dexter Ward), played by Eliot Knight, and is a visiting hydrologist (from Miskatonic University, natch). In the story NG is hearing an anecdote about the scary woods by Ammi (who in the movie is Ezra, a stoner who lives in the woods and is played by no other than Tommy Chong), who tells him how a meteorite hit a farm owned by Nahum, his wife Nabby, and three sons Merwin, Thaddeus, and Zenas.

Hee hee hee, Merwin. Good thing they went with Jack.

The meteorite ruins Nahum’s crops and seems to mutate the local wildlife. Nahum’s wife goes crazy and crawls around on all fours. One by one the sons disappear. Some of this is retained for the movie, but a lot is changed, fortunately.

For example, methinks Lovecraft would not have approved of this casting choice

I expected it to be about a family encountering or even battling aliens, like Signs or War of the Worlds. Madeleine Arthur even bears a resemblance to Dakota Fanning. But it went more like Dark Skies, where none of the family members are guaranteed safe passage. But wackier. I read that Nicolas Cage was supposed to Nicolas Cage it up,

Just like this!

and indeed he does. There’s something oddly compelling about how cavalierly the family copes with the strange happenings. I was a little incredulous that when Theresa accidentally chops off two of her fingers to the first knuckle, Nate is walking her to the car, instructing Benny to get the alpacas into the barn by ten. Meanwhile, Theresa is muttering in mild astonishment that she could make such a mistake. When she comes home from the hospital the next day (this seemed to me an extremely short time, so I googled how long one can expect to be hospitalized for a finger reattaching, and apparently it really is 0-1 days), she’s bemoaning losing her clients. The more horrible things get, the more they pull together. Until they don’t.

Shortly after this, Nate tells the kids “The car isn’t happening.”

I do have gripes, the biggest being clunky exposition. Lavinia introduces us to the family dog by announcing him as Benny’s partner in crime like she’s making a documentary. Or Nate rehashing to Theresa how the family relocated from the big city to the farm, even though she was there. In addition, there are random events that go nowhere, like Lavinia crying in her room after Theresa suggests that by wearing skimpy clothes and flirting with Ward, she’s sending him signals. My least favorite, Lavinia is a Wiccan. She’s shown doing a ritual that’s fairly accurate, at least for the movies, but she has a stupid cape and she’s really annoying about it.

Ugh…

The movie starts out pretty slow, but once it gets going, it really gets going. It’s creepy and disturbing and totally unpredictable. It’s gorgeous and hallucinatory and haunting. In one scene a jump scare made me do this weird surprised grunt. Not that it relies on jump scares. It’s classy like that.