THE TOKOLOSHE (2019)
Directed by Jerome Pikwane
Written by Jerome Pikwane, Richard Kunzmann
Starring Petronella Tshuma, Kwande Nkosi, Dawid Minnaar, Harriet Manamela, Mandla Shongwe, Yule Masiteng, Coco Merckel, Leiden Colbet, Natasja Jacobs, Ernest St.Clair, Lebohang Mthunzi
THE TOKOLOSHE is a South African film that delves more into psychological horror than the folktale myth of the titular monster. Still, it packs a powerfully emotional punch as long as you’re not expecting a creature feature type movie.
Busi (Petronella Tshuma) is a South African woman who moves to the big city of Johannesburg in order to save money for her family back home in the bush. She takes a job at a children’s hospital as a cleaning lady, but finds the unkempt facility to be dangerous on many levels, with poor maintenance, dark hallways, dodgy lighting, and a manager who almost immediately begins to sexually harass her. The innocent Busi still attempts to do her job, despite the horrors of the city threatening her at every turn. Soon, she meets a young girl named Gracie (Kwande Nkosi), who has been abandoned by her parents and is terrified of what seems to be a supernatural creature in the night. Experiencing similar fears of her own, Busi takes Gracie under her wing as both seem to be haunted by horrors of their past that seem to be taking the form of a creature from South African folklore called the Tokoloshe.
More like THE BABADOOK than any monster movie, those who are looking for a movie about a battle with a mythic cryptid are going to find THE TOKOLOSHE pretty disappointing. The monster is only on screen for a few scant scenes, which is probably a good thing, since the CG monster is not very well rendered and doesn’t really seem to be occupying the same plane as the actors. The monster is really more of a metaphor for past trauma and abuse than anything else. The story by director Jerome Pikwane and writer Richard Kunzmann only tease about the origins of the creature, and instead pepper the entire film with a more allegorical feel than a film we can trust. Because the film is being told by an obviously disturbed protagonist, I found myself even doubting if Gracie was actually real or not as she never speaks or interacts with anyone but Busi. While this is never really resolved, it definitely left me with questions and the need to converse with others after the credits rolled as to what they took from the film. But instead of shoving easy answers down the viewer’s throat, the filmmakers leave it up to them to figure it out themselves. This, I appreciate, as I feel it gives THE TOKOLOSHE a quality of “you see and take away from it what you want to” feel.
There are quite a few effective scenes of terrifying imagery; such as a hut filled with young victims of the Tokoloshe with blurred out faces, tribal masks, and flittering shadows in the periphery, as well as well paced scenes of high tension and impending horror as Busi makes her way through the dank and dark corridors of the hospital. The entire city of Johannesburg is characterized as a place where danger is around every corner. Both the urban and tribal settings that this story take place in paint a very dangerous world that our Busi is attempting to survive in.
It is also a very well acted film with Petronella Tshuma delivering a heart-breaking performance as Busi. She just cannot get a break, no matter where she goes and seems to have one horrible experience heaped upon her after another. Even when there is a shred of hope, given the situation she is in, one can’t help but feel horrible for her and the predicament she is in. It is quite obvious through her posture, meek voice, and cautious facial expressions that she has been the victim of intense abuse—a trauma that has made her extremely unwell. Tshuma is convincing as this fragile angel in the middle of this hell.
The pace of THE TOKOLOSHE is a bit uneven. It starts out with a jump scare that really hit me, but then slowed to a crawl for a good long while. Another criticism comes from the fact that while this film is spoken in both Zulu and English, with only subtitles available for the Zulu parts, I did find it difficult at times to understand the thick accents when English was spoken. So if you can, watch this one with the subtitles on fully.
The Tokoloshe from folklore is a monster that abducts children from the jungle and prairies of South Africa. It is a tale told to frighten kids to stay close to home and don’t go off wandering alone. This is exactly what Busi does and while the monster is more something she battles with in her mind, it is still an ever-present entity that makes for a powerful monster. Don’t go into this one expecting an actual beastie. It’s much more of a descent into madness caused by horrific trauma story and one with powerful imagery and a compelling story at that.