TOKOLOSHE: THE CALLING — South African Ghost Story Channels THE SHINING, But Falls Short

Available now digitally from Terror Films, the South African horror tale Tokoloshe: The Calling has the interesting premise of featuring a cryptid generally unknown to the west.

In researching the tokoloshe mythology (ie Googling for a few minutes), I found quite a wide spectrum of how it’s defined or what form it takes. But to summarize in the broadest strokes, the tokoloshe is a fast, vaguely humanoid, gremlin-like creature, often attributed with supernatural powers. Accounts differ on whether it’s a natural animal or ghoul — to my mind, perhaps the closest parallels are the chupacabra, or some types of Japanese yokai.

In this telling, the concept seems more a form of a demonic or ghostly possession, a vengeful spirit seeking vengeance for the European colonization and encroachment of the region, in this case represented by a longstanding hotel built upon the stolen lands.

Tokoloshe: The Calling tells a couple of parallel stories. A young woman recounts her strange, nightmarish childhood remembrances to a psychiatrist, who encourages her to return to the haunted hotel where they took place.

The second thread shows the experience of a little girl and her family staying in the hotel, experiencing ghostly happenings and a breakdown in her family as the father, a writer, loses his sanity.

As you may have gathered from that description, the film is for the most part a low budget South African riff on The Shining, and to a lesser extent its sequel Doctor Sleep. Myriad story elements — the haunted hotel’s hilltop location, a protagonist child roaming the halls on a toy vehicle, ghostly siblings stalking the hallways, dad going nuts, scenes set in the hotel bar, mom discovering scribblings of crazy-talk, and an adult returning to the place of their childhood trauma — it’s all right from the template set by King and Kubrick (and Flanagan). Unfortunately it lacks the substance, style, or tension that those films and their novels so expertly deliver.

On the plus side, things start on a solid note with a mysterious murder scene that establishes some intrigue, followed by a terrific title sequence: an aerial view that settles on our protagonist as she jogs along a beautiful urban beachfront, set to a hip-hop theme that is suggested to be diegetic.

If only the rest of the film were crafted so skillfully, this review would read much differently.

I don’t like wallowing in negativity, especially concerning an independent foreign film made in earnest with limited resources, so before getting to that let’s cover a few more the things the film does well. I appreciated the South African setting and the evocative locations, both internal and external. There’s interesting use of framing and Dutch angles, and some of the actors, especially those playing unsettling characters, are pretty effective. The many callbacks to The Shining, while a bit hamfisted, are nonetheless appreciated and kind of entertaining as reference points.

The way the film is assembled and provided with narration, the woman reliving childhood trauma and the visions of a little girl’s family in peril are presented as the same character: flashbacks of an adult woman remembering her childhood trauma. But the film brings the two storylines together in a really weird fashion as if they are happening concurrently. This is the film’s most baffling aspect and I remain unsure if it’s intentionally trippy or just poorly executed.

Is that a spoiler? I have no idea. The film is so strangely (in my opinion haphazardly) edited that it was impossible for me to understand the narrative intent. It even took me a very long time to realize that completely random cuts to “other” characters were supposed to represent ghosts inhabiting the same space. (On the other hand, there’s a twist you’ll see coming from the jump).

Similarly, I found the sound design distracting and lacking in subtlety. The constant use of big, in-your-face scoring cues and malevolent voice filters all comes off as amateurish and silly rather than appropriately menacing.

This all might be generously described as experimental, but to me it just feels like a messy and ineffective narrative.

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