DIRECTOR: Marcel Sarmiento
A teenager must protect her family from a malevolent supernatural entity.
The family being terrorised by an entity in their own home is a plot device as old as time itself. Over the long history of cinema, we have seen this story done countless times. All done to varying degrees of success. The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, and The Conjuring are probably three of the finest examples of these types of movies. I still find myself enjoying these films. There is something so inherently creepy about an unseen force, that slowly breaks down the family unit. This is probably why I also enjoy my Home Invasion films.
Your own home is a place that you are meant to feel safe. So when someone that you don't know destroys that feeling of security, it's a horrifying aspect. It's like someone has invaded your own personal space. Totem takes that very premise and gives us a small scale idea of that story. This feels like a family drama that you would see on the Lifetime Network with a splash of supernatural horror. Being branded with both of the Blumhouse and Cinemax labels. This feels more Cinemax in scale than it ever does a Blumhouse production. Don't go in expecting some grandiose ghost story.
For the first and second acts of Totem. This operates more like a drama. Our teenager character is coming to terms with her father moving on after the passing of her mum. When the father decides to move his new girlfriend into the family home, this delivers a lot of teen angst and infighting between the core family. It also brings the arrival of something far more sinister. This presence is now thought to be communicating with the youngest daughter, who claims that their dead mother is speaking to her. Cue the ghost story elements of the movie.
While Totem is littered with little moments of the supernatural throughout. This only gets moving in the third act when all hell breaks loose. What ends up breaking loose is quite small-scale and confined to one location, which is the family home. Nothing here in this story feels like it contains any large-scale horror set-pieces which we've come to know with other supernatural horror films. It slowly descends into a bit of a bloodbath, but it feels like a bit of a slug in getting to the point. There didn't feel like much momentum with the pacing of Totem.
The third act twist is where Totem really wins points from me. The director's previous movie Deadgirl was a pretty controversial and disturbing little tale about two teenage boys who find a corpse in the basement of an abandoned mental hospital. What they do the body is pretty nasty and grim. So going into Totem where it feels really reeled back regarding the subject matter. The twist is where we see taboos and lines being crossed. It's nowhere near as shocking, but where this decides to go, and the things that it insinuates is enough to throw out one uncomfortable little curveball.
Sadly, Totem lacks when it comes to thrills and chills. I was really hoping that it would provide a few decent shock moments and while the twist delivered on that front. The rest of the movie feels rather tame. I didn't find myself at all scared or on the edge of my seat. While the tone is indeed dark and Totem has this family in peril vibe with the sense of sadness looming over the younger characters. What it felt like it was missing here were that dread and tension. I was hoping for more here. I think with that third act switch-up that plays more disturbing than it does scary and supernatural. I think the writers were relying on that to be enough to carry the horror.
Visually, I found Totem to be decently made if you think of this story as a made-for-television film. This really does feel more like a TV Movie than some large theatrical release that we've come to know from Blumhouse. The entire scale of the film feels smaller in comparison. I think if you look at Totem in that way, and not like the next big release from them, this isn't a poorly made movie on a production level. Marcel Sarmiento has moved on from Deadgirl and is slowly getting a more grand vision. I would love to see what he would do with something more grand and bigger budget.
Lastly, we come to the performances. I think the standout here is Ahna O'Reilly who plays the new girlfriend. I'm aware of her from a few of James Franco's recent indie films where he played star and director. She is the only one I knew in the cast, and she delivers a great performance. Kerris Dorsey looks like she gets to have all of the fun here. She has the most significant character arc, and you'll love to see the dark places she goes with her role. Must have been fun playing a role that allowed her to cross some lines and hit a taboo or two.
DEATH TOLL: 3
BLOOD AND GORE:
- A woman cuts her hand on some glass when it shatters.
- A dead body in a plastic bag is shown.
- A woman drowns in a bathtub.
- A teenage girl repeatedly stabs herself in the legs with glass.
- A man is stabbed in the heart.
- A cat is crushed by a falling cabinet.
- A teenage boy is hit in the head with a trophy.
- A man has a heart attack and is deprived of his inhaler.
- A woman's face is seen rotting.
- A woman impales her face on a piece of wooden art.
Totem is a low-budget, supernatural horror film from the director of the controversial Deadgirl. While this movie never reaches the disturbing peaks of that film. This has a third-act twist that is sure to shock some audiences members. Sadly, a fine twist and a few solid performances weren't enough to bring this movie out of feeling like some made-for-television horror film. The first and second act are sluggish and only does it really gain momentum in the third act. If you're a fan of evil entities breaking down the family establishment. Look to the classics.