WHEN YOU FIRST ‘meet’ Busi (Petronella Tshuma), the lead in Jerome Pikwane’s local horror film The Tokoloshe, you are grabbed by her sense of excruciating vulnerability faintly covered with a veneer of bravado. She’s young, she’s desperate and she cannot turn down this security job because she’s really frightened of everything it suggests to her. She needs the money. Even if the hours, the colleagues, the stink of the place and the residue of horror it presents are completely terrible. Thus begins a tale which conflates traditional wisdom and beliefs with the mysterious paths of the horror movie genre.
And like any horror movie, this story features things that go bump in the night and make you want to cover half your face with a pillow. The scary bits involve things you can’t quite identify, and things you can, including a particularly grim boss (Dawid Minnaar), who doesn’t stoop to subtlety when he thinks he’s safe in the dark with young and terrified women. Add to that a semi-derelict nursing home that has a functional ward filled with abandoned kids, which is absolutely perfect grist for the scary mill.
But then the myths and terrors in the night surrounding the actual tokoloshe – a ghostly figure with sinister intent, which is why millions of South African women over the years balanced their beds on bricks – are ramped up even further, and mystery pervades the presence of a little girl called Gracie (Kwande Nkosi), also ostensibly an inmate of this institution. Things evolve to balance all of Busi’s terrors including what took her out of her rural context, and the loss of a beloved sister, to go and seek her living in the skanky city, and not everything is explained satisfactorily, which pumps up the unnerving factor some more.
And just when you think it shouldn’t, the net of red herrings becomes replete with a creepy old man on the bus (Yule Masiteng) who claims he’s made a whole bunch of masks from central and western Africa. Could he have? Either way, our Busi chooses a talisman that will make the small hairs at the back of your neck stand on end.
It is at that point, with your heart pounding in your throat, that you have to remember: The horror movie genre curiously embraces a contradiction. It almost always has. In the really frightening achievements in film, the monster never reveals its face. Because as soon as that happens, there’s a whole morass of technological flaws which can quickly pull the proverbial rug from under said monster’s feet and leave you laughing instead of crying with terror. Think of Roman Polanski’s 1968 film of the Ira Levin classic, Rosemary’s Baby: it’s not the baby that makes you scream, it’s the expression of horror on the new mum’s face when she sees it for the first time. And you’re so freaked out that you don’t need to see the baby, at all.
But not every film director is Roman Polanski. The Tokoloshe‘s flaws are there, but they don’t detract from the tight pacing, the fierce performances and the extremely carefully honed understanding of the conflation of traditional myth and contemporary fear. Either way, The Tokoloshe becomes almost personal; parameters are established for it to follow you home, in principle. Just make sure you lock the door, and keep the lights on. Don’t see it by yourself!
- The Tokoloshe is directed by Jerome Pikwane and features a cast headed by Leiden Colbet, Natasja Jacobs, Harriet Manamela, Yule Masiteng, Coco Merckel, Dawid Minnaar, Kwande Nkosi, Mandla Shongwe and Petronella Tshuma. It is written by Richard Kunzmann and Jerome Pikwane. Produced by Dumi Gumbi and Cati Weinek, it features creative input by Benjamin Willem (music), Trevor A. Brown (cinematography), Bruce McLaren-Lyall (editing), Obey Muncipisi (casting), Andrew Chandler (production design) and Brenda Khambule (costumes). Release date in South Africa under Ster Kinekor and Nu Metro, November 2, 2018.