From the mythological mind of Jerome Pikwane comes his debut feature film, The Tokoloshe (AKA. Repression) which spins the tale of an impecunious young woman forced to take a cleaning job in a run-down hospital at the centre of Johannesburg so that she can relocate her sister from their poverty-stricken and insidious background.
Facing exploitation and sexual harassment from her depraved manager, Busi (Petronella Tshuma) reaches her lowest ebb. She then forms a bond with a petrified young patient who believes she is being plagued by an evil supernatural force. Busi must now confront the demons from her past so that she can save her young friend from the unrelenting monster that hunts them.
The Tokoloshe is based on a South African urban legend of the same name, which depicts a menacingly dangerous water sprite who can turn itself invisible by drinking water. As the myth proclaims, the Tokoloshe is a malevolent spirit summoned by those intent to cause harm to others. The poltergeist-esque demon can enact illness and even death on its victims proving to be indisputably unforgiving.
Drenched in unsettling atmosphere, Pikwane’s first feature attains a creepy tone and slow-burning, subtle scares, injecting unease into his viewers. There’s a foreboding presence within the film, which accompanied by the visual bleakness of the aesthetic creates a tense viewing experience. Pikwane’s choice of a dingy setting with low lighting brings about an uncomfortable stifling mood which remains a consistent element of the film.
First and foremost, The Tokoloshe isn’t just a film about a terrifying fabled creature, at the centre of it all is a story of an impoverished woman doing all she can to get by, using her own set of survival skills to help another. Petronella Tshuma plays Busi as a character to sympathise with. The striking sadness she displays is haunting, she presents the impression that this character is tortured and undeserving of the harrowing circumstances inflicted upon her. The film is her journey, as she gradually uncovers painful repressed memories to find her own inner strength. Busi is a multi-layered character. She is independent but lonely, she isn’t a typical, quipping badass horror heroine but nor is she weak. There’s a realness about her. Tshuma delivers a powerful performance, keeping the audience firmly on her side as she faces impending peril and an uncertain future.
The pacing does hinder the film somewhat, while we become familiar with the protagonist’s plight, there’s less screen time for the exploration of the sinister title creature. During a few points the film does become stagnant, with the plot waning, before the more intense, gripping scenes are introduced. This could have been minimised as too much time is spent on elements that seem more like a plot device rather than fully developed, namely Busi’s potential unlikely friendship with an elderly blind man. Pikwane’s intent of using the myth as a figurative aspect on the most part becomes clear. The Tokoloshe is a character driven story with a metaphorical monster to illustrate the internal trauma of the protagonist.
Two languages are spoken within the film, English and Zulu, bringing in an authentic and cultural quality. The Tokoloshe is different to its Western counterparts when it comes to supernatural horror. Frequently, the Hollywood-fare can be in-your-face with its orchestrated deliberate jump scares, whereas The Tokoloshe allows for genuinely, chilling and effective moments and doesn’t need to be loud or startling to achieve them.
For a debut, genre feature, The Tokoloshe is an accomplished effort, as its ingeniously well-made. Bar, the teething problems in terms of the pacing, Pikwane has done himself proud with this unnerving and progressive piece.
The UK’s biggest horror festival should undoubtedly be applauded for The Tokoloshe’s inclusion in the lineup. It’s rare to see racial diversity within the genre, and not only does Pikwane’s debut offer up spine-tingling frights, it features a well-rounded black female protagonist at the helm, which is welcome in a genre saturated with predominantly white actresses in the leading roles. African culture is overlooked in horror, and as a fan it is imperative that we subject ourselves to all kinds of films from all over the world to broaden our horror horizons.
The Tokoloshe is set to scare this Summer at Arrow Video Frightfest on the Prince Charles Discovery Screen 2 on the 25th and 27th August 2018.