How far would you go to save your family from the unknown? This is the question audiences are asked as they watch Marcel Sarmiento’s latest film, Totem. The story follows Kellie (Kerris Dorsey), a teenage girl who finds herself filling her late mother’s shoes as head of household. When Kellie’s father moves his girlfriend into the family home, a mysterious and malicious poltergeist will stop at nothing to be rid of the new woman who is disturbing the family unit.
In the beginning, the film is fairly straight-forward, presenting us with the typical horror family structure. We have Abby, the younger sibling who draws ominous pictures and communicates with spirits; Kellie, the angsty teenage sister who resents the fact that her father has a new girlfriend; James, the oblivious father; and Robin, the widower’s new girlfriend who is just trying to fit in and make nice with Abby and Kellie. Don’t yawn yet.
Sure, nothing that happens in the first two-thirds of the film is a surprise. In fact, horror fans, in particular, will be able to time every scare and name what they will be. In one particular scene, there are two cat-jumps-out scares, a quiet-person-appears-from-nowhere scare, AND a ghostly-figure-walks-by-slowly scare. Somehow, despite the lack of originality, none of it is ever boring. On the contrary, the film has several saving graces to keep viewers engaged. The shots are well-composed, the music is decent, the dialogue is believable, and the acting is good on all counts (Ahna O’Reilly, in the role of Robin, steals the show). This will likely be enough to carry viewers until the action picks up a bit later down the line.
Admittedly, much of the film is surprisingly horror-by-numbers for a movie sharing a director with Deadgirl. Regardless of whether or not you feel that Sarmiento’s controversial film went too far in its premise or its depiction of violence, one thing is certain: you have probably never seen anything else quite like Deadgirl. Conversely, we’ve seen a hundred movies like Totem– We Are Still Here, Insidious, and this year’s Annabelle: Creation, to name a few. Totem hits all their same beats with just a little less force. The scares, the characters, and the storyline all seem very familiar. That is, right up until the film completely flips the script in the third act.
The third-act twist was truly unpredictable and nearly jaw-dropping. It is rare that a film- even a horror film- goes there. Totem, with all its horror-for-dummies trappings, does not deserve such an interesting plot twist. Had the first two-thirds of the film been more original, there is no reason Totem wouldn’t generate as much buzz today as Deadgirl did in 2008. It would have been just as controversial, too, had it pushed the envelope further on all counts and gone for the R-rated depravity we horror fans love. Instead, the potential for a great, mature, and truly disturbing film is lost somewhere inside a decent but mostly mediocre popcorn flick more suitable for a younger crowd.
Totem is sure to be divisive. Unfortunately, it’s easy to see why horror fans may outright reject the film. There are just about as many things going against this movie as there are going for it. The acting is decent, but some of the characters are too one-dimensional. The plot twist is great, but the film doesn’t push the boundaries enough.
Despite these issues, Totem deserves a fair shake, if not just for the twist towards the end. There is something to be said for a film that can take rehashed scares that have largely become inside jokes amongst horror fans (loud thump, something falls off the wall, lady in white suddenly appears) and can create something entertaining with them. Totem will not blow your mind, but it will make you cringe in disgust for a couple moments. With a film so simple, that’s more than we could ever ask it to do.