Director: “Martin Tate”
Totem has three sets: the inside of a cabin, the outside of a cabin and a very tiny cemetery. It has six young, largely unknown actors. And it runs a grand total of 57 minutes (or 68 if you include the opening and closing credits). This is a small film in every sense.
The basic premise is brilliantly simple and surprisingly reminiscent of The Exterminating Angel in places. Six youngsters who don’t know each other find themselves in an isolated cabin. Each has the same story to tell: they felt a sudden, inexplicable compulsion to stop whatever they were doing (lunch, sex, automobile repairs) and get to the cabin by any means possible. None of them know where they are, none of them have told anyone where they were going (because they didn’t know, obviously) and each of them knew that there would be six people in total.
Alma (The Bold and the Beautiful star Marissa Tait) is the last to arrive. Paul (Jason Faunt, a sort of low-rent Brad Pitt who was the Red Ranger in Power Rangers Time Force) takes it upon himself to introduce the others: Len (Eric W Edwards), Robert (Tyler Anderson: Microscopic Boy), Tina (Alicia Lagano: All About Us) and Roz (Sacha Spencer: Spy High). Len makes sexist comments about the girls and Robert is brooding and mysterious but that’s about as far as the detailed characterisation goes.
The five kids already present have each made an attempt to leave the cabin and found that they can’t - they just can’t get further than about a hundred feet before grinding to a halt. This is described as a ”magical, invisible wall” but it’s not like a force field, it’s just that their movements slow down and stop, like walking through mud. Alma has a try anyway and discovers that there is one path away from the cabin, down through the woods to a mysterious (and very small) cemetery, replete with mysterious (and very small) gravestones and wooden crosses.
And here they find the ‘totem’ of the title, except that it’s not like any totem pole that I, or they, (or anyone) has ever seen. It’s basically a stone column, square in cross section and about two meters high. In one side are three box-like recesses which house three very European-looking statues, each about 18 inches to two feet in height. The four-minute opening title sequence included numerous shots of these things moving slightly or their eyes glowing so it should come as no surprise that they somehow become animated later in the picture.
After all, this is a Full Moon movie, executive produced by Charles Band, and what would a Charlie Band film be without some killer dolls?
Tina is the first of the group to die, killed by something mysterious while she and Paul are alone in the fog-enshrouded cemetery. When her corpse, laid out on a table back at the cabin, starts spouting some ancient Native American language, Robert is somehow able to translate it - he can’t explain how - and from this the nature of the curse which has fallen on the youngsters is decoded. (Robert is supposedly Native American, and recognisably so, giving rise to an argument with Paul in which he makes it clear that, despite his heritage, he knows nothing about any tribe other than his own and he knows almost nothing about that one. It’s an interesting angle on a stereotypical situation which is let down by only a couple of points: Tyler Anderson looks about as Native American as I do, and he plays this role with an accent which most closely resembles Swedish...)
The basic premise of Totem, as here presented, is actually a pretty neat set-up: three of these people are destined to kill the other three but there is no indication of who may be victim or (unwitting) killer and the only way to ensure one does not become the former is to take action and become the latter. That’s a really interesting psychological/supernatural concept which could be milked for real tension on a low budget, especially as the cabin where the sextet are imprisoned is devoid of food (although it does have a 19th century Bible which holds some clues).
Unfortunately, this subplot gets mixed up with the other one that we were all expecting as the three mini-statues come to life and attack. It’s never entirely clear - not to the characters and certainly not to the audience - whether the statues are implicit in the murders or whether the murders are bringing the statues to life after the fact. There is a curious couple of minutes late in the film when an uncredited male voice recites a load of vague and incomprehensible stuff about the origin of the totem, playing over a montage of clips from old Viking movies (no one film in particular, the footage all comes from a compilation of public domain trailers). This does rather look like padding, suggesting the original cut of the film was even shorter than this one.
Then, shortly before the end of the movie, there is a surprisingly clever bit of plotting which turns the whole story (the curse one, not the killer dolls one) on its head. Unfortunately, this is followed by the inexplicable and unnecessary appearance of a couple of dodgy-looking zombies which rather deflate things.
I really, really don’t know what to make of Totem. The movie is competently directed by a pseudonymous David DeCoteau and photographed by the prolific Howard Wexler (a DeCoteau regular whose lengthy CV includes Phoenix 2, Legend of the Mummy 2, Voodoo Academy, Leather Jacket Love Story and second unit on Puppet Master II, Spiders II and Revenant). But the script by Neal Marshall Stevens (Hellraiser: Deader, Thir13en Ghosts) under his regular Full Moon pseudonym 'Benjamin Carr' (Frankenstein Reborn!, Zarkorr! The Invader, Kraa! The Sea Monster, Hideous! - and a number of films without exclamation marks in their titles) from a story by Band just makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Some of the individual scenes are actually pretty good and effective, including those exploring the mysterious inability of the occupants to depart which could so easily have been a laughably transparent piece of convenient plotting, but they never begin to gel into a cohesive plot. And with less than an hour of actual running time, they are never given the chance.
The cast all perform adequately. Tait and Faunt seem to be the nominal leads; they are the only two of the six with more than a handful of ultra-obscure credits and had previously worked together for DeCoteau on the first Witchouse film. Producer Kirk Edward Hansen has made about three dozen pictures for Band, from 1992’s Seed People through to 2001’s Train Quest (The Dead Hate the Living was, curiously, dedicated to his memory the year before). He seems to have started out as assistant to Band’s own gloriously named assistant, Bennah Burton-Burtt, and progressed through production assistant, production manager, co-producer and line-producer until eventually becoming a full-blown producer. Most of his credits seem to overlap with Benjamin Carr’s, including Frankenstein Reborn! and Voodoo Academy.
The music is provided by Richard Kosinski whose genre credits include vampire pictures (the Subspecies series), Celtic kid-fantasy (Leapin’ Leprechauns! I and II), Italian shorts (Langliena) and sasquatch movies (erm, Pound Puppies and the Legend of Big Paw). Production design is by Helen Harwell (Hybrid, The Dentist 2) and the costume designer - not that there are too many costumes to design - is Edward Hibbs (The Brotherhood I and II, Final Stab, Leeches!). The most notable monicker in the credits however is post-production supervisor Eric Cartman (also credited as accountant on Hell Asylum) who is either an unsubtle pseudonym or a very unfortunately named individual who probably loathes South Park with a vengeance.
Special effects duties are shared between Christopher Bergschneider (Vampire Journals, The Halfway House, Decadent Evil) and Jeffrey S Farley (Scanner Cop II, Babylon 5, Deep Freeze). The usual 15-minute Videozone ‘making of’ (directed, I believe, by an uncredited Dave Parker) shows some behind-the-scenes shots which give much clearer views of the three killer statues than there are in the film. This is our only chance to see that the puppets had some limited degree of movement (rod and cable controlled) as their attacks in the film are so frenetically edited as to eradicate any chance of seeing the inanimate become animate. Such editing may well be to disguise the puppets’ limitations, I suspect.
Totem is available on its own and also on a double-bill disc paired with Jigsaw, which is the version that I watched. There is also a trailer for the film on this disc, including a full-frontal shot of a zombie which we never see clearly in the actual film. The Videozone featurette kicks off with Charles Band plugging Retro Puppet Master and promising that the following year (2000) would bring not only Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys (eventually produced by the Sci-Fi Channel in 2004 with Band unattached and receiving only a courtesy credit) but also Subspecies V (still unproduced).
MJS rating: C