2013’s Ghetto Goblin was a cheapie from South Africa whose name change from Blood Tokoloshe reflected a cheesiness inherent in the production, but The Tokoloshe is a much more polished, professional affair that thankfully avoided a name change for American consumption, so we don’t have to deal with watching something called Backalley Boogieman or Ratchet Wraith.
Although it’s a low-budget film, The Tokoloshe is head and shoulders above the amateurish level of Ghetto Goblin in every way — acting, direction, writing, production value, overall artistry — most notably its ambitious message defending some of the most vulnerable segments of South African society: women, children and migrant workers. WOKENESS ALERT.
The story revolves around a young woman named Busi (Petronella Tshuma) who moves from the country to the big city of Johannesburg, hoping to earn enough money to eventually bring her younger sister to live with her. To that end, she takes a janitorial role in a rundown hospital that houses, amongst other patients, sick children and “AIDS orphans.”
One girl in particular, Gracie (Kwande Nkosi), catches Busi’s eye because she seems so troubled and helpless. She claims that she’s being menaced by a tokoloshe, a malevolent being from Zulu folklore, and even though Busi doesn’t necessarily believe that Gracie’s anxiety has a supernatural origin, the girl’s physical wounds attest to the fact that she’s in immediate danger from something. Busi thus takes it upon herself to protect the child from her demons, real or figurative, even though she herself has her fair share to deal with.
In many ways, The Tokoloshe is a marvel. While it clearly has budgetary constraints (as evidenced by some of the unfortunate CGI effects), director Jerome Pikwane manages to craft some striking, stylish visuals, and the cast — primarily Tshuma and Nkosi, but also Dawid Minnaar as Busi’s sleazy boss — tackles their roles with raw emotional power. The script, by Pikwane and Richard Kunzmann, ventures into the dark recesses of humanity, bravely tackling issues of abuse, exploitation and the toxicity of a patriarchal legacy that has spawned women’s rights movements around the globe.
The message is pointed, but it doesn’t drown out the suspense in the movie. Although it’s not especially scary, there’s an effective sense of mystery and anticipation as we unravel the backstories of the characters and decipher the enigma of the tokoloshe. In doing so, the protective relationship between Busi and Gracie functions similarly to great female-led modern fright films like The Babadook and Under the Shadow. Of course, it’s not in the same league as those movies, but The Tokoloshe has to be considered amongst the cream of the crop of homegrown African horror cinema.