“Totem” (1999)

by A.J. Hakari

"Totem" poster


Charles Band’s perseverance will forever remain one of filmdom’s greatest puzzlers. In a business where careers are decimated with just one high-profile bomb, Band’s Full Moon production house has thrived on decades of awful cinema, amassing an empire of crap that’s still running strong on the nostalgia of fans who got hooked on the Puppet Master and Trancers franchises at just the right age. Full Moon was the bee’s knees for a burgeoning horror buff back in the day, but around the time 1999’s Totem debuted, the studio’s catalogue of ramshackle chillers had shed their corny appeal and become categorically depressing. When Band shepherded stinkers in the early ’90s, they more often than not resembled actual movies; Totem, on the other hand, feels like an improv class gone awry, a lethargic debacle with the uncanny ability to both overthink itself and not care about how things turn out at the same time.

Alma (Marissa Tait) has just arrived at an old cabin in the woods, though she couldn’t tell you why. Neither can the five other twentysomethings she comes across there, all of whom share the same tale of being compelled to drop what they’re doing and congregate in the middle of nowhere. Further investigation uncovers a spooky graveyard and, at its center, a stone totem with three miniscule monsters adorning it. It’s only when the youths start to get picked off one by one that the true purpose of their gathering is revealed. Though they seem to be made of mere rock, that trio of creatures wields an awesome supernatural power, one that the granite goblins use to force the group to carry out a horrible ritual. With each death, the figures get closer to coming alive, leaving Alma and the survivors little time to stop them before hell comes to earth.

For once, Band’s fascination with all things diminutive isn’t what brings a Full Moon joint to its knees. Indeed, Totem comes equipped with tiny terrors that I’m sure Band had plans to merchandise into the goddamned bedrock, but these pint-sized creations are the least of the flick’s problems. Nope, this turns into a train wreck for all the classic reasons: awful acting, terrible sense of direction, and a script that makes a beeline for incoherence after introducing what’s at first a genuinely interesting premise. Believe it or not, there’s some real mystery to Totem‘s opening minutes, as the idea of random strangers assembled for no visible reason, by a force that can influence their actions without them even realizing it, makes for a surprisingly gripping set-up. Even something like which of the characters die first seems suspenseful, as director David DeCoteau (oh, I’m sorry, “Martin Tate”) plays with audience expectations of which archetypes will last the longest (a la Feast, only with more subtlety). But by the fourth time these characters try to dissect their situation and overanalyze it to the point of calling attention to plot holes that it might’ve gotten away with (yeah, why don’t the monsters have the group under constant control?), the more it becomes clear that the movie is going in circles and has no intentions of making a lick of sense whatsoever.

I’m not about to pick on Totem for its low-rent zombie make-up, cheap-looking sets, and the most retina-obliterating use of strobe lights since Pumpkinhead 2. I can look past all those flaws, but it’s when the script engages in so much back-and-forth about the creatures while never bothering to whip up a defined mythos or basic set of rules that I have to bid my patience farewell. There’s no use getting invested in the onscreen action when the flick’s concern for itself is fifty shades of indifferent, especially when its final solution to three acts of talking up the big bad monsters involves our heroes not lifting a damn finger. When DeCoteau makes a last-ditch effort at endowing the stone beasties with some history by way of narration and stock footage from some random Viking movie, any “so bad, it’s hysterical” charm it could have claimed has long since expired. God knows the monotone, Not Ready for Evil Dead Players populating the cast are no help, with Tyler Anderson’s brooding hunk coming across as particularly Wiseauian and blessing the feature with most of its giggles.

I could make excuses for why Totem doesn’t suck that much, that “prestigious” Full Moon outings like Crash and Burn are even more plodding piles of schlock than this. But although there’s a nifty thriller to be made from this premise, the roundabout dialogue, painful performances, and general aloofness of the production waste no time in laying complete waste to that potential. Band cranked out some endearingly terrible stuff in his prime, but Totem is just plain bad.