Totem (1999) *½
Oh, goody— it’s another movie about killer puppets from Full Moon. ‘Cause God knows there weren’t enough of those in the world already... Totem is one of the bigger disappointments I’ve seen Charles Band’s name on, in that its basic setup could easily have produced an extremely good and highly original horror movie, if only it had been taken in the direction that setup would naturally suggest. But since a film that followed Totem’s setup where it initially seemed to be leading would not have involved even a single killer puppet, I suppose it really would have been too much to ask of Band that he allow such a film to be made with his money.
Twentyish Alma Groves (Marissa Tait, of Witchhouse) goes running like mad through the woods until she comes to an old but very well-preserved cabin. She has no idea why. Once she gets there, she finds the place already occupied by five other youths, all of whom came to be there in exactly the same way as Alma. Paul Maglia (Jason Faunt, also of Witchhouse, who was in the cast of “Power Rangers Time Force” too) had been at work. Tina Gray (Alicia Lagano) had been at school. Roz (Sacha Spencer)— whose last name we’ll never learn— had been at a museum with her college art class study group. Len McKinney (Eric W. Edwards) had been having sex with some anonymous teenage hussy. Robert Cole (Tyler Anderson) never does say just what he had been up to. But in each case, Alma’s new companions got a sudden mental picture of a cabin in the woods, and were seized by an irresistible compulsion to go there at once. For whatever reason, all of them knew the way to said cabin, though none had even known the place existed until a moment before, and just as mysteriously, all of them knew they would comprise a party of six once everybody had arrived there in answer to the preternatural summons. And as Paul now explains to Alma, now that they’re here, none of them is able to leave; the cabin is surrounded by some kind of invisible forcefield, which seems to form a perimeter about 100 feet from the house.
Actually, Paul’s understanding of the situation isn’t quite accurate. As Alma demonstrates when she tries to get away, it is possible to get much farther from the house if you keep walking in the direction that brought her there. The other five all follow her when it looks as though she might escape from the cabin after all, but what Alma has found is not a way out, but a way deeper in. After slogging through the woods for what must be a couple of hours (long enough for the sun to set, in any event), the kids come to a cemetery which, judging from the size of the trees that crowd in on it from all sides, must have lain abandoned for a century or more. But there is more than just decaying headstones in this cemetery. At its far edge, in the shadow of a particularly immense old tree, is a carved-granite contrivance in the form of three vertically arranged cells, each about half a man’s height. And within each cell is a statue of a monster, graven in the unmistakable style of the Full Moon special effects department. Tina speculates that perhaps this ominous object was made by the local Indians to serve the same function as the totem poles of the Pacific Northwest, a possibility which Paul believes casts suspicion on the Native American Robert. (I ask you— who the hell ever heard of a Choctaw Indian with a Romanian accent?!) But since the Choctaw never built anything like this, and since Robert’s family hasn’t lived in Romania... I mean, on the reservation for three generations, it seems safe to say that the boy has nothing to do with his companions’ weird predicament. The granite totem itself obviously does, however, for when Len tries to smash it with a sledgehammer (don’t bother asking where he got that), his blow is deflected by a forcefield like the one surrounding the cabin— which Alma’s explorations soon reveal is actually surrounding the graveyard instead.
With no way of leaving, there’s nothing for it but to try to get comfortable in the old cabin, and that’s just what our heroes do. Looking around the place, Alma turns up a Bible inscribed with the names of the cabin’s owners, along with a photo of all six members of the family, the latter of which is dated 1899. Meanwhile, down in the cellar, Roz discovers something that makes the situation in the house look even more ominous— a chopping block covered in ancient bloodstains and a severed, mummified human hand. With stuff like that lying around, I don’t think I’d be as unconcerned as Tina is about going off to the outhouse alone, and sure enough, she takes so long in returning that Paul gets worried and goes out looking for her after arming himself with a hatchet from the cellar. As it turns out, Tina has merely taken a side-trip back to the old graveyard. Why? Well, now that she and the others know the names of the family who once lived in the cabin, she wants to see whether or not it is they who are buried there. Perhaps they are, but Tina soon becomes far more interested in the fact that one of the tombstones has her name written on it, and identifies that very night as her date of death. What’s more, five other stones bear the names of her companions. She makes this discovery just as Paul catches up to her...
...but she doesn’t live to pass that information on to the others. Instead, the next time we see Tina, Paul is carrying her bloodied corpse over the threshold of the cabin, ranting about how one of the things from the granite totem attacked and killed her out in the cemetery. The truth is more complicated than that, however. In fact, the totem carving didn’t come to life until after Tina was dead. Rather, whatever malign spirit inhabits the ancient artifact took control of Paul, made him kill Tina, and then wiped out his memory of the deed. When Paul returned to normal and saw Tina dead and one of the totem monsters alive, he jumped to what seemed the logical conclusion, and fled back to the cabin.
And now, at last, we have some idea of what is really going on. The spirits of the totem— the Masters of Death, as Tina calls them after they reanimate her to act as their mouthpiece— require three human sacrifices in order to rise again and institute a “Time of Blood and Fire.” Because the formula for these sacrifices requires that each be performed by a different person, they have caused a total of six people to come into their sphere of control. Furthermore, if the first Master of Death’s subsequent kidnapping of Paul is any indication, there is some second phase to the ceremony, which will also require the participation of the three designated killers. All things considered, it seems reasonable to conclude that the family of six that lived in the cabin 100 years before had been pressed into service this way, too. If that’s true, though, then one of those prior participants must have figured out a way to interrupt the ritual, because otherwise the Masters of Death would have kicked off their Time of Blood and Fire in 1899. Realizing this, Alma, Robert, Roz, and Len will spend the rest of the night trying to puzzle out the secret to stopping the ceremony.
Man, I wish somebody other than Charles Band had come up with the idea behind Totem, which, at its core, has an elegance and logic to it that is all too rare in modern horror films. The bizarre and cumbersome “three killers, three victims” formula is just impractical enough to sound like something a real ancient religion would prescribe, while the notion that slayer and slain alike should be innocent victims seems equally in keeping with the inscrutable viciousness ascribed to many primitive pagan gods. There’s also more than a little of Lovecraft in the mythology that Band (who wrote the original treatment) has devised for the Masters of Death. Honestly, though, the emergence of that Lovecraftian strain probably marks the point at which Totem starts to go off the rails. While I’ve always thought Lovecraft’s habit of hiding behind adjectives like “unnamable,” “amorphous,” and “indescribable” when discussing his monstrous anti-gods was more of a cop-out than anything else, I’ll admit that doing so at least has the effect of conferring upon them a kind of malevolent majesty that would be extremely difficult to achieve with a more forthright description. In any case, I think we can all agree that Cosmic Evil should never, ever take the form of a trio of killer puppets!!!! The makers of Totem would have been much better off to keep the Masters of Death themselves offscreen, leaving them represented only by the granite monument in the graveyard and by the animate corpses that begin appearing in increasing numbers as the film wears on. It totally blows the mood (and yes, a certain amount of mood is indeed developed during the first half hour) when the Evil Older Than Time turns out to be three shitty toy monsters being waved around on visible wires.
I also can’t imagine what possessed Band or screenwriter Benjamin Carr to toss in that stupid dream that Alma has shortly before the final confrontation. With two out of three sacrifices out of the way, the Masters of Death come to collect the second killer, and Alma is knocked unconscious in the struggle. While she’s out, she dreams up a bunch of stock-footage Vikings laying siege to a stock-footage castle, while a voiceover prattles on about “one tribe” of warriors having stood up victoriously against the Masters of Death and their zombie army. It’s incredibly disorienting, serves no real purpose in the story (it’s not like the dream provides Alma with the key to defeating her otherworldly foes, or anything), and undermines what had been up to then one of my favorite aspects of the movie. Alma and her companions, after all, are not occult scholars. Neither do they have access to anything while trapped in the house that might shed any light on what they’re really up against. For most of its length, Totem plays completely fair with this scenario, leaving the six kids in the cabin to get by solely on guesswork and the careful observation of what few hints the Masters of Death send their way just by carrying out the ritual for which the protagonists have been assembled. Then along comes this bullshit dream sequence that doesn’t just offer a cheater’s explanation for what Alma and company are facing, but compounds the error further by offering a cheater’s explanation that neither makes any sense nor answers any of the real questions concerning the Masters of Death and their ceremony of sacrifice. Having kicked down their meticulously constructed edifice of honest mystery and ambiguity, the filmmakers leave us knowing no more than we did before about what the granite totem is doing hidden in the woods somewhere in the American West, why the Masters of Death selected these six people for the sacrifice, or how they were able to bring them to the cabin when their powers otherwise seem limited to the area marked off by the forcefield projected by the totem. All we have left at that point is one more movie about plastic-pretty twenty-year-olds battling sorry-ass puppet monsters, when we could have had so much more.