The Tokoloshe is a Representation of Real World Terror
In South African folklore, the tokoloshe is a mischievous spirit summoned by evil people to cause harm. There are various versions of the legend, and in Jerome Pikwane’s 2018 film, the titular monster embodies a unique version that is a compelling analogy for repression and P.T.S.D.
The Tokoloshe follows the story of Busi (Petronella Tshuma), a young woman who has fled to Johannesburg from an abusive home. Desperate for money to bring the sister she left behind to safety, Busi takes a job as a cleaner in a seedy hospital run by a predatory white male. During her graveyard shift she befriends a neglected young girl named Gracie (Kwande Nkosi), who believes she is being tormented by a paranormal being. When children in the hospital are attacked, Busi is confronted with the possibility that the Tokoloshe haunting Gracie may actually be responsible. In order to save Gracie (and herself), she must face her own demons from her past.
The horror genre has historically used monsters to represent real world terrors, and the Tokoloshe is a perfect example. Snippets of news clips can be heard in Busi’s apartment that help convey the struggles in Johannesburg, including the influx of refugees and assault statistics that women face. The exploitation and abuse that is inflicted on both Busi and Gracie manifests as this evil spirit, generating a subtle commentary on male dominance in society.
The lighting in the film is exceptional, with clear, focused shots throughout most of the duration of the movie and otherwise using distorted images to create tension. The score successfully utilises silence and discord to heighten the sense of unease. The suspense mounts slowly and most of the frightening moments are much more subtle than your typical jump-scare flick.
Kwande gave an impressive performance as Gracie by convincingly conveying the terror her character endured and displaying an amazing emotional range. She is endearing and heartbreaking in her struggle to tackle issues larger than her. Tshuma captures the loneliness and desperation of Busi, though she seems oddly unphased by some of the more jarring supernatural scenes, perhaps as a result of the severe trauma from her past.
Both English and Zulu are spoken in the film, which allows the audience to authentically glimpse South African culture. The Tokoloshe was released in 2018 in select countries and is awaiting a U.S. screening.