TOTEM (2017)


Studio:       Cinemax
Director:    Marcel Sarmiento
Writer:       Evan Dickson
Producer:  Adam Hendricks, John Lang, Greg Gilreath, William Day Frank
Stars:     Kerris Dorsey, James Tupper, Ahna O’Reilly, Lawrence Pressman, Lia McHugh, Braeden Lemasters

Review Score:



A supernatural presence threatens to tear apart a teen’s family as they adjust to life with her widower father’s girlfriend.



Promoted to leading lady of the house following her mother Lexy’s untimely death, 17-year-old Kellie has done a respectable job keeping together the tight trio that includes her father James and little sister Abby.  For his part, James thinks it’s time to add a new face to their fold, and invites his long-term girlfriend Robin to finally move in so their family can move on.

Kellie isn’t overjoyed at the interloper in their midst.  Neither is the supernatural spirit suddenly haunting their home.  Robin’s arrival strangely coincides with an unseen entity paying regular visits to Abby.  The little girl claims it is her dead mother’s protective ghost.  Kellie fears the spirit isn’t as benevolent as Abby innocently presumes.

After recovering a necklace that belonged to Lexy, Kellie finds it is capable of causing objects in the house to move on their own.  Maybe it’s her mother interacting from beyond the grave.  Maybe it’s something more malevolent.  As the entity seemingly strengthens, it threatens to tear everyone apart through the paranormal power of the mysterious totem now in Kellie’s possession.

For his debut screenplay, writer Evan Dickson wisely follows common advice for a first-time feature, keeping scope contained to a core foursome in one location, which is an attractive prospect for indie horror producers in the market for something inexpensively simple.  Trouble is, “Totem” is straightforward to the point of being largely lethargic and entirely recycled from pedestrian tropes.

A quick prologue drops a body off a cliff without context.  A stuck window with cool wind whipping in and a young girl talking to an invisible entity hint at something ominous in her near future.  Outside of this, “Totem’s” first half hour frames itself with Lifetime-caliber family drama as Kellie harrumphingly adjusts to home life with dad’s new girlfriend.

Actresses Kerris Dorsey and Ahna O’Reilly, and James Tupper as the father too, work up performances of reasonable quality considering clichés constructing their characters.  Everyone appears believably invested in individual relationships as well as overcoming accompanying tribulations.  Yet no amount of charisma can overcome marginal material tasking everyone with struggling unrealistically hard to fulfill narrative functions.  Kellie’s exasperated eye rolls, Robin’s overenthusiastic effort to fit in (by rushing to season steaks with hemp seeds of all things), and dad’s “can’t we all just get along?” attitude regularly reek of overreaching to sell their stereotypes.

Smacking viewers in the face becomes a common tactic for “Totem.”  The camera centers so obviously on grandpa’s asthma inhaler the first time we meet him, or the jagged metal tetanus traps posing as Robin’s avant garde art sculptures, it’s a wonder we have to wait until act three for each of Chekhov’s guns to fire.

Talent attached behind the scenes makes the lack of committed creativity more confounding.  In addition to scripter Evan Dickson’s experience as a genre journalist, director Marcel Sarmiento created the standout segment of “ABCs of Death” and made some waves with his 2008 film “Deadgirl.”  Blumhouse Productions, hiding behind a simple “BH” text credit and a logo uncharacteristically appearing at the end rather than the front, also had a hand in “Totem.”  This competent team should conceivably combine for something cleverer than the anemic effort on display here.

“Totem” instead turns to desperate measures for anything resembling a thrill, resorting to a tired “it was only a dream” moment and actually having a cat leap from nowhere twice in the same scene.  Other feeble jolts include a window slamming and a broken glass cutting someone’s hand, with loud music terribly overcompensating to scrounge up a scare from such low stakes situations.  Just try to contain intense fear when Kellie demonstrates the totem’s awesome power by knocking over magazines and rattling window blinds.  Ooh, spooky.

Brains are encouraged to disengage in solidarity with Kellie’s family as they do dimwitted things like having all four adults regroup outside to discuss how harrowing it was when the ghost attacked Abby in her bedroom just two minutes earlier.  Abby?  Oh wait, we left her inside alone with the ghost!  Culminating in a colossal cheat that constitutes a retroactively ridiculous twist, “Totem” essentially gives up on sensibly motivating onscreen actions, rolling its figurative finger forward as if interested only in wrapping up and going home.

“Totem” can be summed up by saying it’s ironically appropriate for the Amazon Video poster art to simply be white text on a plain black background.  Only a generic label like this could accurately reflect the film’s store brand flavor of disappointing blandness.

Review Score:  35