Tuesday, July 20, 2010

'Totem' has good ideas, lousy execution

Totem (1999)
Starring: Marissa Tait, Tyler Anderson, Alicia Lagano, Jason Faunt, Eric W. Edwards and Sacha Spencer
Director: David DeCoteau (as Martin Tate)
Producers: Charles Band and Kirk Edward Hansen
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A dark, arcane force draws six teenagers to a remote cabin where they discover that some of them are fated to be sacrificed in order to unleash murderous demons upon the world, while others are fated to perform the sacrifices. But who are the victims and who are killers? And what does the mysterious, vaguely totem-pole like sculpture in the nearby cemetery have to do with anything?

"Totem" is a film with a supremely creepy premise at its heart, and it sets up the story nicely, but then it quickly goes off the rails.

The problems start with the cast. They seem to have been hired first and foremost for their good looks with any actual acting talent being entirely secondary. Even allowing for the wooden, shallow acting that is so very common in the minor Full Moon efforts like this one, what we have here is still pretty weak. The only members of the cast I didn't want to send back to community theater or to full-time modeling were Marissa Tait and Alicia Lagano. They also happen to be the only two who have had substantial acting careers since this movie--although I suppose Jason Faunt's 44-episode run as a Power Ranger counts. The other three cast members have very limited or no other film or TV credits to their names. (Hmmm... three to do the killing, three to die... maybe there IS more to this movie than one might think!)

As if a lack of talent wasn't bad enough, whether or not the actors in question were appropriate for the role they were cast also appears to have been entirely secondary. It's the only explanation for Tyler Anderson being cast as a Native American who looks more Eastern European or Italian than Native American--and whose accent is more Euro-trashy/Eastern European than anything that ever came off a Reservation anywhere in North America--yet somehow the other characters in the film can TELL he's Native American by just looking at him. (There MUST have been someone in that book of modeling agency headshots this cast was derived form who looked more convincingly Native American. I've no idea why they would've gone with Tyler, unless he was related to someone who invested money in the production.)

The acting in this film is so bland, and the performers and their characters so interchangeable that I doubt you will remember who did what to whom five even as the end credits start to roll.

The bad acting might not be entirely the fault of the actors, however. They didn't have much of a script to work with, and they are portraying characters whose development extends to "and then he does this because the plot says so... and does that because the plot says so. This Benjamin Carr-penned effort was so lazily written that not only does every character sound alike because no care was taken to give them personality through their dialogue, and the back story for the demonic critters motivating the action has to explained in a lame-ass dream sequence that may or may not have been included because the producers said, "we've got this footage of rampaging Vikings... work it into the picture somehow."

Finally, the ending here has got to be among the worst on any Full Moon production, save that of "Huntress: Spirit of the Night". Perhaps in the hands of someone competent, or at the end of a script that had actually been taken through more than one draft, the sick sort of romantic vibe I think they were going for might have worked. Here, it just feels like a bit of randomness tacked onto the end of a half-developed story. It's feels almost as forced and pointless as the presence of the totem critters.

Speaking of the critters... once again we have a Charles Band production where the neigh-obligatory puppet creatures feel as if they've been forced into a story where they don't belong. The immortal, imprisoned demons lurking at the heart of the story have the ability to manipulate the film's characters by altering their thoughts and perceptions, and they can animate their corpses after they're dead, so there is no reason for them to be flapping around and generally looking like cheap-jack prop puppets. Yes... this is the beginning of the point where Band continued to produce movies with Tiny Terrors in them, but didn't even have the budget to make them look as convincing at the original Ghoulies.

(That said, the totem puppets are better than many of their fellow on-the-cheap Tiny Terrors from Band's productions of the past decade. They're even better animated than the Blood Dolls from the film of the same title and the same year as this one, even if "Blood Dolls" was a far better movie overall.)

There is two moments in the film that saves it from a Two Rating (and the honor of being featured on my Movies to Die Before Seeing blog). The first is the point where Alicia Lagano's character is revealed as the psycho we pretty much knew her to be--it's not surprising, but it is one of the better-handled moments in the film--and the sudden and very startling death of Robert and its aftermath. While I suspect Robert's surprise death primarily arose from sloppy writing more than anything else. But, whatever the way it came about, it worked.