Totem (1999): Poles Apart

Matty finds a few points of note in David DeCoteau’s most mercenary assignment.

“There are three reasons I use pseudonyms,” David DeCoteau told Femme Fatales in November 2000. “Number one, this is the only industry which penalises you for working too much; when you do, you’re considered a hack… Number two, I’m a member of the Directors Guild of America. I’m now under a special contract with them, which allows me to work non-union. But before the agreement, I wasn’t supposed to do non-union pictures. The fact is almost all of my features were non-signatory to the DGA’s requirements. And number three, some of my movies were just so damned bad I didn’t want my name on them [laughs]! The budgets on some of them were unbelievably low — often non-existent — or there was too much producer interference. I wasn’t always allowed to blossom to my full capacity, which I felt was unfair.” [1]

Depending on who’s telling the story, TOTEM was shot in four or five days right before or right after DeCoteau’s ‘baby’, Voodoo Academy (2000). Either way it was a tactical manoeuvre and a contract job: DeCoteau had to make Totem for Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment in exchange for Band bankrolling the auteur’s passion project in the first place.  

In the years since — and on the rare occasion it’s actually discussed — DeCoteau has been pretty forthright about Totem, saying that he isn’t especially proud of it and that the film is so bad that he even concocted a new nom de plume (‘Martin Tate’) to assign to it, lest the picture embarrass the Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988) maestro’s other aliases (‘Ellen Cabot’ et al). Hilarious but alarmist. While no artist wants to slum it — let alone an artist on the cusp of crafting/who’s just finished crafting a masterpiece — Totem isn’t without merit. Of particular interest is the film’s dramatic crux. Essentially a story about a group of people trapped in a situation for the sake of a greater good, the metaphorical connotations of this cheapie-cum-artistic trade-off are clear. 

Though DeCoteau’s patented homoeroticism is largely absent, Totem is stylishly done and packed with a wealth of his other aesthetic obsessions (Dutch angles, endless stormy weather effects, swaying camerawork). Atmospheric and claustrophobic, DeCoteau has fun with the film’s Night of the Living Dead (1968)-esque footing too, wherein a gaggle of hot young things have to thwart three diminutive beasties while imprisoned in a nightmarish forest shack. With the characters supernaturally held there, the cast — a sextet mostly comprised of the director’s past and present stock players, Witchouse’s (1999) Jason Faunt and Marissa Tait, and Micro Mini Kids(2001) Tyler Anderson and Alicia Lagano, among them — put in a shift and manage to imbue Full Moon mainstay Neal Marshall Stevens’ ropey dialogue with a surprising amount of verisimilitude.        

Alas, the eponymous(ish) threats are pretty lame. Named in honour of the secondary villains that appeared in producer Band’s earlier Puppet Master 4 (1994), the totem monsters are nicely designed (by ‘James Lee’ — a likely masking of FX wizards and frequent Full Moon and DeCoteau collaborators, Christopher Bergschneider and Jeffrey S. Farley) but shoddily executed. You can see their cables and wires in virtually every shot. 

One of DeCoteau’s last Band flicks for nearly a decade, Totem hit U.S. video via Full Moon Releasing on 28th September 1999. By that time, DeCoteau had locked his final Band gig of the era, Prison of the Dead (2000), and was two months away from forming his own company, Rapid Heart Pictures.

USA ● 1999 ● Horror ● 68mins

Jason Faunt, Marissa Tait ● Dir. David DeCoteau (as ‘Martin Tate’)Wri. Neal Marshall Stevens (as ‘Benjamin Carr’), story by Charles Band

[1] David DeCoteau: Rapid Heart’s Low-Budget Auteur by Jason Paul Collum, Femme Fatales, Vol. 9, No. 7, November 2000.

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