One of the main draws about foreign horror films is that they often introduce viewers to new or unfamiliar mythologies, or unusual takes on familiar stories. This is certainly the case with the South African film 8, and viewers looking for something out of the ordinary in the supernatural vein should be quite pleased with the film.
Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe [Of Good Report]) is a man who made a made a Faustian deal when his young daughter died, and who is now bound to wander the land and to kill people and collect their souls as they pass away. Lazarus carries a bag around with him almost constantly. 8 reveals its contents rather early, in my opinion, but I will save the surprise for potential first-time viewers to discover. The local villagers consider him a demon and fear him, with some wanting to kill him — a task that their leader believes is impossible — or steal his bag.
Bankrupted William (Garth Breytenbach [Troy: Fall of a City]) and his wife Sarah (Inge Beckmann [Escape Room]) move, out of desperation, to the remote, neglected farm where he grew up, which is near that village. They have also recently adopted their young niece Mary (Keita Luna) after her parents died. Mary meets Lazarus when she wanders off from her new house, and soon, she and Sarah begin experiencing supernatural occurrences — seemingly benign for Mary, but quite the opposite for Sarah.
Writer/director Harold Hölscher presents Lazarus as both a threatening, deadly menace and a sorrowful tragic figure, much like the classic Universal versions of Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman. Lazarus brought his fate as a soul collector on himself by striking the deal to bring his daughter back from the dead, but he seems to regret every life that he must take to keep his end of the bargain — one that, naturally for a horror movie, winds up being quite one-sided, and not in his favor.
8 does not require prior knowledge of South African folk tales and traditions — such as why moths play an important role in the film, for example — because its themes of death, grief, the afterlife, and so on are universal ones to which audiences can easily relate. Some elements may not feel fully explained or clearly evident, but that works as a part of the mysteries of the tale rather than being something that needs further clarification.
Hölscher unfolds 8 at a satisfying pace, opening the film with an unsettling sequence involving Lazarus and a victim, and adding eerie elements while setting up the stories of the drama within the newly arrived family and the villagers’ impatience regarding ending Lazarus’ hold of terror over them. 8 eschews graphic horror in favor of an eldritch, unnerving feel, and its few jump scares are earned.
The characters of Lazarus and Mary are the two most developed ones, and the relationship between them is both touching and unnerving. Sebe is truly superb as Lazarus, showing a wide range as his character revels in lording the power of fear that he holds over the villagers, acting as a friend and mentor to Mary, and suffering with the loss of his daughter and the price he must pay for trying to bring her back. Luna is terrific, too, investing Mary with a wide-eyed innocence, a sense of wonder, and a wisdom beyond the character’s years. When the pair of actors share screen time together, their chemistry is magical. Though most of the other characters are relegated to tropes such as the suspicious wife and the unbelieving husband, the supporting cast all give fine performances.
With 8, Hölscher has crafted a preternatural tale with an emphasis on mood and atmosphere, greatly aided by David Pienaar’s sumptuous cinematography. The South African mythology and folklore at the film’s core presents an alien touch that adds to the film’s disquieting ambience.
8 screened at Another Hole in the Head Film Fest, which runs December 1st –15th at New People Cinema in San Francisco.
(4 / 5)