Harold Holscher’s South African horror 8, which had its world premiere at Fantasia Festival, opens with a sense of tranquility before quickly shifting into pure horror. Its atmosphere transitions between calming and unsettling throughout the film, creating the perfect balance. With horror that derives from both the supernatural and South African folklore, 8 is a refreshing take on a familiar trope that sees one of its characters at war with a dark secret.
After suffering from crippling bankruptcy, William (Garth Breytenbach), Sarah (Inge Beckmann) and their young adopted daughter, Mary (Keita Luna), move into an old family farm after inheriting it from William’s late father. While there, they soon meet the old farmhand, Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe). Sarah is immediately skeptical of him, but he and Mary form an instant connection as they bond over their loss. Mary’s parents passed away and Lazarus is wrought with pain and suffering having lost his wife during childbirth and his daughter in a fire. But what happens when, in desperation, you make a deal with a devil?
Doomed to collect souls for the rest of his life, Lazarus isn’t presented as a villain, but instead as a tortured man who wants to be free from his curse. As a healer who can communicate with the unknown, he is filled to the brim with guilt and grief. He says “I’m not a demon, I’m the ghost of a father.” Knowing the truth, local Tribe leader Obara (Chris April) has a problem with Lazarus being close to their community – but Mary continues to see the good in him, often referring to him as a kind man.
Mary is smart, captivating and lonely, though she remains obsessed with life and death after the passing of her parents. She has an affinity for taking care of living creatures, in particular, her box of silkworms. She learned from a book that in some South African cultures, snakes carry souls to the afterlife, and Lazarus expands on her understanding of such folklore, allowing them to bond further over the mythology of moths and butterflies. Their connection gives them an emotional outlet as they both appear to be what the other is looking for: “It looks like you need a daughter and I need a parent” Mary tells him.
Holscher’s debut feature is very atmospheric, which is one of its strongest elements. It gives us beautiful landscapes, gruesome horror and chilling undertones throughout. It always feels like there’s something to be afraid of, even in its quietest moments. 8‘s narrative is fairly simple and unfolds at a good pace, revealing to us a bigger piece of the puzzle each time. Luna and Sebe give charismatic performances and the South African folklore is something new that most audiences won’t be familiar with. It’s a shame, however, that 8 doesn’t expand more on its South African inspiration, as it would have been amazing to see a film that’s completely drenched in something truly original.