Making its World Premiere at Fantasia Fest 2019, Howard Hölscher’s feature film debut, 8: A SOUTH AFRICAN HORROR STORY is sure to create some buzz. Featuring a small cast of characters, it’s a dark and uneasy folk tale about the transforming effect of emotional trauma.
In the film’s opening scene, we meet Lazarus, an aging, but imposing man dressed in a duster jacket, wide brimmed hat, and carrying a large leather bag. He enters an old man’s room and begins to breathe in an unnatural way that I can only describe as a sort of chant. He performs a kind of ritual over the man, producing a moth from the man’s mouth as a small, child-like demonic creature crawls from Lazarus’ bag. We then see the man dead, his mouth open agape and Lazarus narrates, explaining his purpose as “The Wanderer”, who cannot be tricked. Richard Stanley’s imperfect but fascinating South African horror film, DUST DEVIL, immediately comes to mind.
Next, we meet William Ziel, the son of, I assume, the old man in the opening scene. He is traveling with his wife Sarah to the family farm they have just inherited. They are raising William’s young niece, Mary, whose parents have also recently passed away in an incident which is never fully explained, but that we know Mary witnessed. She remembers and mourns her parents.
The film is set “somewhere in South Africa, 1977”. I’m not certain about why this particular time period was chosen, but I suspect it has some significance to Hölscher and would set the film during a very violent time of apartheid resistance and enforcement. Perhaps this choice was also to play on the racial tensions of the time which can be one interpretation for Sarah’s distrust of Lazarus as the plot unfolds.
As the Ziel’s settle into their new farmhouse, the film plays with suspense in many ways.
First, the local village is aware of Lazarus’ return. They know who and what he is and are debating how to handle him. This is our introduction to the folklore of the village and surrounding area. We understand that Lazarus is racked with guilt over the deaths of his wife and daughter. His attempt to resurrect his daughter from the dead has put him in the debt of a demon for whom he must harvest souls. We also understand that this geographical area is a crossroads of sorts. It’s a place where the spirit world and living world can communicate. There are those among the living who are able to communicate with the dead, particularly their ancestors.
Second, Sarah Ziel (Inge Beckmann) is struggling emotionally with her inability to bear children. This seems to strain her relationship with Mary, whom she cares for, but cannot see as her own child. Her emotional state manifests in her inability to get comfortable at the farm. She is plagued by nightmares and seems to be hearing and seeing strange things in and around the home. Hölscher does well here by creating an atmosphere that plays on the conventional haunted house tropes of creaky door and floors, candlelit shadows, and ill-advised midnight investigations. He wants you to think this is a normal ghost story, then use those expectations against you. It reminds me of a similar device used in the excellent Australian film NEXT OF KIN.
And last, the blossoming friendship between Lazarus and Mary provides many of the films more poignant and thematic moments, yet we know that Lazarus is dangerous, so it makes his interactions with Mary feel perilous. We understand that Sarah’s concerns are valid, but based on prejudice, not actual knowledge of wrong-doing. Like he does Mary, Lazarus charms the viewer and creates a disorienting tension.
In the first two acts, Hölscher effective builds suspense, creates an unsettling and unique environment, develops a complex, emotional story and develops his characters just enough to understand who they are and how they feel in the context of the film. He builds a mysterious and unfamiliar world for viewers. Tshamano Sebe as Lazarus stands out. His performance is a delicate balance of sinister, imposing, gentle, and kind. Unfortunately, the film unravels a little in the last act. As Hölscher orchestrates the concluding events of the film, he may lose the audience by confusing them with the film’s unfamiliar folklore and mythology. It’s not clear why Mary is more important to the demon than any other soul. Perhaps it needs a new body to inhabit, or the souls of the young are more powerful and will sustain the demon longer. I don’t fully understand Lazarus’ redemption or Mary’s fate. Perhaps it’s a simple as him asking for and receiving forgiveness. The film does end with a pretty wicked twist that should leave audiences more satisfied than confused.
In the end, Hölscher’s vision stands more than it falls. It’s also beautifully shot with a musical score that plays with the universally recognized theme from SWAN LAKE. 8 makes the best impact while examining the psyche of its characters. It’s a study on the debilitating effects of guilt and grief (Lazarus literally carries his guilt on his back) and the trans formative stages of life and death. Its message is perhaps overwrought at times, but can be simplified into the words of Lazarus: “life is death and death is life.”