SMALL SCREEN

Movie Review: 8 – an imperfect number?

By Keith Bain 23 June 2020

When the movie 8 was screened at a film festival in Canada, some reviewers identified it as folklore horror that depicts indigenous South African mythology in the service of a creepy entertainment experience.

Plot holes are seldom much of a concern for fans of horror films. No one really watches a scary movie and then, afterwards, picks apart gaps in the logic. Because, at the heart of it all, is irrational fear; pure sensation driving a physical response.

Part of the horror filmmaker’s conceit is the use of the medium to connect directly with an audience’s physiology. They have lured you into the cinema to have their way with you – to make you jump, to get your skin to crawl, your flesh to curdle and your guts to clench.

But when a horror film is neither scary nor atrociously funny it can fall flat.

They are permitted to employ all the tricks in the toolbox to make you squirm, duck, squeal or cover your eyes. Their job is to torment you for 90 minutes, remove you from your comfort zone, freak you out and give you nightmares. They put you in touch with ancient fears and primitive impulses, shadow sides and dark instincts, everything that is sinister and evil and abject – all for the sake of some sort of catharsis. You might leave the cinema exhausted, but you are alive.

Of course, horror movies often get it all very wrong. At worst they forget – or fail – to frighten you. These films can end up being so gloriously bad they acquire cult status and are often lauded as prime examples of just how hilariously awful cinema can be.

But when a horror film is neither scary nor atrociously funny it can fall flat. Or it can pretend to be something it is not.

Last July, a South African movie called 8, the culmination of a decade’s endeavour by first-time feature director Harold Hölscher, premiered at Fantasia, North America’s biggest genre film festival. It played to a fair amount of acclaim and got some positive notices, managing to stir enough enthusiasm that it was acquired for theatrical distribution in several international territories, including the US.

Nevertheless, local cinema distributors refused to screen Hölscher’s film. He wasn’t happy.

“I made this fucking film to get seen,” he says. “I’ve got a deal with Netflix and the film has distribution internationally but it will not be shown nationally in South Africa. It’s very frustrating. It breaks a filmmaker’s heart. You only make your first film once.”

After 8 screened at Fantasia, some foreign reviewers identified it as a kind of folklore horror and bought into the idea that the film depicts indigenous South African mythology in the service of a creepy entertainment experience.

Set in the 1970s, the action happens in and around a remote farm inherited by William Ziel (Garth Breytenbach) after the death of his father. For bankrupt William, his wife Sarah (Inge Beckmann) and their young niece Mary (Keita Luna), who they’ve adopted following the death of her parents, relocating to the countryside is a chance to begin again.

Garth Breytenbach, Inge Beckmann, and young newcomer Keita Luna
Inge Beckmann and Keita Luna

And so the scene is set for some sort of gothic gorefest in which a family falls apart because they’re not only unsuited for country life but because the farmhouse they’re in is haunted. The set-up is fairly classic: The family is sequestered in some faraway location surrounded by dark, magnificent mountains. Cue the antique oil lanterns, flickering candles and creaky floorboards.

But, of course, this set-up is totally bogus. The house isn’t haunted at all.

Actually, the real menace turns out to be a mysterious man named Lazarus who the family encounters soon after their arrival. William hires him to help out on the farm and, while Mary takes a shine to Lazarus, Sarah is instantly suspicious.

Lazarus, as it happens, is an exile from the local village. He’s been cast out for using a dark ritual to resurrect his dead daughter. The daughter, in some hideous altered form, now resides in a leather sack that Lazarus carries around over his shoulder.

Creepy?

Slightly.

Well, that’s not the worst of it. While Lazarus’s bizarre relationship with his undead daughter is a genuine worry, what’s really at the heart of the unfolding horror is that this demonic reincarnation has an insatiable appetite.

Her diet? Human souls. And Lazarus, ever the devoted dad, has assumed responsibility for sourcing said snacks.

And herein lies the source of intrigue for foreign audiences who grappled with 8’s narrative. The soul-eating demon-in-a-sack quite easily comes off as a folkloric device rooted in some African mythology rather than what it actually is: a rather common horror film trope.

Hölscher says he was inspired by Japanese folklore horror films and wanted to tap into South Africa’s own rich well of mysticism and legend to create a film that could operate as pure entertainment and engage audiences across the country’s diverse demographic.

Moody it may be, but scary it ain’t.

The film’s folkloric subtext is really window dressing for an altogether more universal narrative investigation: What happens to all the souls that get lost when people die in accidents?

That in itself is hardly an original concept, but Hölscher’s fascination with African mysticism and mythology led him to a traditional Xhosa practice involving the transportation of the soul of someone who dies far from home. It got him thinking: “What would happen if there’s someone who steals souls and keeps them and that is how the character of Lazarus, a soul collector, was born.

“What I wanted to try and do was marry various indigenous cultures and belief systems without throwing judgment on them – rather using them as a basis for a fantastical story.”

The result is a kind of pastiche that’s ultimately divorced from its various original sources of inspiration, folkloric or otherwise.

Hölscher says he was aiming for a type of psychological horror rather than something outright terrifying: “There is definitely homage to all my favourite horror pictures, including The Shining and The Exorcist, but at its core it’s a tale about a man who can’t handle his grief so it’s actually a drama set in a supernatural horror genre context. I wanted to pull the audience in, rather than use cheap tricks.”

But does it manage to scare, frighten or make you leap out of your seat?

“It was never meant to be one of those horrors that makes use of jump scares,” says Hölscher. “One of most of my biggest intentions was to maintain tension without scaring audiences using trickery or shock tactics. I wanted viewers to be engulfed by the world. Let’s be honest I’m creating an extreme suspension of disbelief – we have moths coming out of people’s mouths and we have a demon who lives in a bag. But I tried to create a moody psychological thriller in a horror genre context.”

Moody it may be, but scary it ain’t.

What the film does have going for it are some feisty performances. Most notably from Tshamano Sebe who plays Lazarus, a man who has clearly been ripped apart. Sebe’s portrayal is stirring because it enables us to see the fault lines in Lazarus’s humanity, to sense how brittle and tender his experience of loss has made him.

Tshamano Sebe as troubled Lazarus

Ultimately, this film should have been about Lazarus. About how grief and desperation have changed him, turned him into an outcast, made him a monster. That might have been a far more interesting story. It seems a pity that we instead spend so much time watching the comparatively insipid family drama playing out within the white household. One cannot help feeling that the real story is happening elsewhere. It’s as if the narrative is being guided by a colonial hand that refuses to let go.

Hölscher says his intention was to make a new kind of horror – for a diverse South African audience. “I wanted to appeal to South Africans from all walks of life, without any political spin. Even though there is some focus on race in the film, I actually wanted to engage the market by telling a story by South Africans for all South Africans.”

This explains his frustration at having his film turned down by local cinema distributors. “How dare they say this film is not good enough to put in their cinemas? This film was not made to be watched on a laptop screen,” he says. “It’s made to be watched with 5.8 surround sound, in the dark and on a large screen.”

The irony, given the closure of cinemas during the pandemic, is that Hölscher’s film might never have made it to South Africa’s big screens anyway. But now you can see it on Netflix and decide for yourself if you’d have wanted to see it on a bigger screen.

Perhaps a huge soundtrack would help, but chances are you might find yourself left hanging, wondering what in the hell happened to the scaremongering and catharsis you signed up for. While the film looks good and ultimately proposes its own rather beautiful theory about the fate of all those departed souls, it ultimately feels far too much like a drama and not nearly spooky enough to be satisfying.

The first clue is right there on the poster: The film’s title turns out to be not a reference to some mythical, magical number, but to a big blazing figure 8 that forms part of the film’s dramatic dénouement. It is seemingly part of a supernatural spell used to bring an end to the demonic threat.

Chris April who plays the village elder named Obara in ‘8’

But what precisely the significance of this burning symbol is remains a mystery. One guess is that it’s a representation of infinity, of an infinite double loop, which shifts the narrative into the unexpectedly conceptual territory that is part of the film’s weakness: It wants you to think rather than feel. It is conceptually dreamy instead of being visually nightmarish. And it is awkwardly cerebral rather than being the kind of visceral experience that might make you cover your eyes in terror.

Worst of all, it is languorous. Instead of spine-tingling thrills and bloodcurdling spills, it plods, dawdles, and waits. While it includes a smattering of harrowing set pieces and a few enjoyable frights, its pace at times slows to a crawl, eliciting another, rather unkind, side-effect of infinity: boredom.

Instead of gripping us with fear and then spitting us out at the end, 8 finishes ever-so-delicately in some pretty afterlife inspired more by the visual poetry of Tarsem Singh (who made The Cell) than by the ravages and excesses of the scary demon movie we thought we were signing up for.

Unfortunately, without the scares, without reasons to leap out of our skins or feel our guts clenching on the rollercoaster towards catharsis, we are forced to ponder the plot. And to notice the holes in it. DM/ML

8, also known as The Soul Collector in the US, is the debut feature film by writer-director Harold Hölscher. It stars Tsamano Sebe, Inge Beckmann, Garth Breytenbach and Keita Luna. It premiered at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival last July and was shown at the Joburg Film Festival in November. It was released on Netflix on 19 June 2020.

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