26th Jul2019

Fantasia 2019: ’8′ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Chris April, Inge Beckmann, Garth Breytenbach, Keita Luna, Tshamano Sebe | Written and Directed by Harold Holscher

8-poster

After suffering a crippling bankruptcy William Zeil returns to his old family farm that he inherited from his father, bringing with him his wife Sarah and their young adopted daughter, Mary, hoping for a fresh start. They soon meet Lazarus, an old farmhand who looked after William’s father, who takes an immediate, almost paternal liking to Mary. It becomes evident that the local tribal leader has a considerable problem with Lazarus, as do many in the community. On his end, Lazarus has no shortage of his own problems — his wife having died in childbirth, his daughter later perishing in a fire, he is tormented in this terrible place of wounding memories and unrestful souls. Lonely… but, as the Zeil family will soon discover, never alone.

The debut feature of writer/director Harold Holscher, 8 is one of a growing number of recent horror films to stem from South Africa, a country not really known for its genre output but one whose culture and landscape are just rife with terrifying possibilities. Possibilities that Holscher mines with confidence and surety in a manner that belies the “first time” status of this outing.

From the get-go8 reminded me very much of the bleak Ozploitation films of the 70s and 80s. Films where the locale was as scary as the people (or monsters) within it. And yes, there are also comparisons to be made with Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil, beyond both films being set in Africa and featuring the eerie landscapes (and sometimes people) of the country in very much the same way. However Holscher’s film also has very gothic influences, which you wouldn’t expect from a country where gothicism is not a part of the culture. There are shades of old black and white British horrors; classics like The Haunting and even more recent gothic films like The Babadook running throughout this film.

Yet, for all that 8 is still very much it’s own entity. Mainly because it taps into the myths and legends of South Africa culture, the folklore that many outside of the country, myself included, are unfamiliar with – all of which is run through the lense of horror cinema, in a way that makes the unknown feel familiar, even though it is not. And its the fact that we are not familiar with the folklore that makes Holscher’s film so intriguing, even with, or maybe despite, those clearly noticeable genre influences.

Where 8 also succeeds is in building suspense. We’re shown in the opening what Lazarus is capable of, what the “man” truly is. However the films is two-thirds of the way over before we see anymore of Lazarus’ evil-doings. It’s an astonishingly simple, yet brilliantly effective way of building suspense and dread. We know the Zeil family are in danger, yet we cannot do anything to stop Lazarus from worming his way into their lives, with their very lives also on the line. It helps that in actor Tshamano Sebe, Holscher has a truly compelling “monster”. His performance is both eeriely calm and creepily effective, yet sombre enough to make the audience feel incredibly sympathetic for someone we really shouldn’t; and when Lazarus’ story is fully revealed it is, remarkably, only pathos that remains.

Ultimately a story of how we, as humans, deal with grief and loss, 8 is a impressive debut feature for Harold Holscher and one that – thanks to its roots in South African folklore – also feels fresh, new and exciting.

**** 4/5

8 screened at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival on Saturday July 20th.

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