8 made its world premiere at Fantasia Festival 2019.
We’ve seen a growing number of titles in the folk-horror subgenre as of late, drawing inspiration from classic lore and presenting typically bleak, slow-burn terror tales, and Harold Holscher’s 8 certainly fits within that general descriptor. But while this South African thriller may fit within the confines of the recent folk-horror trend, it proves itself a unique and well crafted experience.
In 8, a man named William (Garth Breytenbach) is taking his wife and niece to his childhood farm to take care of it after the passing of his father. The niece, Mary (Keita Luna), is a creative, adventurous child who is collecting caterpillars and exploring the nearby forest when she happens upon a man named Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe), who, unbeknownst to Mary and her family, has been cursed years prior for attempting to resurrect his daughter from the dead.
Lazarus is kind and gentle, and William desperately needs help getting the place back up and running, so despite the objection from his wife, Sarah (Inge Beckmann), he allows Lazarus to stay in the shed in exchange for helping around the farm.
Shot in the beautiful South African countryside, the film’s earthy palette complements the dark, folkloric narrative, in which Lazarus must steal souls by night in order to appease the demons who cursed him. Showcasing some expert lighting and gorgeous vistas, cinematographer David Pienaar deftly brings this dark fairytale to life.
Though set in the present day, or thereabouts, there’s a timelessness to the locale, with very few modern amenities, accentuating the isolation in which they live. There is a native tribe on the neighboring land, however, who are all too familiar with Lazarus, waiting for their moment to end his plight upon their people. They warn William but Lazarus convinces him that it’s they who are the dangerous ones.
William’s blind stubbornness proves to be a frustration as the film progresses, chalking Sarah’s increasing distrust and fear of Lazarus up to stress. Of course, this blind naivety will come back to haunt him after the demon haunting Lazarus instructs him to target Mary as his next victim.
Tshamano Sebe leads a commanding performance as Lazarus, a complex character who proves to be neither hero nor villain. He’s a man wrought with hardship and grief, and while he’s bound to commit unspeakable acts, he’s always remorseful of his actions. Although he’s the perpetrator, it’s his resurrected daughter, who he strangely keeps in a sack made out of skin, who provides the terror.
Leaning heavily on jump scares with an added supernatural element that’s never quite explored, 8 has Sarah and Mary periodically seeing the spirits of whom, I would suspect, were people taken by Lazarus as a word of warning. This leads to some slightly baffling set pieces that, while effective, don’t seem to fit within the context of the overall plot — as if Holscher, who also penned the script, felt like he needed to add some more scares.
Atmospheric and unsettling, 8 utilizes moody visuals and excellent sound design to deliver a satisfying folk-horror story that, while inconsistent, is well worth a look.