'8': Film Review | Fantasia 2019

Courtesy of Fantasia
More intriguing for its unfamiliar setting than its action.

Harold Holscher's debut watches ancient witchcraft threaten a couple while they try to restore a family farm.

A folkloric horror film about inter-generational burdens and trying to be at home where you don't belong, Harold Holscher's 8 follows a family as they settle into a farmhouse haunted by dark deeds. Notable more for its South African setting and serious execution than for the specifics of its story or scares, it will likely encourage curiosity about the country's current filmmaking scene, which has sent a few standouts (like Nosipho Dumisa's Number 37) to the fest circuit in the last couple of years.

Keita Luna plays Mary, who since her parents' death lives in the care of uncle William (Garth Breytenbach) and aunt Sarah (Inge Beckmann). The latter is nervous and prone to snapping, insecure in her new role of surrogate mother, while the former just wants to get things fixed around this family farmhouse they've come to revive.

"You have returned," a local elder (Chris April's Obara) says ominously shortly after we watch the family move in. But is he speaking of them, or of the mysterious Lazarus, who wanders the woods by himself in a long coat with a heavy leather sack? Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe) once belonged to the small black community that lives on a corner of the white family's property, but tragedy struck him and, mad with grief, he seems to have made some kind of deal with the devil. There's a fearsome creature inside that heavy bag; the bright-eyed, sharp-toothed thing may have once been Lazarus' daughter, or maybe he just thinks that. Whatever the case, all it ever wants is to climb out of the bag and feed.

Lazarus befriends Mary as the curious, fearless girl is out exploring the property and tending to some pet silkworms. He shows her a rotting monkey's corpse, full of writhing maggots, and points out that death and life are linked. Even without hearing this loaded exchange, Sara wants her adopted child to have nothing to do with the wanderer. But Lazarus is solicitous: He used to work on this property, and is deferential in offering his help to the new owners. Will is grateful. But off in the locals' village, Obara declares, "He is back. He is dangerous."

Much remains unsaid as Holscher's script calmly lays the groundwork for conflict to come. The filmmaker has said he took inspiration from local lore, but there's little indication here what is invention and what is ancient belief. The film's title is a shape representing the meeting point between the physical world and the one beyond; hairy, patient moths seem to hold the souls of some unfortunates, though why some people meet this fate is unclear. What is clear is that Lazarus is bound to that thing in his sack, and is in no hurry to unleash it on the unsuspecting family giving him work.

The character who presumably has the most power in this scenario, Will, has the least sense of what's going on around him; he's doomed to play the interloper when, among the villagers, he sees disagreements about how to deal with Lazarus. While she's more open to the strange information around her, Mary isn't quite the intrepid heroine little girls play in, say, Pan's Labyrinth. Though she does wind up venturing into another plane, we don't really share any sense of discovery with her. The film's sympathy is with Lazarus, stuck in a deal made under the influence of desperation; and with Sarah, who turns out to be more right than she could reasonably expect. In one of its few really creepy moments, 8 hints at a link between the two that puts them both in the thrall of powers we still don't understand.

Production company: Man Makes a Picture
Cast: Keita Luna, Tshamano Sebe, Inge Beckmann, Garth Breytenbach, Chris April
Director-screenwriter: Harold Holscher
Producer: Jac Williams
Director of photography: David Pienaar
Production designer: Pieter Bosman
Editor: Jacques Le Roux
Composer: Elben Schutte
Venue: Fantasia Film Festival

98 minutes