So often, American film tropes are looked to as the golden standard, a potential guide for international filmmakers who want to make it big in Hollywood. But there is nothing more satisfying than seeing an indie horror film that is not from the U.S. utilize certain tropes in order to highlight a unique story. This is the case in Harold Hölscher’s feature film debut, 8: A South African Horror. Hölscher gives a well-tread story of worlds colliding a breath of fresh air by incorporating South African folklore, racial tensions, and beautiful visuals. 8, while not persistently scary, is a melancholy fairytale the likes of which the Grimm Brothers have never seen.
The film begins in 1977 with a downtrodden trio heading to their new home. Couple William (Garth Breytenbach) and Sarah (Inge Beckmann) have taken in his sister’s child, Mary (Keita Luna), after her parents’ deaths. Each is full of their own sadness, from mourning parents to mourning the inability to become pregnant. But this farm will be a fresh start for them, a place where they’ll come together as a family. Then, they meet Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe), a mysterious man who lives in the woods surrounding the farm who carries a suspiciously large bag. He asks William for a job, explaining that he once worked for William’s father and would love to help in anyway he can. Mary and Lazarus strike up a friendship, finding understanding and compassion in one another. Yet, he is not what he seems.
What the family doesn’t know is that Lazarus made a deal with a demon who feeds on souls. He thought it would save his daughter, but really it only cursed him with a horrendous purpose. He must carry the demon in his large bag and make sure to satiate its hunger. This deal with evil has made Lazarus a pariah to the local village and a suspicious stranger to the new family; grief has isolated Lazarus and turned him into a murderer. He must decide if he would rather continue feeding the demon or save Mary from a grisly fate.
While each performance in 8 comes together to create a tapestry of grief, Sebe’s performance as Lazarus is the piece de resistance. He creates a complex character who is both villain and victim. You shrink away as you watch him search for his next victim, but then love him as he speaks with Mary about the soul. You do not want to forgive his actions but you understand them; what would you do if you were offered the chance to save your only child? Sebe is able to capture that tension in his performance, thus creating a sympathetic villain.
South Africa in 1977 was a place of instability and violence as black South Africans fought against apartheid. A student uprising took place just the year before, black political leaders were being imprisoned, and yet white leaders were still elected into places of power. All of this serves as a tumultuous background for the unfolding story, yet none of it is ever mentioned in the film. Rather, we are focused on the microcosm of the farm and how racial tensions manifest between just a few people.
Yet, the film’s detriment is not incorporating more of its political context into its storytelling. We are told the date at the film’s very beginning, but it never seems to come into play again. There are already prevalent racial tensions as the white family moves into the big farm while the black villagers live on its borders. Lazarus calls William, “master,” and is forced to live in a dirt-floored shack on the farm’s property. Perhaps these moments of racial tension are all that’s needed, but placing the film in such a specific time feels more important. But with what the film lacks in context it makes up with including the more evil side of South African folklore.
International cinema is important. Specifically, international horror cinema is important. Giving attention to international films is important. Sure, the French New Wave is gassed up in film classes and if you’re lucky you’ve had access to diverse film libraries. But rarely do those libraries include films from any African filmmakers. 8: A South African Horror showcases horror filmmaking from a place not often seen in the genre and serves as a reason why these films shouldn’t been missed. By leaning on the country’s folkloric tradition and certain American horror tropes, Hölscher creates an atmospheric film and an absolutely entertaining experience.