Saturday, August 03, 2019

Fantasia ’19: 8

Even without a great deal of knowledge regarding South African folklore, a mysterious stranger wearing a long duster coat and a wide brimmed hat still rings all kinds of archetypal bells for most of us. When he blows back into town bad things are likely to happen, as they do in Harold Holscher’s 8, which had its world premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

It has been quite the rough patch for William Zeil’s family. Having declared bankruptcy, he was forced to move back to his late father’s ramshackle farm, with his wife Sarah, and their niece Mary, whom they have just adopted, after the untimely death of her parents. Yet, they are still probably doing better than the nearest township. For years, an ancient evil has preyed on their souls, using their former shaman as the instrument of its will.

Lazarus is that man with the very film noir outfit. He too has recently returned to the hardscrabble region, setting off waves of panic. However, he is handy with his hands, so Zeil obliviously takes him on as a temp farmhand, despite his wife’s objections. Her reservations are mostly rooted in fear and prejudice, but she happens to be right in this case. Lazarus’s real goal is to win Mary’s trust for sinister reasons involving the thing in his over-sized satchel.

It is definitely true Lazarus is all kinds of bad news, but there is more to him than your standard horror movie bogeyman. Having made a Faustian bargain during a moment of sudden and complete despair, Lazarus is now a remorseful monster, who regrets each soul he is forced to take. In some ways, he is a throwback to Lon Chaney Jr.’s angst-ridden Wolfman, which makes the use of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake—so memorable as the theme to the original Universal Dracula and Mummy movies—as a recurring motif in 8 so appropriate.

Without a doubt, Tshamo Sebe’s performance as Lazarus and his character’s relationship with Mary are the most interesting aspects of 8. On the other hand, her adoptive Zeil parents are both rather clumsy and spectacularly unintuitive stereotypes. Even more problematically, the monster in the bag is more likely to inspire laughter than nightmares. Frankly, that could have been a case where less would have been more.

Still, steely Sebe is quite a force to behold. He covers quite a bit of ground, projecting pathos and supernatural malignancy. David Pienaar’s cinematography also impresses, conveying the isolation of the region, as well as a musty, redolent sense of decay. Recommended for horror fans in the mood for something more atmospheric, 8 should ride a wave of buzz on the festival circuit, after its premiere at this year’s Fantasia.