The recurring words spoken in Harold Holscher’s new Netflix horror 8 are ”moths” and ”worms.” These things are weaved into the film’s horror infrastructure, not necessarily as elements to gross out viewers, but as allegories about death and transfiguration. Coming off the back of previous shorts that embrace dark themes, 8 arrives on Netflix as Holscher’s full-length feature debut following its film festival run. The South African writer-director goes for high impact, pushing this South African folkloric chiller into the creepiest, darkest places.
Whether or not 8 succeeds in doing this is a question that might annoy horror die-hards looking for more inventive scares. Establishing atmosphere and tone right away, the opening frame shows a sickly, pale-faced elderly man lying in bed, he then reclines into his death when a mysterious man and his evil spawn of a companion come to take his soul. Considering this happens in broad daylight, the scare is rather effective. Holscher, using low camera angles to reveal the intruder, casts him as nothing more than a dark, faceless silhouette—a shot that highlights the director’s technical dexterity.
What happens after this is a new beginning: William (Garth Breytenbach) and his wife Sarah (Inge Beckmann), along with their adopted daughter Mary (Keita Luna) arrive at a farmhouse which belonged to his just-deceased father in 1977. The family’s arrival carries tonal echoes of pre-existing horror productions where houses are haunted (Poltergeist, The Conjuring) and others which eventually spiral into disintegration and domestic decay (The Shining, Pet Sematary). We are keenly aware that Williams happens not to be suspicious of his father’s death.
“8 utilises horror to examine human nature and the complicit participation of our destruction.”
His wife Sarah, all aristocratic steel and high jaw, on the other hand feels something isn’t right about Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe), the stray-looking man who has befriended their daughter out of nowhere. Lazarus is baked in dirt, hair riotously shaggy, body screaming for a bath. But he’s no ordinary man. He’s a sangoma in a pact with a demon called Uthuli, reincarnating with the body of his dead daughter and lords over Lazarus to deliver souls to him. The creature design is remarkable – talons, sharp teeth, crooked back – and matches the sheer, asymmetrical grotesqueness of Guillermo del Toro’s monsters.
Mary, who’s on the cusp of adolescence, is caustically articulate and maintains a morbid interest in the supernatural. Maybe that’s why she and Lazarus are drawn to each other, weaving around themselves creepy fantasies of pet silkworm burials and pinkie friendship pledges. More importantly, they find in each other the phantoms of people they have lost. For Mary, it’s her parents. For Lazarus, it’s his family, his daughter dying in a fire after his wife died during childbirth.
At William’s request, Lazarus is sheltered in the yard. Sweet and soft-spoken, William tries to check all the boxes of a good husband. Here, in their new bucolic environment teeming with trees and winding foliage, William is carved into shapes of handy, sweaty physical masculinity: bulb fixing, wood chopping, generator servicing. All the while, Sarah’s paranoia about Lazarus heightens.
8 | Official Trailer | Netflix
8 utilises horror to examine human nature and the complicit participation of our destruction. Are we who we say we are? Can we confront our own inner demons? While the film’s piece-by-piece exposition sums the motives of its characters nicely, never once overwhelming the viewer, the plot does run into pockets of inertia with its severely slow pacing. The characters, especially Mary, spends too much time drifting around the yard, and without any payoff. Sarah mostly hides herself away in the sombre cavity of the house, letting her disapproval of Mary’s association with Lazarus swallow her whole. When she speaks, her sentences are clipped and often roll out as an order.
With William around, their marriage doesn’t seem to have a nourishing, emotional core, almost flattened by larger plot influences. The plot itself doesn’t unravel any kind of strains in their relationship or festering resentment, only that Sarah can’t have a child of her own. The film’s trailer had a strong, visceral imagery with high emotional stakes, but juxtaposing it against the full duration, the horror beats feel muted and under-developed. On other accounts, 8 is carried by the drawn-out tics of Tshamano’s acting, who shifts from bloodless, demon-controlled killer to guilt-ridden pariah. The final moments where Uthuli comes for Mary’s lily-white innocence might be borderline absurd, it serves bits of South African witchcraft and the existential riff between good and evil.
Circling back to the year again, 1977, Holscher supplants his horror picture in a South Africa still steeped in apartheid, where its black and white characters maintain skeletal interactions poisoned with extreme caution. Through this framing of time, Holscher smuggles in ugly nostalgia and perhaps drawing our attention to how modern South Africa still retain strains of segregation.
South African horror cinema has turned a corner since 1989’s seemingly low-budget Hellgate—now with more texture and sophistication as seen in postmodern offerings like The House on Willow Street (2016) and Rage (2020), Showmax’s first Original horror movie. The tonal similarity between The Tokoloshe (2018) and 8 is perhaps a signal that South Africa’s film industry is ripe for a folk-horror renaissance, and the world might just be ready too.