Review by Darren Gaskell
Financial hardship forces William (Garth Breytenbach) to return to the run-down farm he’s inherited from his father. Intending to renovate the property with an eye on selling it, he enlists the help of Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe) who had previously worked there. As William’s wife Sarah (Inge Beckmann) and adopted daughter Mary (Keita Luna) try to adapt to their new surroundings, the situation is helped initially by the kindness of Lazarus and the bond he develops with Mary. But there’s much more to Lazarus than meets the eye…
It’s always pleasing to see different takes on horror from around the globe and this first foray into feature films from writer/director Harold Hölscher gives the viewer a fascinating insight into South Africa, with all its beautiful landscapes, societal contradictions and tribal mysticism. Through the filter of a spooky and tense genre flick there’s plenty of pleasingly woven comment about the issues still facing the country and it has much to say about the human condition besides.
It’s particularly interesting that the film doesn’t lapse into painting the de facto bad guy as an out and out villain. Yes, he does seem terrible things, but the story puts all of that into context and leaves us to ask ourselves what we would do in the same desperate situation. This is someone who drags their demons around with them in every sense of that phrase (watch the film and you’ll see).
He also doesn’t have it easy with locals, who know exactly what his game is and are ready to do spiritual battle with him if a specific line is crossed. This sets up what would normally be a by-the-numbers revenge subplot but even here this is introduced – and subsequently dealt with – in its own striking and unique way.
Of course, the tale isn’t going to work if you’re not invested in the characters and the performances are all terrific. Breytenbach elicits a great deal of sympathy as a man who just wants to do right by his family and is frustrated whenever he can’t reach the ideals he’s set for himself. Beckmann provides an intriguing counterpoint to this – Sarah is more pragmatic, more standoffish but equally weighted down by her inability to provide William with a child.
Keita Luna is definitely the sort of kid you want to see more of in horror films – engaging and naturalistic rather than teeth-grindingly precocious and her scenes with Sebe manage to be light and captivating even though they’re loaded with questions about our very existence, both on this plane and beyond.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of 8 is its refusal to allow the characters – or, indeed, the viewer – the luxury of any adherence to the safety net which generally comes as standard with horror stories which involve families and, more specifically, children. Threats to everyone in the piece loom large from very early on and there’s an effective feeling of dread throughout.
Even when it all seems fine, is it really? Well, you’ll have to watch it to find out but there’s a beautiful call back to the very beginning to the movie and a final image which will leave you with a good deal to consider afterwards. Yes, there are a couple of nifty jump scares and all the usual horror touchstones for genre fans but the story is rooted in something far more complex and fascinating to boot.
Belying its low budget with stunning cinematography, ingeniously crafted special effects and a talented cast bringing a smart story to vivid life (not to mention scary, down and dirty death), 8 is an unexpected treat. And there’s something terrifying in the shadows too. What more could you want?