8 is a horror mystery drama, which has just landed on Netflix. Starring Tshamano Sebe, Inge Beckmann, Garth Breytenbach and introducing Keita Luna, this is a truly South African production.
The film is directed by Harold Holscher, an up-and-coming director who has been working on the idea for the last decade. Essentially, the story is about a man who’s trying to atone for his daughter’s soul. Also known as The Soul Collector, the horror deals with folklore and traditional beliefs around the passage of a soul goes when you die.
In South African culture, many believe that when someone dies away from their home they require certain rituals in order to bring their souls home. This idea of souls being able to be captured forms the basis for 8, which deals with a clash of ideologies as an English family move into a rural family home only to discover a local man shunned by his community.
While the film leans on many horror clichés, it’s quite refreshing in the way it deals with its lead character. While positioned as a villain, Lazarus is also the film’s hero, essentially an anti-hero in wolf’s clothing. The character is constantly shape-shifting, at first seen as a predator and evil presence before being unfurled as a sympathetic character, whose big mistake has turned him into a good man forced to do evil acts. This character’s complexity is at the core of 8 and fuels the dramatic suspense.
It’s an ambitious and bold undertaking, which creates a great deal of intrigue as viewers try to figure out who to root for, but also dissipates much of the scare factor. While the filmmakers probably show too much too soon, which is a classic error when it comes to leveraging the audience’s imagination, the character is essentially straddling good and bad. It’s easy to figure out some of the more stereotypical characters in the film, but the puzzling lead takes the spotlight with Sebe enjoying some great moments opposite young Luna.
Tshamano’s lead performance is of such a high standard that it’s easy to enjoy the film and be captivated without feeling the true weight of suspense. The nostalgic, gentle tug of mystery is what maintains the enigmatic air about 8. Being further entrenched in the local culture’s mythos and the idea of collecting souls, the horror element is more of a skin than an objective.
While a great deal of care and thought has been invested in the making of 8, the screenplay is problematic. The screenwriter has gone to great lengths to focus on Lazarus and young Mary, creating some delicate to powerful moments, enabling some wonderful interplay and underlying tension. Unfortunately, the screenplay has not done enough to ground the married couple.
While the actors are able to help anchor and give these characters a sense of purpose, it’s never quite there. The relational dynamic seems disconnected, failing to connect the three as a family and while they are playing characters in a strained marriage, this is never quite fully expressed.
The characters serve as sounding boards, story devices in order to keep the film moving along but don’t seem to have their own thoughts, relying on some very basic motivations and reactions. While you get a sense of them, they are never completely formed and this lightweight approach has a bearing on the rest of the film. 8 is not aiming to be a psychological horror specifically but tends to have a fairly superficial treatment when it comes to exploring deeper human themes.
The film is able to maintain a good sense of momentum, starting out of the gates with strong horror elements. The usual modus operandi for horrors today is to start with strong drama, anchoring the characters and situation before diving into the real horror. Trying to extract the artistic merit and the popcorn blockbuster entertainment value simultaneously, 8 often finds itself hovering in no man’s land.
If the filmmakers had taken a bit more time to establish the drama and ground the characters, this would have automatically elevated the suspense and gone a long way to immersing the audience in the character’s inner lives.
Keeping things at an arm’s length, you don’t care for the characters as much as you ought to and this makes everything less consequential or resonant. While this noble effort shows great promise and achieves what it set out to do in many ways, some of these foundational elements could have led to a much more engaging, human drama and more effectual horror.