Published Oct 24, 20198: A South African Horror Story is a welcome respite from cookie-cutter possession films, owing in large part to its commitment to highlighting uniquely South African folk myths. It's different, yet familiar, a well-trodden path of lost children, haunted forests and creeping demons. There's a little too much atmosphere and not enough trajectory keeping the story going, but even when the camera lingers too long on South Africa's stunning landscape, we can forgive it some indulgence.
In the backwoods of 1977 South Africa, a white family — William (Gareth Breytenbach), his wife Sarah (Inge Beckmann), and William's recently orphaned young niece Mary (Keita Luna) — inherit William's family farmhouse. Hoping to transform the ramshackle old house into something resembling a home, former city-dweller William unsuccessfully grapples with the broken-down generator, while Sarah, nervous and unsure about her new role as surrogate mother, sulks. Mary, taking advantage of her preoccupied guardians, wanders into the nearby forest and meets Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe), an elderly black man who used to work for William's father.
Despite Sarah's suspicions, William hires much more knowledgeable Lazarus as a farmhand. Mary and Lazarus, who has lost both his wife and daughter, develop a friendship as they bond over their shared grief. But despite his gentle demeanor, Lazarus is guarding a terrible secret, one concerning his long-dead daughter and an ancient, hungry demon that threatens Lazarus, the community that's ostracized him, and Mary herself.
The film's central mythologies and demons are darkly disturbing creatures of shadow, smoke and flame, three visual elements of which 8 makes fantastic use. Death is everywhere in 8, often represented as both something beautiful — the warm glow of a candle, a delicate moth, a heartfelt burial for a dead caterpillar — and sinister. But it's always carefully positioned within the cyclical rhythms of nature. Death creates life, and takes life away. Until, of course, an evil spirit arrives to upset this delicate balance.
The great thing about folk horror from non-Eurocentric sources is that it makes a film's twists and turns more difficult to predict. It's a welcome breath of fresh air amidst a multitude of more familiar conventions, and even when the film plays to more traditional horror tropes like exorcisms and depictions of the afterlife, its still through a mostly non-white lens. Grief, loss and the nature of familial bonds are universal themes, and emotionally resonant despite the setting.
The inclusion of a white family within this South African folktale, one set during the apartheid era no less, makes for some thought-provoking moments of racial tension. Perhaps not wanting to make this the focus of the film, director Harold Hölscher's doesn't linger on these themes, but it feels odd to almost exclude them entirely, considering the fraught time period in which 8 is set. But to its credit, the narrative isn't centered around them — rather, their story and Lazarus's are given equal weight, and William and his family, who essentially hold more power and privilege, are powerless in the face of dark spirits they don't understand.
We spend nearly half the film with Lazarus, as well as with the tribe that's ostracized him, as the villagers and elder Obara (Chris April) struggle with both the danger Lazarus poses as well as their sympathy for his predicament. They're not portrayed as ignorant, superstitious or backwards — simply a community with its own very specific, very terrifying problem to deal with, along with institutionalized racism and the ways that manifests. Their own culture is being erased, but only they have generations' worth of knowledge to fight a demon.
8 occasionally gets too wrapped up in its own haunting beauty, making for several scenes that could have flowed a bit smoother had it not been for another prolonged shot of an orange sunrise cresting over mountains. A speedier pace would have made these moments of beauty a more welcome break from the action. But it's fascinating and rewarding to experience spooky myths and legends often ignored in North America, and 8's refreshing take on a possession story makes it engaging and powerful.
(Man Makes a Picture Productions)