Every culture has its own myths and legends, but their core truths often remain the same when it comes to human behavior. People are people, no matter the birth place or language, and we typically react in similar fashion when confronted with extreme trauma and emotion surrounding the fine line between life and death. Writer/director Harold Holscher‘s feature debut is South African in its specifics, but the horror at the center of 8 is recognizable as one shared by humanity worldwide.
Mary (Keita Luna) is an orphan having lost her parents to death’s cold grip, but she arrives in South Africa with her adopted parents after they’ve lost something of their own. Namely, they’ve lost their home and nest egg to bankruptcy leaving them forced to settle down on a rundown farm inherited from forgotten relatives. It’s a struggle for all involved, and while William (Garth Breytenbach) works to make the homestead livable, Sarah (Inge Beckmann) tries to be the mother she’s always wanted to be despite a biology uninterested in granting her that wish. A grizzled and sad man named Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe) arrives with a good work ethic, experience as a laborer on this very farm, and a sack… with something writhing and hungry inside.
Holscher’s film brings Lazarus and this family together for a story about grief — the causes and misfortunes, but more so the dangerous ways in which we respond to it. There’s plenty of horror to mine from the topic, but while something like Hereditary (2018) presses our souls and faces into the abject misery of unchecked grief, 8 pairs it with a story about life, death, and local mythology. The result is a solid little chiller that stands apart more for its cultural specifics and South African scenery than its execution.
While Mary and her new parents are the structural protagonists here — they’re the newcomers who find more than they bargained for after moving into a house and landscape steeped in history and magic — it’s Lazarus who takes center stage throughout the film. Mary’s grieving her parents, and both William and Sarah are grieving their old life and her inability to bear her own children, but it’s Lazarus’ grief that pulls all involved into a nightmare. The locals know as much and have feared his return, and it’s his story that holds viewer attention throughout.
Holscher teases out Lazarus’ tale through the man’s dialogue exchanges — he befriends young Mary before ingratiating himself into the job — and the warnings of the local villagers living outside of the family’s property. While the family is white and the locals black, race is kept as a minor element here. The expectation would be to make it a major part of Lazarus’ trauma, but it’s instead his own actions that lead to irreversible guilt, regret, and pain, and in turn that leads to horror for others as well.
Human souls sit at the center of it all as it explores that point where life and death touch, and the film uses local mythologies involving butterflies and moths to symbolize essences beyond our earthly comprehension. It’s unclear how much is based on lore and how much is crafted specifically for the film, but it works to lay the groundwork for a story that touches on the results of love against reason in the vein of W.W. Jacobs’ classic “The Monkey’s Paw.” It’s more directly come to the screen in film’s like Bob Clark’s Deathdream (1974) and the more recent (and abysmal) Wish Upon (2017), but Holscher gives it his own spin here to engaging effect.
Grief is a universal experience, and it can be handled poorly no matter the language or culture. Sometimes it just results in unwanted drama, but sometimes, in ends in murder, bloodshed, and the unearthly sound of flesh tearing beneath once-human teeth.