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by Jay Seaver

"Features the sort of horror villain who's too good to be described as one."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The demon, of sorts, at the center of "8" is a sad, guilty one, something which makes for a different sort of thriller than the fairly traditional opening implies; it's as much the story of someone bound to something supernatural as those facing it, which means that filmmaker Harold Holscher doesn't have save the sense of tragedy that goes with these stories entirely for after he's done stringing the audience along.

Set "somewhere in South Africa", it introduces the audience to Mary (Keita Luna), a precocious young girl who has come to the country with uncle William (Garth Breytenbach) and aunt Sarah (Inge Beckmann) after the death of William's grandfather. The farm has seen better days and the house at the center is far too large for such a small, modest family. They soon meet "Lazarus" (Tshamano Sebe), who says he used to work for Master Zeke and who quickly befriends Mary, but there's something strange about the drifter, with other locals unwilling to take work on the farm if he's around and some even calling him a demon.

Small things give 8 a distinct, South African identity; the very time it takes place, in 1977, seems too late for this kind of story in many locations, like the rest of the world is more settled, but here these sort of old family mansions are just starting to become obsolete. It makes "Lazarus" feel even more like a lingering remnant of something else, which the white family doesn't understand but the locals do. There is mistrust between the various groups that needs little explanation but forms a real barrier, but one which is part of the landscape rather than the most central point of the film. It's an extra layer of tension that keeps the audience from ever getting too complacent.

The film doesn't coast on its particular setting, though. It's a great little scary story, with dangerous gentility serving a more plainly monstrous entity from the start. The tension is built on nervous hope that some sort of basic decency will counter the need for a fight that many of the characters don't seem like they can win. It's shot on great-looking locations, with striking changes of scenery and style that let Holscher shift the tone from spooky western to manor-house haunting to psychedelic horror as need be, letting what can at its heart be a bit of a traditional ghost story bits play out in handsome style. The way it progresses through genres in that sort of order serves to stretch the timeline a bit, making the story feel more grandiose and epic.

That's enhanced by Tsamano Sebe's fine performance, which seems a bit out of time itself, like he doesn't belong in the same milieu as the rest of the cast. It's the sort of performance that makes the audience want to find a way out of things, because there's a wise, experienced core to this man that lets Sebe create real connections with William and Sarah while also showing how that sort of connection can lead to a truly horrible inability to let go. There's charm to the rest of the cast, with Garth Breytenbach and Keita Luna making a natural father/daughter pair, with William's understated weariness and tendency to feel overwhelmed a fine contrast to Sarah's curiosity and openness. Special notice should also go to the ballerina playing Lazarus's late daughter, donning the creepiest makeup to move in unearthly fashion when it's time for the menace to be more than implied.

It doesn't become exactly what one might expect at that point, and even the revelation of what the title refers to is kind of nifty, clever without being too complicated. It's a singular ghost story that mixes the familiar parts up in intriguing ways.

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originally posted: 03/18/20 09:04:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Harold Holscher

Written by
  Harold Holscher

  Inge Beckmann
  Garth Breytenbach
  Tshamano Sebe
  Chris April
  Keita Luna

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