The recurring words spoken in Harold Holscher’s new Netflix horror 8 are ”moths” and ”worms.” These things are weaved into the film’s horror infrastructure, not necessarily as elements to gross out viewers, but as allegories about death and transfiguration. Coming off the back of previous shorts that embrace dark themes, 8 arrives on Netflix as Holscher’s full-length feature debut following its film festival run. The South African writer-director goes for high impact, pushing this South African folkloric chiller into the creepiest, darkest places.
Whether or not 8 succeeds in doing this is a question that might annoy horror die-hards looking for more inventive scares. Establishing atmosphere and tone right away, the opening frame shows a sickly, pale-faced elderly man lying in bed, he then reclines into his death when a mysterious man and his evil spawn of a companion come to take his soul. Considering this happens in broad daylight, the scare is rather effective. Holscher, using low camera angles to reveal the intruder, casts him as nothing more than a dark, faceless silhouette—a shot that highlights the director’s technical dexterity.
What happens after this is a new beginning: William (Garth Breytenbach) and his wife Sarah (Inge Beckmann), along with their adopted daughter Mary (Keita Luna) arrive at a farmhouse which belonged to his just-deceased father in 1977. The family’s arrival carries tonal echoes of pre-existing horror productions where houses are haunted (Poltergeist, The Conjuring) and others which eventually spiral into disintegration and domestic decay (The Shining, Pet Sematary). We are keenly aware that Williams happens not to be suspicious of his father’s death.
“8 utilises horror to examine human nature and the complicit participation of our destruction.”
His wife Sarah, all aristocratic steel and high jaw, on the other hand feels something isn’t right about Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe), the stray-looking man who has befriended their daughter out of nowhere. Lazarus is baked in dirt, hair riotously shaggy, body screaming for a bath. But he’s no ordinary man. He’s a sangoma in a pact with a demon called Uthuli, reincarnating with the body of his dead daughter and lords over Lazarus to deliver souls to him. The creature design is remarkable – talons, sharp teeth, crooked back – and matches the sheer, asymmetrical grotesqueness of Guillermo del Toro’s monsters.
Mary, who’s on the cusp of adolescence, is caustically articulate and maintains a morbid interest in the supernatural. Maybe that’s why she and Lazarus are drawn to each other, weaving around themselves creepy fantasies of pet silkworm burials and pinkie friendship pledges. More importantly, they find in each other the phantoms of people they have lost. For Mary, it’s her parents. For Lazarus, it’s his family, his daughter dying in a fire after his wife died during childbirth.
At William’s request, Lazarus is sheltered in the yard. Sweet and soft-spoken, William tries to check all the boxes of a good husband. Here, in their new bucolic environment teeming with trees and winding foliage, William is carved into shapes of handy, sweaty physical masculinity: bulb fixing, wood chopping, generator servicing. All the while, Sarah’s paranoia about Lazarus heightens.