South African Folkloric Horror Comes to the Fantasia Film Festival with 8

“Horror” isn’t a one-size-fits-all label at the Fantasia International Film Festival, wrapping up today. The fest⁠—North America’s largest devoted to genre film⁠—gives viewers bloody horror, action horror, psychological horror, horror comedy, slow-burn horror, musical horror… and, in the case of 8, folkloric horror. Atmospheric, immersive, and boasting a measured pace, 8 had its world premiere a the fest, with writer/director Harold Hölscher. Keita Luna stars as Mary, a young girl who moves with her adoptive parents—William (Garth Breytenbach) and Sarah (Inge Beckmann)—to a remote farm in South Africa once run by William’s father. Mary’s first friend in her new home is Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe), the farm’s old caretaker, who comes back to claim his old job with some demons in tow. Well, one demon, to be literal—one that he keeps in a sack, its presence the result of a deal made with a trickster deity following a personal catastrophe years prior. Dreamy and lyrical, with shades of Pan’s Labyrinth or the early, blood tales of the Brothers Grimm, 8 marks an assured debut from Hölscher, who took the time to chat about his film and its theatrical prospects.

What drew you to folklore? Is it something you’ve always been interested in?

Always. It just fascinates me, the spiritual side, the mystical side of life. I think because I come from this lineage of pastors. I grew up in a very, very Christian house. And I sort of rebelled against that completely. The mystical sides of all religions fascinate me. Kabbalah in Judaism. I’ve studied the Bhagavad Gita. There’s always this interesting, “What is behind the curtain?” thing for me. If you got to Africa, holy shit, man, it just doesn’t stop. It’s a big marriage, now, after the West came in. It’s this blurred line of witchcraft and ancestors and all that type of stuff. Like, you’re a Christian, but you believe in ancestors. South Africa, especially. We’ve got 11 official languages. There are so many cultures there. The biggest Indian population outside of India is in South Africa. We’ve got the Afrikaans, which comes from the Dutch and the French. We’ve got the English. And then we’ve got all the different tribes—we’ve got the Venda, the Pedi, the Xhosa, the Zulu. All that makes this one big thing. 

Do those different groups blend together in South Africa? Or are things still pretty segregated?

In South Africa, we want to be [less segregated]. And we are becoming [that way]. Johannesburg, the most. And that’s why I love Johannesburg. I come from Johannesburg. Moved to Cape Town recently. The thing with Johannesberg as well, you get all the influx from the North. All the Zimbabweans, all the Kenyans, the Ghanaians. It’s this immense melting pot, a smorgasbord of religions and cultures and beliefs and folklores and myths. You know what’s interesting? You see something in Africa, but if you follow it again you will see it somewhere else in the world… Like Mami Wata, the River Goddess. She basically lures men into the water at night, and then she kills them.

We spoke before about independent South African films like this, and like Five Fingers for Marseilles for example, and how they can be a tough sell in the South African theatrical market. Can you elaborate on why that is?

I think the competition, first and foremost. Remember, if you’ve got money to go and watch a flick on a big screen and you’ve got Marvel in front of you, and then you’ve got the American horrors, and all the well-marketed studio pictures, you’d rather go have an experience, to go and watch a flick like that. Our main goal with 8 was that at least if you go and sit and watch this film, it’s an immersive experience. We really focused on the immersion.

It’s a gorgeous film.

We really focused on that: If you go watch it in a movie theater, let’s let the audience escape. The sound is great. It’s quality, right? But South Africa is difficult. You asked me before about the indie market there before—all South African flicks are indie flicks. There are no massive studio pictures. If you know the budgets that we’re working on to make the quality that we do, you’d be like “What?! Insane. I can’t believe you guys are doing these films.” That’s what’s beautiful about South African filmmakers—you make it on a shoestring budget, and it looks insane.

Also, the marketing machine. One thing the States does so well is, you know exactly how to market your films. In South Africa, because we have such small budgets, by the time that we put it on screens, we’ve got nothing left. You have no money for marketing.

And then you have a limited amount of time to make back your money before it gets pushed out of theaters for a bigger film.

That’s what 8 wants to do. We want to kick open the door of distribution and understand, “How can we make a success of this film?” Thank God if it works well in other territories [and] we don’t have to make our money back in South Africa. It won’t hinge on South Africa. But if we could reach the audience in South Africa, it means that the audience came to watch the film.

If it happens that 8 gets into the big multiplexes in South Africa, and it doesn’t reach audiences and gets pushed out: are there independent cinemas in the country where it could go and thrive?

To be honest, we have got a very small cinemagoing culture. Someone told me yesterday that they went to see Spider-Man: Homecoming on a Friday night, eight o’clock, and there were three people in the cinema. When I went to go see Five Fingers, there was no one in the cinema. I felt bad [on behalf of] my peers. Like, geez, guys. It was a great ensemble cast, it was geared towards the right market, they did everything right.

Why do you think that is? You’ve mentioned that movie tickets are expensive in South Africa.

It’s quite expensive in South Africa.

Why is the moviegoing culture small?

I don’t know. There are two or three cinemas—the Bioscope in Johannesburg, the Labia [Theatre] in Cape Town. They’re amazing, but they will never pull in the sales that you need just to break even. And South African films are still trying to break even. We’re not trying to make a profit. That’s why we have to make films with such small budgets. Three million dollars for South Africa is huge. It’s huge. No one shoots movies with that amount of money. All the movies that you see, quality ones, were shot for less than that. It’s insane what you can do in South Africa. Our crews are world class. Cape Town is booming with productions. Ridley Scott’s shot there. “Black Sails” has been shot there.

There’s definitely a market out there internationally for more slow-burn, arthouse horror.

Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson are perfect examples of foreign directors that made insane films and broke into the American markets. Pan’s Labyrinth was a foreign film, Spanish, with no recognizable names. Weird horror. And it did amazing. I like clever horror. I like ghost horror. Horror is like metal. There are so many sub-genres. 

I can definitely see 8 as Gothic-adjacent. It has a somewhat claustrophobic nature. It’s very character-driven, and the supernatural elements are at the service of that.

Totally. There are not a lot of jump scares. I was told to ramp up the jump scares, but I was like, “I’m not going to do that.” I love the response, that I can talk about my film and there are questions [about it]. But the questions aren’t about plot holes. It’s a thought-provoking piece. At the end of the day, it’s my responsibility as a filmmaker to take you away for an hour and a half, two hours. I was wondering with 8, [how long it would take me to put people into] that world? How long does it take you to be, “OK, I actually believe what this guy’s trying to sell me here”? Hopefully, with 8, that’s happening. It is a slow burn in the beginning, and then when the story starts, you really start to get momentum.

Yeah, it is a slow-burn movie.

It was even slower! I had to take about 15 minutes off.

Of what?

It was just exposition, really. Because it’s a character-driven thing, I was focusing a lot on the family dynamics, a lot on Sarah and Mary’s relationship, how Sarah is cruel towards Mary because she’s jealous. 

I feel like you got that even without that extra 15 minutes.

It’s lovely to know that the characters are so well developed that you can still lose, lose, lose, and it just makes it more intriguing.

The actress who plays Sarah is amazing.

She is amazing, in a big way. I really hope she breaks into the American market. She’s been in [“Troy: Fall of a City”]. She’s been in these American dramas. I think the casting [for 8] was really good. There’s no one where you’re like, “Ugh.” Even if you don’t like Sarah, it’s fine. Sarah’s not supposed to be a lovable character.

She and Lazarus are the characters who behave the worst, but they were the most interesting characters for me. They do bad things, but you can understand where they’re coming from.

That’s the key. How does one feel? Sarah’s behavior is justifiable. I had to, unfortunately, lose a lot around Sarah.

You told me a bit about the next movie you’re working—sort of a horror movie that’s a metaphor for the way a wasp fertilizes a fig?

It’s fucked up movie, man. it’s slavery and feminism and self-sacrifice and family ordeals. It’s basically about a family that lives the same nightmare every single winter. They wake up, boom. [It’s set in] turn of the century South Africa. I’m really fascinated [by that period]. A woman gets sent in by the ancestors to go and save this family. She can only save this family if she can save herself. The logline is literally, you can’t run from the ghosts of your pasts.

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