By Ali Moosavi.
The term “horror film” is often used as a short cut for a variety of movies that contain either scares, suspense or, on rare occasions, both. Therefore, it includes everything from slasher movies to psychological horror; from stories based on normal everyday life to those containing para-normal and supernatural occurrences.
From South Africa comes Soul Collector (2019), formerly known as 8; a supernatural horror film, laced with psychological elements.
In a creepy prologue we are introduced to Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe), a mysterious character who carries with him a strange bag containing a demonic creature. Lazarus appears to be the “soul collector” draining the soul of people with a strange ritual which includes the creature in the bag and a moth! Meanwhile, a couple with their adopted daughter arrive to occupy the house of the husband’s deceased father. The wife is uneasy about the place from the start, especially when a group of local people gather around the house. The time is 1977: South Africa is still under the Apartheid system, giving the confrontation between the white couple and the black locals a racial dimension. Lazarus works his way into this family’s lives by fending off the locals and makes a telekinetic connection with the little daughter. The Swan Lake theme is used throughout the movie as a warning of something supernatural and likely dreadful about to happen. Director Harold Holscher, whose first feature film this is (discounting a TV movie that he made previously), mixes elements of supernatural with psychological to create suspense and dish out the scares. He talked to Film International about his film.
How are you coping during lockdown?
Quite well! I’ve got a film that’s come out, and I’ve managed to complete a script as well.
I noticed that the name of the film changed from 8 to The Soul Collector.
Yes, that decision was made by the US distributor, but thankfully it’s all linked on IMDb!
Is the film based on any South African mythology?
It is loosely based on South African folklore, yes. For example, the demon girl is similar in appearance to the Tokoloshe [a dwarf-like water sprite of Zulu/Xhosa mythology]. The Lazarus character with the bag and the moths are also taken from folkloric aspects.
The biggest aspect of Zulu/Xhosa mythology that is incorporated into the film is that of Umphafa. This is a ritual that is performed if someone has died far from home. Bodies are traditionally buried in the homestead, and it is believed that in this case the soul may not accompany it. So, people will go to see a healer, who will go to an Umphafa tree and take a branch. The healer will make a prayer so that the soul possesses the tree branch, and then return to the homestead with the now-possessed tree branch, talking to the spirit along the way to calm it. At the homestead the branch will be given to a goat; if the goat eats the branch, it will be sacrificed. If not, then the ritual was unsuccessful and will need to be performed again.
I was blown away by this custom and wondered what would happen if someone collected these souls; this led to the conception of the character of Lazarus.
The aerial shots that follow the prologue reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). I was also reminded of The Shining in the relationship between Lazarus and the little girl Mary in this film, and how both share a gift similar to the relationship between Danny Torrance and Dick Hallorann.
Thank you; The Shining is my favourite film of all time! I did want to pay homage with that opening, but with regards to Mary and Lazarus, my interest was in the relationship between a young girl and older man, and the inherent danger that comes from that, especially in 1977 South Africa.
Was the setting of 1977 a deliberate attempt to bring in themes of apartheid and race?
The time period stemmed more from my love of horror films from those years; I didn’t want to put any political spin on the film, it was more that I didn’t see this as a “modern” horror film. The literal divide between the black and white communities during the apartheid era did lend a tension and mystery to the film, though; the fear of the unknown behind the walls.
Throughout the film our perception of certain characters shifts. For example, Sarah starts off as a nagging, racist character, but becomes more sympathetic as the film goes on. The character of Lazarus initially appears to be a sort of “avenging angel”, protecting the family from local gangs, but throughout the course of the film our perception of him changes as well.
It’s always important for me to create complex characters. All of the characters in this film carry a sense of guilt, often from a sense of loss, and each of them has an almost “shadow self”, the yang to their yin. I want to make sure the audience never truly has a grip on the characters, to keep them guessing.
With regards to the film’s cinematography, I noted that natural light was often incorporated, often with candles or torches.
It was very important for me and the cinematographer David Pienaar to create a romantic, classical feel; along with the use of natural light you may have noticed some long zooms, keeping the camera on a tripod [instead of handheld], etc. Along with [gaffer] Tobie Smuts we decided to shoot with really wide lenses and push the camera and lenses to give us that [natural light] effect.
We wanted to avoid touching up the image too much in post-production, so it was important for us to get the look we wanted mostly in-camera.
The sound design is a key factor in the film.
Yes, we worked very closely with Simon Ratcliffe, Sound & Motion (http://soundandmotion.co.za/) and Pressure Cooker (https://pressurecookerstudios.co.za/) from pre-production to create the soundscape. We had the idea of creating a “binary” between the Western side and the African side with regards to the sound. With the Western family, the sound would be more orchestral, almost “Swan Lake”; with the African family we incorporated African instruments. With the lullaby that Lazarus sings, we used this deep beat that the actor sang in the sound design of the film itself.
The “I am the Wanderer” speech that bookends the film, almost seems to set the film up for a sequel…
Hahaha, we did see a lot of demand for that on Twitter, which seems to go against the ending and message of the film! “8”, the original title of the film, was chosen specifically for that reason. It’s a loop, similar to the symbol for infinity, that never ends, because evil never ends.
That said… I have jotted some ideas down for a wayyyy darker sequel that incorporates Sarah’s daughter and stuff gets real in Heaven on Earth… There have been talks, but I’m out of that world for now, I’m more into the African fairy-tale world currently with my new project.
The South African cinema first came to my attention in 1980 with The Gods Must Be Crazy. I didn’t hear much of it for years until the release of Tsotsi in 2005 and then District 9 in 2009. What is the current situation?
With those last two films, they both received a lot of foreign investment. With the current South African industry it would be impossible to produce films on such a budget with only local investment! It was hard for me to get financing for my first picture, though that is common with first-time filmmakers all over the world. I would like to go bigger with my new films; after the premiere of 8 in Canada I did get approached by American agents and producers, but I do believe the South African film industry should be doing more to encourage home-grown productions.
Thanks to Simon Abrams. (ed.)
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).