As Hollywood-backed horror films get dumber and more predictable, independent and foreign horror filmmakers continue to give genre fans unique and finely crafted cinematic experiences.
Harold Holscher’s debut feature film was well received at the 2019 Fantasia film festival and with good reason. “The Soul Collector” (originally titled “8”) is a smart and well-made horror tale that is quite effective and light years ahead of most of today’s big budget horror efforts.
Lazarus (an absolutely excellent Tshamano Sebe) was just a man who loved his daughter but is now a ghost of a father who bears a heavy spiritual burden that he, quite literally, carries with him every day inside a leather bag kept at his side.
Lazarus is a shaman who has been through a tragedy where he made a horrible sacrifice to save his daughter from death that causes him to carry his heavy load with him everywhere he goes. In trying to save his daughter, Lazarus is now saddled with an evil presence that must feed on souls.
When he meets the new owners of the plantation where he once worked (Garth Breytonbach and Inge Beckmann) he lives and helps out working the land while he befriends their little niece Mary (Keith Luna), with whom he shares his spiritual knowledge.
Lazarus is forced to involve the family in his Faustian troubles when he must satisfy a bargain that will put Mary’s soul in danger.
Holscher’s film is a superbly directed tale that is full of horror and South African folklore and mysticism. It is the equivalent of a dark fairy tale in cinema form.
This is a film rich in visuals and atmosphere. David Pienaar’s cinematography allows the South African countryside to breathe, as the landscapes are painted in sharp sunlit colors while the darkness of the house at night is black as pitch and lit only with the softest of lighting.
Composer Elben Schutte mixes a piano-based score with strings and synthesizers to chilling effect. The music does not dominate the proceedings. Instead, it becomes an undercurrent of macabre while hinting at moments of the transcendental.
The character of Mary is fascinating. She seems to be a little girl wise beyond her years. Mary is never frightened. When she becomes lost in the woods, she stays clam and bonds with nature until rescued by Lazarus. And when she meets him, she is welcoming and inquisitive, trusting this man to be a good soul.
Lazarus is a good man that let himself fall prey to the darkness and is now forced to do the bidding of the evil spirit he has unleashed.
He is feared by many in the surrounding villages, and is sometimes forced to play on their fears, but this is not the man Lazarus is in his soul. In a moment of weakness, his humanity was defaced and taken away.
Tshamano Sebe truly is the balance of the film and his performance is one of layered depth. Here is a man who made a deal with the devil and has become a collector of innocent souls but, through the excellent screenplay (from Holscher and Johannesburg Ferdinand Van Zyl) and Sebe’s performance, we see the man Lazarus was and regrets that he can no longer be. He is far from a villain. Lazarus is an unfortunate slave to a most evil curse.
Director Holscher has the skills, both visual and technical, to pull this kind of film off. He uses the folklore not as a jumping-off point but as the very center of his tale. The tragedy of the lore permeates throughout each scene and each character, involving not just Lazarus, Mary, and her family, but the villages outside the plantation and the people who live there in fear of what Lazarus will do. Each scene is dedicated to strengthening the tale and our director proves he has a tight grip on his material.
Taking great care in creating a palpable yet mystically eerie atmosphere, “The Soul Collector” is a fine film and a most welcome surprise amongst the stale modern horror films of today. This is an unsettling and moody tale that doesn’t sneak up on you in the dark, it IS the darkness and it completely surrounds you from the very first moment until its final, jaw-dropping frame.