By MICHAEL GINGOLD
As folk horror has seen a resurgence in recent years, it has opened up a window for the genre to explore territories and cultures not often seen in these kinds of movies (or others). The latest territory staked out for fear is South Africa, where local writer/director Harold Hölscher has made his feature-film debut with THE SOUL COLLECTOR. Previously titled “8,” and out tomorrow on VOD and digital platforms from Shout! Studios, it applies the country’s mythology and tribal tensions to the story of its title character, who is not merely a fearsome baddie. RUE MORGUE spoke to Hölscher following the movie’s world premiere at last year’s Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.
Set in 1977, THE SOUL COLLECTOR begins with young Mary (Keita Luna) being brought by her uncle William (Garth Breytenbach) and aunt Sarah (Inge Beckmann) to a family farmhouse in the wake of her parents’ death. Fascinated by nature, Mary is out exploring the property when she encounters Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe), a mysterious but friendly stranger who once worked on the farm. He befriends the girl, introducing her to the secrets of their environment and life and death, and William, who needs help getting the place operational, offers Lazarus lodging in exchange for his help. Sarah isn’t happy about the arrangement, and some of the locals believe Lazarus is bad news. As it turns out, he has a tragic past that has tied him to dark supernatural forces…and what is it that he carries around in a leather bag?
Hölscher previously explored dramatic themes in a trio of short films and helmed a comedic movie for South African television, but felt all along that his debut feature should be a scary one. “I was developing a lot of other pictures,” he recalls, “but this was the furthest along, so whenever I met [a potential backer], I always tried to push it. I believed in this one as my first picture because of the genre, which is an amazing one for a first-time director to explore. There are so many subgenres within it.”
The one he chose to tackle derived from a spiritual question sparked by a real-life tragedy. “A friend passed away when I was at school,” he reveals. “I come from a very religious background—a lineage of pastors—so it was a very Christian upbringing, as it were. But if you’re in South Africa, which doesn’t really go the Western way, you’re always interested in other possibilities. My thoughts were, what happens to the souls that die so horrifically on the roads every year—there’s like 1,000 or 1,500 people; South Africa’s got quite a high death toll.
Despite his Christian background, Hölscher chose not to frame his screen story as the genre’s usual conflict between Catholicism and occult forces born from alternative religions. “Previous drafts delved into that a little bit,” he notes, “because of my upbringing and because it is quite a big polarity in the world, which could have created a lot of tension in the film, between the characters. But I decided to veer off from that, because the film wasn’t intended to point fingers at anything—politically, spiritually, religiously—at all. It was just about entertaining questions I had, mixing in patriarchy, matriarchy, as well as religious subjects.”
One of his other interests is the meaning of numbers, which led to the movie’s original title. “Not that I’m a full-blown numerologist, but if I start going off on that tangent, I’ll go on forever. And 8 is a very significant number in my life; as I understand it, it’s not really infinity [as the numeral commonly signifies when placed sideways], but is actually like a cross, where it goes to the furthest points and comes back again.” Thus it’s appropriate that he first came up with the movie’s concept in 2008, and finally got it rolling in 2018. But given that, and the fact that he was born in 1980, why didn’t Hölscher set the story in that year instead of 1977? “No particular reason,” he admits. “I just liked the numbers in 1977. And the style of the movie is very much inspired by films of the 1970s.”
TO BE CONTINUED