One of the countries where discussions of race could be as fraught as they are here in America is South Africa, so it’s odd that The Soul Collector, a haunted house/monster movie mashup set in that nation in 1977 during the time of Apartheid, works hard to avoid meaningful commentary completely. Writer-director Harold Hölscher, an artisan of music videos and commercials by day, leans heavily on typical genre tropes and uninventive screenplay mechanics in avoidance of mining his intriguing premise and setting for something imaginative. It’s a dull film with a few qualities that elevate it.

The film begins with a soul of an old white man getting collected. Infirmed but not in hospice, he is visited by a man wearing a leather fedora and long jacket, carrying a weathered duffle bag. This is Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe), a black man cursed by tragedy, who collects the souls of the elderly to feed to the demon that has taken over the body of his dead daughter. Lazarus chants and gesticulates, facilitating a murder that occurs offscreen. He carries his heavy sack away, wandering the forest until the story needs.

Moments later, the intended victims are introduced. A period-specific station wagon navigates ever worsening road and beautifying scenery until the camera moves inside the vehicle. William (Garth Breytenbach), an overweight, middle-aged accountant has convinced his wife, Sarah (Inge Beckmann), and young niece, Mary (Keita Luna), to join him in the restoration of the remote farm he just inherited. Sarah agreed but exudes hostile indifference while Mary is excited to see the place where her mother, William’s sister, once lived. Both of Mary’s parents are dead and her aunt and uncle have adopted her.

The farm needs a lot of work, and William isn’t very handy. Sarah is getting the interior of the place in order but needs the generator and water pump to work. Mary is left to explore her interest in nature and finds herself wandering the woods until she hears a distant voice singing a lullaby. She follows the sound to Lazarus, who acts the hero by guiding Mary back to the farmhouse. He convinces William to give a chance to work the farm the way he did for William’s grandfather, but Sarah objects. Things change when the lights come on while the family’s eating dinner and William finds Lazarus has fixed the generator. Appreciative, he offers Lazarus the creepy shed near the farmhouse and a trial run as the sole worker on the farm.

Lazarus’ reemergence garners attention from the local villagers for whom he is a boogeyman. Their elder, Obara (Chris April), knows how the onetime healer lost his wife in childbirth and daughter in a fire and bargained with a demon to try to resurrect the child. He knows the demon wants to destroy William and his family and confronts Lazarus, but Lazarus is too strong to be intimidated. The demon has a plan and it will come to fruition.

Hölscher’s inclination to avoid investigating the racial aspects of his premise in preference of nods to class ultimately fails because race encodes his entire film. He wants to exoticize and other all his black characters with the kind of voodoo and witch doctor pantomime used as caricature since silent cinema. The acceptableness of this practice is rightly near-extinct but to see the undead trope rise, especially during this historical moment, is more than off-putting. It would appear that he is more a director than a writer because the film is beautifully composed, and Hölscher and cinematographer David Pienaar certainly know how to create a shot.

But the film’s great joy is its tortured monster. Sebe has a considerable screen presence and instills Lazarus with a great poignancy that ranges from humor to fearsomeness with ease. The other acting standout is Luna as Mary, a character she plays as innocent but with a knowing, curious gaze. As her aunt and uncle, Beckmann and Breytenbach are given little to do but scowl due to separate motivations. The script fails Sarah by making her the type of woman who sees herself as a monster because she can’t have children, another trope executed well beyond its tolerability, and Beckmann can do little to save her character. Breytenbach is saddled with William, the type of fool who will berate his wife as paranoid when all evidence screams that the old family farmhouse is haunted and they should leave.

These failings feel almost nostalgic as if the creative team behind The Soul Collector longs for a simpler time where racism and misogyny were simplistically embedded into the fabric of film and went unnoticed by a white male gaze. In a world with Us and Candyman those days are hopefully over and those that try to bring them back will see their fateful error.

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