Eight is a low-budget Australian drama written and directed by Peter Blackburn in what is still his only feature. It remains quite obscure, but at the time of its release in 2016, it received some attention from various film festivals. Its obscurity is unfair though as it offers a unique and harrowingly realistic look at one woman crippling mental health. Shot in one mesmerizing take, the result is an anxiety-inducing, stressful eighty-one minutes. A huge factor in the movie being so effective is how simple it is – there is little dialogue, mostly one person on screen the whole time, and takes place in just one location. The plot follows Sarah Prentice (Libby Munro) simply trying to leave her house, but unbearable OCD and anxiety prevent her from doing so. The title comes from Sarah’s compulsion of doing everything in eights – whether that be eight taps of her foot before putting her shoes on, or eight clicks of the door before she opens it. She is held captive in her house by her own mind, and what makes Blackburn’s dramatization of Sarah’s story so effective is the way he borrows from the horror genre.
The opening shot sees the camera pan up to a wide-awake Sarah in bed staring at the ceiling as her alarm clock blares. The camera movements are deliberately slow to match her wariness. Everything she does – except washing her hands or scrubbing surfaces – is done meticulously. Whenever she is cleaning though, it is frantic and desperate, demonstrating one of her biggest fears within her condition. The movie emulates Sarah’s feelings onto the audience with its near-constant intensity, even when it may appear as if very little is actually happening. Even when her panic seemingly comes out of nowhere, when her breathing transitions from a normal speed to rapid, it is difficult to not mimic this, particularly for those who have been in a similar position to her in their lives. It is the sudden tilting toward her downfall and the ups and downs she goes through that keep the tension high. A large portion of the movie is reminiscent of the hallway scene in The Shining. Every time Sarah turns a corner, it feels like something awful will be there waiting for her. That is the sort of tension that the movie manages to maintain whenever she is moving around the house.
The normal-looking house becomes claustrophobic and uninviting as Sarah weaves through it with extreme caution. The camera follows her closely, provoking an invasive and uncomfortable atmosphere throughout. It has aesthetics of a haunted house horror with dark, shadowed corners and limited lighting. Essentially, it is a haunted house movie without any ghosts because the real horror is far more authentic and in plain sight. Because there is not much dialogue – particularly in the first half – every sound is heightened. We hear every single cringe-inducing scrub of her hands when she is washing them and it can be painful to endure. This is most apparent in the movie’s first half, and though it becomes bothersome, it is exactly the effect Blackburn desired to create.
The second half of the movie features more dialogue and further develops the central character through interactions with others. These include her daughter, husband, therapist, and a delivery man. A series of sporadic voicemails are left to gradually reveal more about Sarah’s life, and there is an eerie, transcendental impression left by some of these voicemails. It is as if they are the audible thoughts of Sarah as she wrestles with her internal guilt and fear. Blackburn is able to create terror from things that most people would not question for a second. Along with the voicemails, Sarah is deeply unnerved by schoolchildren’s laughter coming from outside her window, and there is frequent pounding on her door which sounds deceptively aggressive.
It could be argued that the movie is plotless, and does not so much tell a story, but rather demonstrates an in-depth study of a character. As this is just an hour and a half of Sarah’s life, Blackburn smartly lets the audience piece together what has previously happened in her life and there are many unseen characters who play vital roles. Sarah’s daughter and husband are heard over the phone and on the other side of her door in some of the movie’s toughest scenes. The devastating longing from Sarah shows a tragic side to mental illness that can result in families breaking down. By keeping them off-screen and not revealing too much about them, Blackburn allows the focus to remain on Sarah, and we see how she is haunted by her previous life as a wife and mother. The guilt she feels as her daughter begs to see her is shown in a scene where she collapses against the door and breaks down.
Munro’s performance elevates the intended tension and discomfort that the film strives for. She creates such a sympathetic character in Sarah, and crucially, she does not overact at all. The brilliance of her in this role is amplified by the documentary-like approach to the film. It is as if a hidden camera is following her, and this fly-on-the-wall perspective makes the movie all the more raw and disturbing. Its conclusion feels fitting and warranted too. It does not pretend that this is something that can be resolved quickly without any hardship, and though Sarah’s journey is not finished by the end of the movie, it does lean towards something hopeful for her in the future.
Eight is a chilling look at a condition that is not talked about or understood enough. It is as horrifying as it is harrowing, but it plays its part in successfully dramatizing a day in Sarah’s life. Though it is not an easy watch – nor is it a pleasant one – it is essential viewing, and acts as a reminder to all of how life’s dark side can be so simple, yet so terrifying. By scattering in ashes of horror, Blackburn ensures this drama is told in the most sincere and painful way. Combined with a committed, flawless performance from Munro, there are few explorations of mental health that are more frightening or heartbreaking.