If it accomplishes nothing else, the new Tunisian horror feature Dachra constitutes a convincing argument that many of the genre’s conventions have a universal quality that allows them to eclipse cultural specifics. Granted, writer-director Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s film – which is apparently both his first narrative feature and his first foray into horror – derives some of its grisly resonance from Tunisian (and more broadly Islamic) cultural attitudes and iconography. Yet even the most parochial American gorehound will likely find Dachra recognizable, especially by the time the protagonists stumble onto a remote hamlet full of inbred weirdos with bloody gristle between their teeth. It might be set in the land of ancient Carthage, the Fatymid Caliphate, and the Arab Spring, but Bouchnak’s feature is hillbilly horror at heart.
Admittedly, it takes a while for this lineage to become apparent, as Dachra spends most of its first act trying to settle on a subgenre. The film’s victims – er, protagonists – are a trio of mostly Westernized film students: aspiring director Yassmine (Yassmine Dismassi), cameraperson Bilel (Bilel Slatnia), and sound engineer Walid (Aziz Jebali). When their French-speaking professor directs them to create a documentary with original reporting – no more retrospectives of the 2011 revolution, please! – Walid mentions an urban legend about a mysterious madwoman who was found wandering the countryside some two decades prior. Mongia (Hela Ayed) is, in fact, quite real, and Walid has a connection at the psychiatric hospital where she has spent the past 20 years inciting rumors of witchcraft with her violent, enigmatic behavior. Yassmine and Bilel are understandably skeptical, but Walid’s source inside the institution helps arrange a clandestine interview with Mongia, notwithstanding the hospital director’s contention that they have no such patient.
For her part, Yassmine is perhaps not in the best frame of mind to be questioning suspected black-magic practitioners in some dank, underlit asylum. She has been haunted since childhood by dreams of a sinister woman in a black burqa, and recently her nightmares have begun to encroach into her waking hours. Yassmine’s obviously mounting distress concerns her grandfather Béchir (Bahri Rhali), an undertaker by trade who is her only surviving family member. He urges her to visit a local religious scholar who is learned in such dark portents, but the determinedly secular Yassmine instead throws herself into researching Mongia’s case. When it eventually happens, the filmmakers’ interview with the alleged witch predictably takes a turn for the horrific, but it also provides them with a clue regarding Mongia’s past. Before you can say The Barbary Chainsaw Massacre, the students are stumbling around a trackless stretch of misty Mediterranean forest, looking for a town that does not appear on any map. Unfortunately for Yassmine, Bilel, and Walid, the town eventually finds them.
Although there are plenty of creepy moments earlier in Dachra – there’s a bit in a deserted university library that's straight from the post-Conjuring American horror playbook – the film truly finds its footing when it arrives in this nameless village. The residents are all silent, stone-faced women, except for prattling patriarch Saber, whose smiling, apologetic servility plainly conceals sinister intentions. The village’s connection to Mongia is not apparent, but between the bloody animal intestines drying on clotheslines and the little girl who Yassmine spies chomping into a freshly dead crow, there’s something Not Right about the place. Unfortunately, Bilel and Walid condescendingly dismiss Yassmine’s extremely justified suspicions, and – thanks to that old-fashioned horror-movie blend of stupid choices and terrible luck – the trio ends up stranded in the village overnight, gawking in disgust at the very rare meat that Saber and the wordless women slurp down with gusto.
Although Dachra is essentially presenting a modern-day take on the Arabic legend of the graveyard-dwelling ghul, any viewer who has seen films such as Motel Hell (1980), Wrong Turn (2003), or House of 1000 Corpses (2003) will have some notion of where the story is headed. Bouchnak adds a sprinkle of occult strangeness to his tale – The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) also feel like influences – but this is backwoods cannibal horror at bottom. At times, the film seems to rely on hackneyed plot contrivances to keep the protagonists in peril. Driving back to the city at night is apparently out of the question, for example, because Walid has forgotten his glasses, Yassmine has recently undergone laser eye surgery, and Bilal doesn’t know how to drive a stick. Many of these seemingly oh-so-inconvenient developments are justified by the time the credits roll, although in the moment they often make the film feel like a parody of an American horror feature, albeit one played completely straight. In particular, the constant bickering among the three protagonists seems to encourage the viewer to root for their messy demise.
Dachra’s modest budget is apparent in some aspects of the production – Rached Hmaoui’s score tends to repeat the same creaky musical cues over and over, to eye-rolling effect – but overall Bouchnak and his crew deliver robust work with the means at their disposal. The film’s locations are eerie while also feeling grubbily authentic, thanks to Bouchnak and cinematographer Hatem Nechi’s fantastic attentiveness to color and texture. (Rarely has undercooked meat looked so stomach-churning.) Although the plot at times veers into implausibility of both the Dickensian and slasher-flick varieties, Bouchnak nonetheless maintains a consistently grounded tone, as if the viewer were witnessing a redolent dramatization of real-world events. Indeed, Dachra is purportedly based on a true story, but the flaking realism of the film’s production design notwithstanding, the factual content is about as substantial as it was in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (i.e., nonexistent). Although seasoned horror fans will likely find the story a tad familiar, the film’s heady style and gnarly shocks are sufficient to make it a worthy diversion. In the feature’s bleak final stretch, Bouchark even smashes a mainstream horror taboo or two, demonstrating that truly monstrous evil transcends language and borders.
Dachra is now available to rent via virtual cinema from Dekanalog. Purchase a ticket between July 9 - 22 and the proceeds will help support the Webster University Film Series.