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On-screen texts bookending “Dachra” claim this thriller is “inspired by true events,” and that “in North Africa hundreds of children are victims of acts of witchcraft.” Nonetheless, one might be forgiven for assuming this purported first-ever Tunisian foray into horror cinema is drawn less from local crimes or superstitions than from the familiar genre tropes of “The Blair Witch Project,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and umpteen other long-standing fan favorites.
Originality may indeed be scarce in writer-director Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s debut narrative feature. Yet this gory goulash of city slickers, creepy yokels, editorial jolts and cannibalism largely transcends its derivative basic elements, thanks to his astute, richly atmospheric handling. Dekanalog is releasing the film to U.S. theaters and virtual cinemas on July 9, nearly three years after its festival premiere — during which time “Dachra” became Tunisia’s biggest homegrown box office hit in a quarter century. That impact is unlikely to be duplicated elsewhere, but horror buffs around the globe should grok this crafty mix of novel cultural trappings and well-worn scare tactics.
Yassmine (Yassmine Dimassi), Walid (Aziz Jbali) and Belil (Belil Slatnia) are university journalism students tasked with completing a “filmed investigative report” on any subject, so long as it has “exclusivity.” (Apparently their prof has had it up to here with projects about the Jasmine Revolution, which led to the country’s democratization a decade ago.) It’s cameraman Bilel’s idea that they use an inside contact of his to interview a madwoman who’s been confined to an asylum for 20 years, since she was found “naked and mutilated” in a remote rural area.
The woman known as Mongia (Hela Ayed) is said to be a witch, and a danger to institutional staff. That last rumor, at least, gets fully borne out when the trio are sneaked into her dungeon-like quarters late one night. Despite gaining little intel from the resulting fiasco, our protagonists decide to pursue the case further; after all, they don’t want to flunk their course.
Thus at the 45-minute mark they find themselves in a dachra, or isolated hamlet, where Mongia’s mysterious original travails seem to have occurred. They acquire a fawning host in Saber (Hedi Mejeri), though his obsequiousness has a sinister edge, and the close-mouthed other residents seem to regard their guests much as they do the fresh meat conspicuously hanging out to dry everywhere. Naturally, the newbies find themselves forced to stay overnight. But it’s not until the following day, as excuses keep being made to delay their departure, that they realize something very wrong is happening here. Grasping that peril sooner than they do is Yassmine’s devout grandfather Bechir (Bahri Rahli), who kept some secrets while raising her, and now tries riding to the rescue as he realizes a hidden past may have lured her into grave jeopardy.
More suggestive than violently explicit, “Dachra” is the kind of movie that nonetheless feels vividly icky because there are a lot of not-quite-identifiable animal parts lying about, dripping red liquid. At first it seems the film will overdo the handheld camerawork à la found-footage horrors (though it turns out this is confined to the beginning and end), as well as de rigueur “Oops, it’s only a dream” false scares.
But the movie quickly grows more sophisticated, in style if not content: Also the editor here, Bouchnak knows how to build a scene to get the maximum mileage out of a stock “Boo!” moment. Cinematographer Hatem Nechi’s impressive widescreen compositions conjure a considerable mood of dread, whether we’re in the forest or in one of the decrepit interiors that production designer Fatma Madani dresses to quease-inducing effect.
The performers are serviceable, though one may question the wisdom of making their characters squabble quite so much, right from the start — 20 minutes in, we’re already mentally prepared for these people to die screaming deaths. Even the “Blair Witch” trio of fictive film students, who famously got on audiences’ nerves by getting on each other’s, weren’t half so combative.
Despite the screenplay’s various shortcomings and clichés, however, “Dachra” never feels silly in the moment. It’s got menacing atmosphere to spare, its aesthetically refined exploitation of stock genre elements (a sinister child, ominous hooded figures, etc.) all the more impressive because this very good-looking enterprise purportedly cost a total equivalent to $80,000. Without being yet another overt homage to yesteryear’s Euro grindhouse fare, Bouchnak’s movie often recalls the deeply unsettling vibe of such cult classics as the Spanish “Who Can Kill a Child?” and Lucio Fulci’s Italian “House by the Cemetery,” efforts whose memorable qualities had little to do with their flimsy scripts.