Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s DACHRA isn’t just the first Tunisian horror film I’ve ever seen; it’s the first Tunisian film I’ve seen, period. Well, unless you count the Tatooine segments of Star Wars (which you shouldn’t), it’s the first time I’ve spent in the country vicariously through cinema. And what a thoroughly horror-filled place it seems to be! DACHRA features child-sacrifice, brutal murders and rampant cannibalism, oh my! First, Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, and now this!
I’ll admit, I’m very much uninitiated when it comes to Tunisia. I could probably point out the vague area where it resides on a world map, but that’s as far as my knowledge goes. Horror is a fascinating prism through which to be be introduced to a culture. While myths and folklore may be unique to region, there are always similarities across the board. What scares us as human beings is a connecting thread across cultures. Horror is a universal language, so it’s a fun way to find out more about a place you’ve never experienced in a way that resonates despite our differences.
DACHRA’s plot sees three hapless journalism students investigating a two-decade old case of a woman who was assaulted and left mutilated on the side of a road. As they delve deeper into the story, it turns out that the woman is a suspected witch, and having survived the attack, was then locked up in an asylum. They visit her to find out more, which leads them to the small community where she lived. It’s not long before they discover that the townspeople are up to no good, and by “no good”, I mean “ritualistic murder and cannibalism”.
DACHRA is an appropriately grim-looking film, with its palette exsanguinated of any vibrant colors. It’s handsomely shot, and manages to build a decent sense of dread over the course of its overlong running time. Bouchnak probably could have snipped a good 20 minutes off the beginning and lost very little. Once they reach the village, the creepy moments start coming, but they’re impeded by the downright brain-dead actions of our protagonists. How can we be scared for their safety when they’re so aggressively stupid? A few moments actually made me laugh out loud in disbelief at their actions, with the poor female character being left to reign in the frat-boy antics of her male companions
Early in the film, when the characters visit the asylum, the place is so run-down, grungy, leaky and moldy that keeping anyone, there – no matter how criminally insane they are – would be beyond inhumane. It leaves you wondering why our protagonists don’t question the conditions, and as a result, it’s hard to connect with them.
Just before the credits roll, some of the meaning behind the film is illuminated, as we’re told that witchcraft is a real-life problem in Tunisia, with hundreds of victims lost to child sacrifice and other dangerous superstition. While this is an important issue to highlight, the message feels lost after the outright schlockiness of the ending.
DACHRA is not a found footage film, but I found myself spotting a lot of similarities in its setup to that of The Blair Witch Project. There’s a witch, there’s two men, a woman, and a camera, and it’s all done on the cheap. But perhaps more surprisingly, it shares many plot points and character beats with one of this year’s best horror films, Midsommar. Of course, DACHRA came first, but the similarities are strong. Both films revolve heavily around folktales and lore. They have a similar setup, with a group of students traveling to a remote community where they’re trapped and methodically isolated. There’s uncomfortable scenes of rituals, nasty discoveries, and things end up turning out really bad for everyone involved.
I’m certainly not suggesting either one ripped off the other, that would be logistically impossible. I do, however, find it fascinating to see such an echo of ideas across horror films made in different countries and cultures. Apparently, DACHRA made a huge splash in its home country, selling out showings across the region and garnering a positive critical reaction. It seems Tunisia has a taste for horror. While a lot of the film doesn’t work entirely as intended, it deserves props for drilling a flagpole into the dirt and being the first Tunisian horror film. Every country deserves its own horror.