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by Jay Seaver

"A creepy North African journey."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Dachra" is being described as the first horror film from Tunisia, and that alone makes it worth seeing for some - aside from it being fun to have one's cinematic passport stamped by as many countries as possible, this sort of genre film often says a lot about how people see themselves in general and by what frightens them. And if that's not something one is particularly curious about, it's also a pretty darn decent scary movie, even if it does occasionally show some rough edges.

It follows a group of three journalism students, Yasmine (Yassmine Dimassi), Bilel (Bilel Slatnia), and Walid (Aziz Jbali) who, looking for a story that will really excite their professor, decide to investigate a girl in a mental hospital (Hela Ayed) who emerged from the woods twenty years ago and seems almost feral. They learn just enough to find where she was found, and it leads them through a path to a hidden town, where they meet a friendly host in Saber, though a pregnant goat-herder tells them to run. Alas, their car is broken, it's about to get dark, and Saber can't help them get to town until the next morning. But there's an empty house or two, and maybe this dairy from a couple decades ago will make interesting reading for Yasmine.

Writer/director/editor Abdelhamid Bouchnak doesn't stray far from the basics here; there are definitely moments when it feels like he dropped a cult compound in the middle of The Blair Witch Project, and seasoned horror movie fans are going to have immediate suspicions about what all the meat drying between on the outsides of the various buildings really is. He never goes about it in half-hearted manner, though, making the path the team follows to this Dachra area enjoyably lurid, with the other end matching it with every attempted step out of this place seeming to put the characters into a bigger hole (at least, those that don't meet impressively bloody ends).

It's the sort of situation one must dive into with a bit more determination than sense, and Yasmine is the sort to do that. Bouchnak doesn't give her a lot of explicit "woman in a man's world" material, but Yassmine Dimassi does a nice job of dialing her namesake character's inherent passion for what she does up a notch in every spot where she might otherwise back down even a little. It's a noteworthy contrast to the actor playing the grandfather that raised Yasmine, whose kindness is centered by certainty in his place in the world, even if he is properly frightened of the things that lurk in the shadows. It's also the sort of sharp, aggressive personality that throws her later reactive behavior when things get physically dangerous into sharp relief. Her male co-stars don't exactly have the room to develop such distinct personalities, even as supporting characters, although Bilel Slatnia and Azi Jbali to work well with her and each other.

It is the sort of horror movie that can wear on an audience in some ways - as much as seeing it in a large auditorium with an excited festival audience makes for a fun experience, it's enough in the DIY, found-footage aesthetic with awkward camera placement and only so much natural light that a screen can be too big for it. That's more so the case considering that it goes on for a while - while you've got to spend enough time in the compound to not have characters directly running from one obviously important thing to another, Bouchnak occasionally backs himself into a spot where he's got to kill some time as one character makes a bit of a hike and the others don't have enough to do in the meantime, and there are points when one can feel it.

So it's not perfect, but the film nevertheless has enough of a distinct voice from an underrepresented part of the world to be interesting. That wouldn't be enough to recommend it unless it also had the means to scare viewers, and while it doesn't revolutionize the genre, it's got solid-enough horror fundamentals that it's plenty more than just a curiosity.

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originally posted: 12/13/19 05:55:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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