Perhaps one of the most chilling things about stories dealing with witchcraft is their penchant for violence towards children…
…Everything from Hocus Pocus to The Witches to the more recent The Witch feature children in danger from a hungry witch. Based on true events, writer/director Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s debut feature out of Tunisia, Dachra, is a shocking film that leans hard into some of horror’s greatest taboos.
Dachra follows a trio of journalism students, Yassmine (Yassmine Dimassi), Walid (Aziz Jebali) and Bilel (Bilel Slatnia), in search of a subject for their next project. After Walid suggests they investigate the story of Mongia (Hela Ayed), a supposed witch being kept at a mental institution, the three find themselves on a dark descent into a realm of witchcraft and ritual sacrifices.
To say that Dachra is disturbing would be an understatement. This film is downright terrifying.
Dachra gets the nerves rattling right from the beginning and never lets go, opening on a highly disturbing moment in which we witness a child having their throat slit, on a rock, gallons of blood pouring out. Making matters more chilling, the scene is shot like a home movie from a mysterious POV, getting us up close and personal with the horrifying moment. Dachra is not a found footage film, but all throughout it has a Blair Witch Project vibe, creeping deep under the skin with intense imagery that makes us feel like we’re right there getting our hands dirty with the characters.
Speaking of, the cast themselves have some similarities to the trio in Blair Witch. For one, we’re following one woman and two men, with Yassmine presenting motherly sensibilities as she attempts to reign in Walid and Bilel, who act more like boys than men. She’s a take charge woman, intelligent, demanding and extremely aggressive in her interview style, which makes it all the more frustrating for her that the two guys aren’t just always fighting like siblings, but that they never listen to her, especially when it counts. And ah, how many times have we seen that in horror, men ignoring women when they should be listening to every damn word they say?
Ignoring women is a central theme of Dachra, with one villager whom the crew later encounters saying of his village mostly occupied by women, “women mustn’t speak to strangers.” Sexist much, dude? Yassmine constantly feels pressured and controlled by the men in her life, and that frustration is palpable. I found myself screaming again and again at the screen as the men made predictably terrible choices, while Yassmine screamed right back at them, eventually having to bite her tongue and deal with their stupidity.
Dachra feels a bit tropey at times, but with a Tunisian flavor. Yassmine experiences various nightmare scenes involving a witch that result in jump scare after jump scare. The audience can see things like poor cell phone reception and an unavailable vehicle coming a mile away. And we even get a good, spooky library research scene, complete with flashing lights and a sinister ghost. None of this is a knock on the film though, because Bouchnak is offering a horror tale that feels comfortable and familiar, with an effective presentation that sets it apart and makes it his own.
Dachra puts a spell on you, with purposeful direction from Bouchnak. Time and again, Bouchnak and cinematographer Hatem Nechi incorporate disorienting framing, in which characters feel like they’re on the wrong side of the frame, faces are cut off, and so on. That might sound like poor direction, but it’s actually brilliant, because it has the viewer constantly feeling on the edge of their seat, craning their neck as if they’ll somehow be able to see the un-seeable. Which is the trick of witchcraft, isn’t it? We can never be sure that what we’re seeing isn’t some kind of illusion. The addition of highly effective sound design from Yazid Chebbi which focuses on things like dripping water as a corpse is being cleaned, creeps deep under the skin, drawing us further and further into the nightmarish tale.
And I’m not exaggerating when I say that Dachra is superb in its terror. There are moments in this that are so grotesque—including an eating scene that had me grateful I didn’t have a full belly—that will leave you shocked and appalled and may even illicit a good scream or two. Hell, the film even features creepy, pigeon munching children, the most terrifying kind!
The issue that Dachra cannot manage to flee from is that this is a film that requires a great deal of patience in-between the scares.
After our trio meet Mongia, they soon find themselves in an isolated village. The village itself is eerie as all get out, with the film loading up on atmospheric fog and decrepit sets that practically scream “haunted” in neon lettering, but this is also where the film starts to drag a bit. Coming in at just under two hours, Bouchnak takes us through long stretches of villagers acting weird, but with our characters actually doing very little. Considering the runtime, there is surprisingly little new discovery during the middle portion of the film, with repetitive scenes that could easily be ritualistically sacrificed for better pacing and little effect on the overall story.
Dachra is a slow burn that eventually explodes into terror, but like Hansel and Gretel, gets a bit lost along the way. Poor pacing aside, Dachra is an impressive debut from Bouchnak that displays an innate ability to get under the skin of viewers and rewards patience with a moment or two that should wrench jaws wide open in abject horror.
Dachra comes to theaters on July 9th from Dekanalog.
By Matt Konopka