By Scott Dorward
Dachra (Tunisia, 2018)
As I mentioned in last year’s review of Dearest Sister, I’m always interested in watching horror films from countries not normally known for horror. Different cultural perspectives can make even the most well-worn tropes seem fresher. And this is definitely the case with Dachra. I’ve never seen a horror film from Tunisia before, and while Dachra is far from original, it feels sufficiently different to establish its own identity. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s a good film. But is it still one worth watching?
Looking for an interesting project for their journalism course, students Yasmine, Walid and Bilel (two of the characters sharing names with their actors in what must be a nod to The Blair Witch Project) interview an old woman at a psychiatric hospital. She is reputed to be a witch, but the main hook for their story is her mysterious appearance on a roadside 20 years previously. The interview is cut short when the woman attacks a member of staff, but not before she marks a map with the location where she was found.
When the students follow her directions, they become lost in the woods. After an encounter with a creepy girl and a cheerful man whose aggressive friendliness makes him even more creepy, they stumble across a remote community, dwelling in crumbling concrete huts. While most of the residents are silent, especially the women, the friendly man — Saber — does enough talking for all of them. He insists the students stay and offers them a meal of alarming meats.
Every time the students try to leave, something happens to stop them. As they investigate the community, they find darker and darker hints about its history. Are they witches? Why are the women silent? And where does all this meat come from, anyway? Hint: it’s not Asda.
It is rarely a good sign when a film announces it is “Inspired by true events”.
For both good and ill, there is a lot of dynamic camera work in Dachra. This helps keep things visually interesting in the largely dour, grey settings. At the same time, begins to feel gimmicky, with a few too many Dutch angles. This gimmicky feeling isn’t helped by well-worn techniques like characters awaking in shock from nightmares within nightmares, like they’ve never seen An American Werewolf in London.
The first act presents a nightmarish asylum straight out of gothic fiction. I don’t know what psychiatric hospitals are like in Tunisia but I hope this isn’t accurate. While there are plenty of chills to be found in its dank, gloomy cellars, the portrayal of its residents as comic relief is the kind of thing modern horror has largely moved past.
Once the plot gets going, it heads into something like folk horror. The segment with the protagonists getting lost in the forest could come from The Blair Witch project, only with better camera work. When they find the remote community, however, things become far more grimy and nasty. The strange behaviour of the residents and their obsession with meat are unsettling, if not exactly unprecedented in horror cinema.
While the look of the two films could scarcely be more different, I found myself thinking about Midsommar. Both involve an isolated, weird community using social pressure on a group of outsiders. Dachra is less subtle than the masterful gaslighting in Midsommar but there are parallels. The relentless good cheer of Saber, in particular, is a weaponised social skill. While he is easy to distrust, he would also be difficult to refuse.
There is a lot to like about Dachra. It is a largely visually appealing film peppered with great performances. The bickering friendship of the protagonists feels natural and endearing, helping us invest in their plight even when they make terrible decisions. There is some juicily repellent nastiness and a growing sense of unease. The final revelations, when they come, are a mix of the expected and the mildly surprising. What misgivings I had about the protagonists’ actions came to make sense in light of them.
And yet my main impression was how much better Dachra could have been. The creeping wrongness of its tone is undermined by the drawn-out pacing. There is too much wandering around in narrative circles, particularly in the second act. Two hours isn’t an exceptional length for a horror film these days but it still demands either enough material or a masterful ability to maintain tension. Dachra has neither. This could have been a decent 90-minute film. As it stands, it’s a bit of a slog.
Dachra‘s other main flaw is that the horror elements it employs are well-worn ones and it doesn’t really do anything novel with them. As soon as we are introduced to the community’s obsession with meat, we can see where this is all headed. I can’t imagine anyone with even a passing familiarity with horror being shocked. If the rest of the film were tighter and more urgent, this would matter less. As things stand, Dachra is oddly anaemic for a film so packed with meat.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!