Review: RJ Bland
One of the great things about the horror genre today is the sheer range and variety of different voices and perspectives that we are exposed to. Of course, a lot of that is happening within English language features – films such as Get Out and His House are prime examples of this. However it cannot be overstated how fantastic it is that we are also able to see so many genre films from across the globe. Sure, if you go back 20 years or so, Asian horror was finding a Western audience and after this we had a wave of French movies too (High Tension, Frontiers, Inside, Martyrs). However things have opened up even more in the last decade or so. We have genre features from Austria (Goodnight Mommy), Iran (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), Argentina (Terrified) and Turkey (AV: The Hunt) to name a few. But you know what continent we don't really have any horror films from? Africa. There are obvious socio-economic reasons for this and there are a couple of exceptions - the South African horror movie 8 was released on Netflix last year. However, there's still good reason to get excited when a Tunisian horror film gets a Shudder release.
Dachra, which received its UK premiere during Frightfest 2019 (ahh those were the days), tells the story of trio of squabbling journalism students who decide to investigate a local tale of a woman locked up in an asylum who is suspected of being a witch by the staff at the facility. Found 20 years ago at the side of the road, this woman (named Mongia) was at death's door but somehow survived her injuries. Although sceptical, their visit is a rather unsettling one but they still decide to head out to locate the place where Mongia was supposedly attacked. They find the spot she was found and head off on foot into the woods and soon stumble across a run-down, grimy compound where the shawled women are silent and creepy kids lurk around every corner. They are invited to stay by the only person that appears to talk in this community, an effusively friendly chap called Saber. As the light fades, they agree to stay the night in an abandoned house inside the tiny village. The students are on edge and unnerved by the situation they now find themselves in. And they have every right to be too...
At nearly two hours long, Dachra is undoubtedly a bit of a bloated feature. It's a slow burn too, with most of the action taking place in a rather frantic final few minutes. However, for the most part it does a solid job in building a rather uniquely oppressive atmosphere throughout most of its running time. First time Director Abdelhamid Bouchnak gives the film a dreary washed out look and although he's guilty of some distractingly (and purposefully) off-kilter framing, the film manages to conjure up some really grisly and macabre imagery. It also handles the mystery elements of its story very well too. We're given enough information to know (and fear) what is going on but not enough to ruin the (rather grim) conclusion. Yes there is a rather obvious plot twist (which I will discuss later) that is a bit too obvious but for the most part it is not the structure or plot itself where Dachra struggles. The film is compared to The Blair Witch Project for obvious reasons but although the central trio in Blair Witch bitched and argued nearly as much as the three here, they weren't anywhere near as infuriatingly stupid. If you can make peace with protagonists who make dumb decision after dumb decision, then you'll probably enjoy this a lot more.
The following part of the review contains spoilers.
So don't read on unless you've seen the film!
Dachra is a frustrating watch and I think I mean that in a mildly complimentary way because all the ingredients are there for a really top rate horror film. However for every positive thing about the film, there is a frustrating counterpoint. The quick-fire banter between the three students is genuinely amusing at times but the further the film goes on, this dysfunctionality proves to be a bit of a problem. Yassmine is by far the most interesting character (she is the lead after all) – and the other two are almost interchangeable in their blandness. All three are guilty of awful decision making and general uselessness. Some of their choices feel almost too stupid. Why would you hang about in a village where clearly there is something really sinister going on? The kid was eating a crow for God's sake! And why do they seem so underprepared and slow to react? When one of the male students sees Saber with sacks full of body parts, he runs back to his mates and just can't string a sentence together. He's been running through the woods for about 20 minutes, surely he could have thought of something to say?! Other annoying story points include the other male student watching footage on the camera of the three of them asleep, clearly recorded by someone else. He curses after he 'accidentally' deletes the clip but for whose benefit? He's in on it all along! Yassmine's decision to keep her entire life story hidden from her friends, especially after she discovers the awfully convenient diary near the end (Hi, I'm Basil Exposition) is also something that doesn't sit right.
Although Dachra reserves the bulk of its horror for the last ten minutes, it's worth the wait. When we do see the witch, she's of the classic crone variety but the fact we see her through quick cuts and glimpses makes it feel like we're seeing something we're not supposed to. Watching her feast on a new born baby is as vile as you'd expect too. The twist at the end where one of the students is in on the whole thing doesn't quite work for me and the justification through flashback infers that they know it's a tall order too. What happens to Yassmine at the end is anyone's guess but I think it's safe to say to assume that she's not going to make it out alive. And for a film as grim and visceral as this, it doesn't come as much of a surprise.
The last five minutes of the film are complete chaos and it's not entirely clear what happens. My take on it is that Ian killed Audrey so that the demon would be able to enter Shannon's baby's body. However I think the demon entered the body of Henry, hence why we saw something emerging from his body. Shannon escapes the carnage but as she is getting into a car to drive away, she sees Jackson's spirit at the window upstairs – inferring that his spirit wasn't in her unborn baby. Then as she drives away, she stops suddenly and watches what looks like some kind of strange demon/human hybrid cross the road ahead of her. She then looks down and feels her stomach and we're done. It's an ending that will leave some scratching their heads a little but I am guessing that her baby is fine and has escaped the ritual unscathed. However, a demon has managed to return to the land of the living and might be about to wreak some havoc. I might be totally wrong on that, but it's the best interpretation I have got.