Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Inspired by true events, Dachra starts by digging up a dead body, then sawing off the head of a child. If that does not set the tone for one supremely haunting two hours, I do not know what would. It has all your favorite horror ingredients: shrouded lead baddie, witchcraft, cults, cannibalism, and rituals! It is Blair Witch, with a smattering of Green Inferno and a cherry-topping of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre just for good measure. Dachra is also notable for being Tunisia’s very first horror film. Shot in 2018, it is finally getting a well-deserved release in the United States, after showing at various film festivals (including Fantastic Fest and FrightFest). It firmly sits in the religion and culture of Tunisia, spreading the strange folklore like its own personal brand of genre gospel. If the town of Dachra was a real place, it would be any anthropologist’s best dream and worst nightmare.

Yassmine (Yassmine Dimassi) and her two college friends, Walid (Aziz Jbali) and Bilel (Bilel Slatnia), set out on a class assignment: they have a deadline of just 15 days to provide their professor a detailed paper, with the stipulation that it must be an “extremely exclusive story.” What better subject than a weird patient who allegedly bit a nurse? The woman in question is Mongia (Hela Ayed), who was found naked on a highway 20 years ago with her throat slashed. During recovery, Mongia became aggressive, screaming and claiming she heard weird voices. Now, she is locked away in an asylum, suspected of witchcraft and hidden where nobody has been able to find her. Determined to complete their investigation, Yassmine and her friends want to be the first to film Mongia and to raise awareness for her depressing story. They don’t want their piece to be unethical or exploitative. “Witch or not, we just want to film her!”

The man in charge at the asylum seems to get nervous when interviewed after Mongia’s name is mentioned. He adamantly denies there is any patient by that name. They must take different measures, relying on a nurse to sneak them inside. They get lead down to a dingy basement cell. Drips of water seep down the walls, and the atmosphere tightens its grip around the viewer by amping up the scare factor. A first encounter with the witch herself results in the trio heading off for a distant town, stumbling upon a cult-like compound with hanging bloody meats, a squealing billygoat that brought to mind 2015’s The Witch, and spying townspeople lurking in silence. It is the town of Dachra, and it very well may provide all the answers about the witch Mongia that they seek…

Visually, Dachra is a complete delight. It is soaked in atmospheric horror across every facet of the film’s production. Carrie-style hallucinations, a scary bloody-mouthed version of Little Red Riding Hood, flickering lights, and the ritualistic terror—every piece makes Dachra a patchwork puzzle. Once we arrive at a stab-heavy final 15 minutes, Dachra goes full-tilt bonkers, and ends in memorably weird, abruptly perfect fashion. It fits the creepy movie like a glove, and contently teases the possibility of a sequel. Dachra 2, here we go!

I must add that Dachra is not a perfect horror film by any means, and it would be easy to nitpick if I really wanted. The witchcraft and jump scares are less than inspired and could be seen in any number of Western productions. A final-act flashback with an overdrawn explanation spells out every major plot point explicitly, just in case you were not paying attention. The amount of screaming done by Yassmine borders on irritating, walking a fine line as the movie approaches that shocking climax. Yet, with every single one of its messy flaws, Dachra perseveres thanks to its origins, folklore, and disturbing bleakness. It proves without question that there is a gaping hole in the genre ready to be filled by Tunisian creatives. I can’t wait to see more!

Dachra traps you in the woods when it heads to theaters and virtual cinemas on July 9th.

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