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Review: Tunisian thriller ‘Dachra’ draws on the horror classics for inspiration

A woman and two men in a wooded area in the movie "Dachra."
Yasmine Dimassi, Aziz Jebali, center, and Bilel Slatnia in the movie “Dachra.”
(Hatem Nechi / Dekanalog Releasing)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

Early in the Tunisian supernatural thriller “Dachra,” three journalism students consult their instructor about a documentary assignment and receive specific instructions: Be original, engage the audience and avoid politics. So inevitably, they end up hauling their equipment to a spooky remote village, where they’re bedeviled by what appears to be a cult of cannibalistic witch worshipers.

Sure, they’re in danger of being eaten. But at least they never mention the revolution.

“Dachra” is the debut feature film from writer-director-producer-editor Abdelhamid Bouchnak, who delivers an atmospheric and regionally specific version of a familiar horror premise: the sickening, inexorable journey into the heart of darkness. This is one of those movies where one bad decision begets another, until the heroes find themselves lost in the woods and surrounded by stockpiled meat of indeterminate origin.

Mistake No. 1: Walid (Aziz Jebali) shares with study partners Yasmine (Yasmine Dimassi) and Bilel (Bilel Slatnia) the rumors about a mysterious and compulsively violent woman named Mongia (Hela Ayed) who’s been locked away in an asylum since being found in the wilderness, near death, decades ago. The institution’s bosses claim Mongia doesn’t exist; staff members know better, and they let the students sneak in for an interview.

Mistake No. 2: Although Yasmine has been lately suffering from gory nightmares, and though her grandfather suggests he knows more than he can say about the danger she’s heading into, she still takes the lead in investigating the odd little community near where Mongia was originally discovered. There, she and her friends find a suspiciously friendly stranger named Saber (Hedi Mejri), a group of creepy, eerily silent young girls and bloody meat stacked and strung up everywhere.

In the terms it sets at the start, “Dachra” is mostly but not entirely successful. It’s not overtly political (though an argument could be made that it’s partly about how Tunisia has changed since 2011’s civil unrest), and it is pretty gripping (though the film’s muted, hazy look and deliberate pace do become enervating at times).

The biggest knock against “Dachra” is that — even with its unique setting — it’s not especially “new.” The plot — “take a wrong turn and get tormented by local weirdos” — owes a lot to “The Blair Witch Project” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” among other horror classics.

But filmmakers keep going to that particular well because it never runs dry. Want to freak people out? Just make a movie that keeps pressing forward into dangerous spaces, never shying away from the grimness therein.

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‘Dachra’

In Arabic and French with subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes

Playing: Starts July 9, Laemmle Glendale; also on Laemmle Virtual Cinema


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