The ‘based on a true story’ tag is overused in horror films – ever since Plan 9 From Outer Space sprung that ‘can you prove it didn’t happen?’ it’s been more of a promotional tool than anything else, but this Tunisian production commands a bit more respect for drawing on an all-too-real African witch scare as the inspiration for a storyline that obviously follows the path to doom laid out in American genre movies like Two Thousand Maniacs!, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Blair Witch Project.
Writer-director Abdelhamid Bouchnak blurs things a little by starting out as if he’s going to address the persecution of accused witches in North Africa, but then switches tack to concentrate on crimes committed by people who think they’re witches – not a subtle difference. The leads are younger, ‘westernised’ film students Yassmine (Yassmine Dimassi) and Bilel (Bilel Slatnia), whose pal Walid (Aziz Jbali) tips them off to a potential story about Mongia (Hela Ayed), an institutionalised woman asylum staff believe is a witch, The trio hare off into danger, getting past the Paris-educated director of the institute (who stops being affable and claims there’s no such patient when asked about Mongia in an interview) and bribing an overly friendly night nurse to get into the strange woman’s cell. Then, they track the story back to Dachra, a remote village where women aren’t allowed to talk to outsiders and bizarre practices take place just round every corner.
The plot has a few stings and surprises, but isn’t anything horror fans won’t pick up on – there’s even a slight echo of the ghoul village episode of The Monster Club – and it’s hard to parse the film’s attitude. In horror movie convention, rational young folk who don’t believe in witches are fools and religiously-minded elders who take stern action against supernatural evil are wise and admirable – which is always an issue in based-on-fact horror, which seems to ask us to look at real-world abusers as Van Helsing-type heroes (The Exorcism of Emily Rose is the worst offender here, but even The Exorcist isn’t beyond rebuke). Opening up new territory for horror, literally, Bouchnak risks making a more sophisticated version of Nigerian anti-witch horrors like End of the Wicked. The film is also a little languid, with slightly too much byplay between the three leads – though there are clues nicely embedded in the chat – and not much in the way of visceral horror, though it does spring some startling imagery and has a nice atmosphere of creeping dread.