It’s a fable about a group of childhood friends who reunite as adults to face the trauma of their past. They encountered something inhuman together in their youth, and now it’s evil has re-emerged. Together, they must reckon with their buried trauma and confront it together. No, I’m not talking about IT — not the novel, mini-series, 2019 mega hit, or the upcoming IT: Chapter Two. I’m describing Achoura, a Moroccan folk horror that celebrated its North American premiere at the 2019 Cinepocalypse film festival.
Achoura cannot help but suffer from comparisons to the famous Stephen King story, especially after Andy Muschetti’s adaptation took pop culture by storm last year. It’s a shame because, despite its surface level similarities, Achoura is a very different film that deserves to be experienced in its own right.
“The film’s imagery and its disorienting, uncanny sequences perfectly capture the feeling of being in a nightmare.”
The title is a traditional Moroccan holiday that features “The Night of the Children” a festival of bonfires and masquerading that serves as a symbolic backdrop to the events of the film. An atmospheric and ambiguous prologue set in Morocco’s past features the festival, along with a tragedy of child marriage and abuse that is mysteriously tied to an evil entity. Achoura opens with children whose innocence is ripped from them without the need for supernatural monsters, and it’s this bleak theme that persists throughout the film.
The film jumps forward to present day Morocco, as a group of adults cope with their unhappiness and disconnect. Nadia (Sofia Manousha) is a mother who is struggling to connect with her young son and estranged from her husband, Ali (Younes Bouab). Ali is a police officer obsessed with cold cases involving missing children. His brother Samir disappeared when they were young, and he copes with his trauma by tirelessly searching for the kidnapper. Meanwhile, the couple’s childhood friend, Stephane (Ivan Gonzalez), is an artist who paints nightmarish images. He alone has forced himself to remember the truth of the encounter he and his friends experienced years before. When the now adult Samir (Omar Lotfi) suddenly turns up alive, he forces the trio to reunite and face the literal monsters of their past.
Achoura is somber and meditative in its pacing. When director Talal Selhami conjures horror, he does so with a great gift for the unnerving. The film’s imagery and its disorienting, uncanny sequences perfectly capture the feeling of being in a nightmare. It’s a fitting sort of horror for a film about buried trauma, and it’s deeply unnerving.
The mythology of the film is one of its triumphs. With a foot in North African folklore and history, it’s mysterious, frightening and rich. The lore of the film is so compelling, it makes one wish the Achoura had more time to dive deep. At an hour and a half, the film moves quickly and leaves much of the mystery of its monster for the viewer to piece together. But all the pieces are there, and I found myself enthusiastically connecting the dots long after the credits rolled. The best supernatural horrors don’t over-explain their story — after all, nightmares lose their power when we shed too much light on them.
The monster at the center of Achoura is unique and terrifying. I was fascinated by the suggestions of its origins in Morrocan history, and the film hides a subtle but powerful critique of colonialism among its many thematic layers. The entity is CGI heavy, but the creature design is so creative and constantly surprising that I found I didn’t mind. Just when I thought every facet of the monster had been revealed, something new would literally burst forth to surprise me.
“The best supernatural horrors don’t over-explain their story”
Achoura is dark in its story and its moody cinematography. The world of our adult characters is eternally in shadow, dank and decaying. Meanwhile, their brief childhood innocence is shot in golden sunlight and green countryside, until they venture into that mysterious, decaying manor on the opposite side of the cornfield.
One of the ways Achoura sets itself apart from its clown-centered sibling is the reveal of the horror at its center. The adults of the story are introduced to us before their younger selves, and we learn about their past in flashes as they remember it. The effect is such that we don’t get to know their younger selves with the depth a more linear narrative would allow, but the absorbing mystery we get instead is well worth it. Achoura is more directly about the hazy nature of memory when coping with trauma, and its ambiguous storytelling supports those themes.
The film’s shortcomings are a side effect of its style and can be forgiven. I found the ending frustratingly ambiguous and lacking closure. But this is a story about how closure can’t really be found in the face of personal and historical trauma. It’s somber and pessimistic, something we don’t always want or expect from child-centered horror. Even IT has humor, nostalgia and hope to brighten the darkness. Achoura is far more nihilistic in its vision.
Achoura isn’t a perfect film — it’s pacing and script occasionally stumble — but it deserves to be seen. If the promise of a Morrocan IT is what draws you in, then check it out. But if you go in expecting the same themes and feel of that story, you will go away disappointed. Achoura deserves to be taken on its own as a pessimistic vision of trauma, nightmares, and innocence lost. It deserves a proper international audience. It doesn’t offer nostalgia, only monsters. Now that’s horror.
Achoura had its North American premiere June 15th at the 2019 Cinepocalypse Film Festival. Let us know if you plan to seek out this horror folktale on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street SubReddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club.