[Cinepocalypse 2019] Achoura/Achoura La Nuit des Enfants
The Day of Ashura in Morocco is typically a day of celebration and joy, particularly for children where water battles and candy and toys are the norm. One particular celebration, years and years ago, two children steal away from the parties to plot a life together in the future. But they run afoul of an old, Gothic manor surrounded by cornfields and the dark monster that lives inside.
Years later, another group of kids will discover the house and it will leave a lasting stain on each of them in different ways. This particular group of kids are Nadia (Jade Beloued), Ali (Abdellah El Yousfi) and his brother Samir (Noé Lahlou), and Stéphane (Gabriel Fracola). Nadia tells her friends of a house, surrounded by cornfields. They call it The French House because, a long time ago, French soldiers did unthinkable things in it. And it’s remained abandoned and haunted ever since. As kids, they obviously are drawn to the titillating fear of exploring something forgotten and forbidden and decide to seek it out. What happened in that house left them scarred and Samir kidnapped.
As adults, the group are still haunted by the events that transpired in the house, even though some of them have completely forgotten the monsters they encountered. Ali (Younes Bouab) is now a married police detective investigating missing kids as a way of coping with the disappearance of his brother Samir, those many years before. Nadia (Sofia Manousha) seems to live life in a daze. Only Stéphane seems to remember the past so clearly because he paints the monster they saw…a man with big, black eyes. The same kind of big black eyes kids whisper about today. Meanwhile, somewhere in a dilapidated city and old man (Moussa Maaskri) keeps a younger man (Omar Lotfi) in chains like a dog, fastened with a hjeadpiece that has the kind of metal bit you’d see in a horse.
As Ali’s work sends him on a wild chase for the old man, the memories of The French House and the pact the three remaining kids made begins to resurface…along with a malevolent creature, hellbent on consuming children.
It’s impossible to talk about Achoura without referencing Stephen King’s masterpiece, IT. Trade the kids with The Loser’s Club and The French House with The Well House/The House on Neibolt Street and you have a similarly structured story. Whereas King had hundreds upon hundreds of pages to establish his story and the adaptations had many hours to do so, Achoura feels absolutely stuffed to the brim in its slight 85 minutes.
The story by Talal Selhami (also the director), Jawad Lahlou and David Villemin does a fantastic job of introducing characters and then letting the viewer suss out their importance to each other and the narrative. I loved how everything was tied together perfectly; even the very brief intro scene that originally felt disconnected from the narrative is incorporated perfectly. And with the short runtime, the story hums along at a perfect pace, utilizing flashbacks of the group as children to make sense of what’s happening during the present.
Unfortunately, with the short runtime and the fractured story, characters are written in broad strokes. The hard-nosed cop desperate to find who’s abducting kids as a way to make amends for his missing brother. The tortured artist who draws disturbing paints as a way to exorcise the demons of his childhood. The woman who…well, I guess was an object of affection for the boys growing up and is now the de facto caregiver as an adult? The chained up man treated like a dog who might have a child-eating demon in his stomach. You know, that classic story.
As a paranormal-bent thriller, Achoura is a fantastic time to spend at the movies. It lacks some of the subtleties and thematic examinations that King’s novel contains. But it’s interesting to see a Moroccan horror film that incorporates Muslim mythology and creates a pretty interesting and creepy (albeit completely CG) monster to haunt your dreams.