At midnight on Saturday, like some sort of young person, I found myself taking a seat at the Music Box Theatre for the North American premiere of Morocco’s very first creature feature, Achoura. The creature in question is the child-eating Bougatate, and like all good ancient demons, it even has a little rhyme to help you remember its modus operandi.
On happy Ashura night / Their joy burns too bright / He’s woken from his slumber / Famished by a hunger / Their joy he wants to eat / Those children young and sweet
Pretty spooky stuff, right? Beyond its desire to consume the joy of children, the only other thing that we really know about Bougatate is that it can be forced inside of a human host and trapped there for as long as that person keeps a bit gag in their mouth. Kinky! Just kidding, it’s honestly super horrible to look at.
Anyway, set around the religious holiday Ashura, the film splits its attention between a group of increasingly estranged adult friends and their younger selves two decades earlier. As children, Nadia, Stéphane, Ali, and Samir are tricked into entering a pretty classic-looking haunted house where they inadvertently release the long-trapped demon before Samir is whisked away by a mysterious stranger.
After Samir and Bougatate both resurface twenty-five years later, Nadia, Stéphane and Ali are forced to remember what happened to them as children so that they can overcome their fears and face the monster together.
If the plot is giving you major Losers’ Club vibes, you’re not alone. Achoura has already garnered a ton of comparisons to Stephen King’s IT, and while the parallels are clear, director Talal Selhami has taken care to infuse his story and visuals with enough North African charm and Moroccon folklore to set Achoura apart.
In terms of character design, Bougatate’s white, alien-like face and amorphous, black body reminded me of the iconic No-Face from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. In contrast to that film’s bright and colorful aesthetic, Achoura’s dark and often bleak atmosphere is a perfect complement to the largely cg monster, allowing it to always remain partially in shadow and just out of clear view.
While I’m generally very against bloated films with two-hour runtimes, my only real complaint with Achoura is that at 90 minutes, the whole thing just felt a little rushed. With essentially three separate timelines and a whole lot of lore to introduce, many of the characters in the film were reduced to two dimensions and given a single trait to define them. Stéphane makes weird art. Ali is a haggard cop. Samir drools a lot. Like so much though. It’s a massive story and the reason that both adaptations of IT have been split into two separate films.
Even though things felt rushed, there’s no question that Achoura is an engaging supernatural creature feature. The entire cast knocks it out of the park with an especially strong performance from Sofiia Manousha as adult Nadia, and the lush orchestral score from Romain Paillot lends a massive feel to the entire production. Hopefully Achoura makes its way onto a streaming service soon, and if you’re into spooky monsters, moody atmosphere, and watching grown men drool from behind bit gags, you’ll definitely want to add it to your queue.