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Savant PAL Region 0 Guest Review:

Karanlik Sular
(The Serpent's Tale)

Karanlik Sular
Onar Films
1993 / Colour and Black and White / 1.77:1 flat letterbox / The Serpent's Tale / 83 min.
Starring Gonen Bozbey, Metin Uygun, Daniel Chace, Eric Pio, Semiha Berksoy, Beste Cinarci, Cunyet Caliskur, Barry Thorne.
Chris Squires
Art Director Sila Sayin
Film Editor Annabel Ware
Original Music Blake Leyh
Written, Produced and Directed by E. Kutlug Ataman

Reviewed by Lee Broughton

It sometimes seems that the colourful reputations garnered by Turkish popular cinema's action-packed superhero films (see Casus Kiran and Demir Pence Korsan Adam) will forever ensure that those films remain the most commonly discussed aspect of Turkey's cinematic heritage. However, Yavuz Yalinkilic's flawed but fascinating horror flick, Oluler Konusmaz Ki (1970), serves to prove that the impoverished Turkish film industry was capable of successfully engaging with other popular film genres. Recently paired with a contemporaneous thriller (Mehmet Aslan's Aska Susayanlar Seks ve Cinayet) on the Turkish Horror double bill DVD issued by Onar Films, Yalinkilic's eerie and atmospheric film concerns itself with a sentient and malevolent zombie-ghost creature that stalks the grounds and corridors of a gothic mansion-like hotel. The feature remains an interesting and inspired effort despite being severely hampered by a multitude of budget-related shortcomings.

Twenty three years later, E. Kutlug Ataman wrote, produced and directed a film that would take Turkish cinema's engagement with the horror genre to a completely new and previously undreamed of level. Armed with a challengingly literate script and greatly aided by a decent-sized budget, Ataman was able to assemble an international cast and crew that featured a number of seasoned professionals amongst its ranks. Their wealth of experience and Ataman's determination to break new ground resulted in a really quite remarkable Turkish film being produced. Narrative-wise, Karanlik Sular is extremely bold in its use of surreal, elliptical and hallucinatory-like storytelling techniques but the show's seemingly endless parade of genuinely intriguing enigmas ensures that its central narrative thread remains compelling. At a technical level, the film has more in common with European art house productions than it does with the fun-but-underfinanced films produced during Turkish popular cinema's 1960s/1970s heyday. As such, it's not at all difficult to appreciate why Karanlik Sular is routinely cited as being the best Turkish horror film ever made.


Richie Hunter (Daniel Chace), an American working in Istanbul, appears to be covertly looking for somebody in the audience of a crowded cinema. When he spots an old man following a young girl (Beste Cinarci) out of the auditorium he pursues the pair, seemingly intending to use a discarded sweeping brush's wooden handle as a weapon. After being momentarily distracted by the appearance of another man, Haldun (Metin Uygun), who engages him in cryptic small talk, Richie discovers that the old man has been killed by a vampire bite while the girl is nowhere to be seen. Haldun advises Richie to stop following the girl, warning him that she is actually a supernatural entity, the Byzantine princess Theodora. Haldun then gives Richie an ancient compass and asks him to take it to his mother's house.

Richie visits Haldun's mother, Lamia (Gonen Bozbey), only to be told that Haldun has been dead for a number of years. However, Lamia is able to link the compass to two untranslatable semi-circular manuscripts that Haldun bequeathed to her and, convinced that these relics possess the power to reunite her with her son, she takes them to a language professor, Stefan (Eric Pio). Unfortunately, other parties are seeking to possess the power of the artifacts and so a four-way battle of wits erupts between Princess Theodora and her protectors, the ruthless head of an American business corporation, a doomed prophet and his followers and Lamia and Stefan. Richie offers to assist Lamia and Stefan but it soon becomes apparent that his actions are being guided by an ulterior motive.

Karanlik Sular opens with a quite lengthy spoken prologue that plays over a series of seemingly random but symmetrical squiggles which slowly fill the screen. A voiceover reveals that Mehves, a pioneering female calligrapher who lived in the nineteenth century, left behind many manuscripts when she died in 1873. One of these manuscripts contained a strange and futuristic story that was set in Istanbul during the 1990s. E. Kutlug Ataman's film, Karanlik Sular, is actually an adaptation of that story. As soon as the prologue ends, a hard cut introduces a short segment from a slightly avant-garde looking black and white film that plays like it might have influenced the content of the cursed video tape in Hideo Nakata's The Ring: shots of a distracted and melancholy looking woman are violently crosscut with shots of a stretch of malevolently choppy water. Only the sound of lapping water and a wild howling wind can be heard on the film's soundtrack. It turns out that this film is actually being screened in the packed cinema where Richie Hunter is first seen.

The staging of the sequence that subsequently unfolds inside the cinema serves to illustrate the stylish-but-slightly bizarre nature of Ataman's film. Chris Squires's camera slowly and smoothly tracks along a row of cinema seats - that are occupied exclusively by older women - while suspenseful and faintly avant-garde sounding music plays on the soundtrack. The women appear quite strange looking because they are all trying - in a variety of ways - to stifle the emotions prompted by the film that they are watching. Throughout the sequence, the sobs and sniffles of less controlled members of the audience can be heard. Individual close-ups of both Haldun and Richie, which show them slowly turning their heads in a mannered way and staring intently at something in the auditorium, are followed by two similar close-ups that show the old man and Princess Theodora slowly turning their heads in order to project equally mannered stares towards each other. A subsequent long shot works to reveal the architectural beauty of the interior of the old cinema itself. All in all, the sequence plays like a scene from an off-the-wall remake of Cinema Paradiso.

Things become even more stylized in the strange nighttime sequences that intermittently punctuate the show's narrative. Their effect is a little like those fantastically disorientating scenes in Don Coscarelli's Phantasm films where it remains unclear just where and when the events unfolding onscreen are supposed to be taking place: it could be within the film's diegetic real world but it could also be within some alternate supernatural dimension that the characters have temporarily fallen into or within a character's nightmarish but vivid dreams. Either way, these sequences are pretty disquieting since the dark and desolate streets that make up their nighttime landscape are home to a malevolent vampire. Ataman plays up the stalking aspect of vampirism here and he expertly draws upon the filmic language associated with the thriller genre when staging these scenes. The foreboding and claustrophobic nature of the old cobbled streets encountered in these sequences, and the sequences' unsettling soundtrack music, brings to mind the nighttime street scenes found in Raoul Servais's uniquely disturbing short film, Harpya.

Ataman adopts yet another quite striking visual style for a sequence set in a strange nightclub. It seems that a nightclub scene that features some kind of performance by an in-house act can be found in most Turkish films and Ataman respectfully observes this convention. However, he uses it as an opportunity to expertly utilize some vibrant colour filters that give the nightclub a weird otherworldly glow. Here it is revealed that Princess Theodora and her protectors have concocted the perfect cover story for themselves: they appear as artistes in what is staged to look like an obviously fake vampire act. In some sections of the film, Ataman delivers more specifically pointed nods in the direction of the European art house tradition. When Lamia visits an old fortune-teller, Ataman allows actress Semiha Berksoy to deliver a mysterious warning to Lamia in a fabulously naturalistic way and the show's cinematography is adjusted accordingly. The sequence plays like something from a French New Wave film or perhaps one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's more naturalistic New German Cinema offerings. Squires's camera lingers on Berksoy's expressive face while her distinctive voice gets a good airing too, ensuring that viewers subconsciously remember both. A curious effect is produced when Berksoy subsequently makes a number of further appearances in small but noticeable roles as seemingly different and unrelated characters.

By and large, the show's acting talent manages to bring their respective characters to life in suitably convincing ways. Gonen Bozbey steals the show with her excellent performance as Lamia. Lamia is a privileged, rich and classy looking older woman who lives in a huge mansion and drives vintage cars. She sometimes comes on like a surly and elitist aristocrat who has failed to change with the times but she remains a surprisingly sympathetic character. In some nicely executed early scenes, that have a pleasing whiff of soap opera and melodrama about them, it is revealed that Lamia's rat of a boyfriend is primarily with her for her money and he's cooking up a business deal that is going to cost Lamia her ancestral family home. Sometimes seemingly strung out on the pills that her sinister maid forcefully encourages her to take and constantly angry with her slimy boyfriend, Lamia hopes to keep her head straight long enough to finally find out what has really happened to Haldun. Since his body was never formally identified, she's convinced that he's still alive and that she's a victim of a conspiracy. Conversely, everyone around her thinks that she is paranoid, delusional and unhinged. Unfortunately, a series of increasingly strange events threaten to push her over the edge.

Metin Uygun provides an interesting performance as Haldun. His delivery of his English language lines is at times quite stilted but this actually adds to the aura of mystery that surrounds his character. A victim of the curse that befalls anybody who tries to translate the contents of the manuscripts, Haldun is a sympathetic character who is essentially concerned with ensuring that the supernatural status quo is not disrupted. It's a little harder to fairly assess Daniel Chace's turn as Richie Hunter. The only American actor onscreen for much of the show, his acting style sometimes clashes slightly with that of the film's Turkish cast members. Given that the film offers a number of meditations on clashes of one sort or another - the old world versus the new world, established aristocrats versus the nouveau riche, academia versus commerce, the indigenous versus the foreign, the everyday versus the supernatural, etc - Chace's approach here is probably exactly what Ataman was looking for. Interestingly, the one scene in the film that allows Richie to interact exclusively with another American character plays like it belongs to a weird and worthy, esoteric and genre-bending, American "B" movie from the 1970s.

By day, Richie is a researcher for a multi-national corporation that renovates old cities. Covering his work, along with a number of other general plot developments, required much in the way of location filming in and around the old-world quarters of Istanbul. As such, Ataman presents a quite spectacular parade of Istanbul's finest old-world architecture in the form of a variety of grand and imposing buildings and atmospheric ruins. These structural reminders of a bygone age contribute greatly to the suitably eerie and mystical ambiences that dominate key segments of the show. The prophet and his followers dwell inside a labyrinthine series of dark tunnels that run underground and these tunnels are the site of a tense and suspenseful chase at one point. The vampires encountered in the film are fully adjusted to living in modern day Istanbul and their convincing cover stories allow them to go about their business pretty much unnoticed. The young vampire girl and the vampire stage act might well have been inspired by the content of Anne Rice's source novel for Interview with the Vampire but Ataman gives both concepts an original spin here.

At a narrative level, Karanlik Sular is a little reminiscent of David Lynch's more mystifying and non-linear work. Indeed, a sense of the uncanny accompanies many of the events and happenings that inform the film's decidedly jagged but essentially circular narrative trajectory. Ultimately, Karanlik Sular's narrative development is governed by a weird metaphysical logic all of its own. In terms of its overall style and look, the film's nearest point of reference might well be Harry Kumel's excellent Malpertuis. Just like Kumel's film, Karanlik Sular is an original, intelligent and unpredictable fantasy/mystery/horror show that looks, much of the time, like an art house feature. Sumptuous sets, impressive locations, stylish cinematography, strong art direction, a rich colour palette and good lighting all contribute to the film's really classy look. As the film moves into its final chapter, one character's bold decision to adopt a brave and ultimately life transforming change of outlook has far reaching consequences for most of the show's interested parties. The character's change of outlook results in the film ending with a somewhat downbeat but mind-bending flourish that remains strangely moving. The strong emotional kick that is generated by the show's dream-like finale begs comparison to the equally unusual but emotional denouements encountered in the likes of Malpertuis, The Ninth Configuration, They Might be Giants and Donnie Darko. Just like those films, Karanlik Sular is an extraordinary feature that demands and rewards repeat screenings.

Onar Films were seemingly supplied with a video master of Karanlik Sular that was taken from a superior quality tape source. All things considered, the picture quality of the DVD is generally just short of very good. The film's bold colour schemes come through quite strongly and little in the way of picture detail is lost. Some of the nighttime scenes appear to be just a tad over-dark but their darker hue does not really obscure any of the onscreen action. Some sequences do suffer from a slightly soft looking picture quality: an anamorphic presentation would no doubt have resulted in a marginally sharper picture overall.

The DVD's sound quality is generally very good and the dialogue track is clear. The film's characters speak mostly in English but some scenes are in Turkish: these scenes have burned in English language subtitles that are presented within the film's frame. The white coloured subtitles are generally fine but they do briefly pose a slight problem during the show's prologue: the white squiggles that fill the screen behind the subtitles during the prologue do make just a couple of the subtitled words a little hard to make out.

Given the seemingly precarious nature of film preservation in Turkey, this release represents a solid enough presentation of an obscure film that deserves a much wider audience. All of the DVD's extra features are English language friendly.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Karanlik Sular rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Good / Very Good -- (PAL Region 0)
Sound: Very Good -
Supplements: an interview with E. Kutlug Ataman, an image gallery, biographies, filmographies, snippets from American, European and Turkish press reviews and a selection of trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 30, 2009

Text © Copyright 2009 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

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