It’s been a while since I’ve done a Turkish movie. It’s not often that I come across them but thanks to Onar Films, a Greek outfit specializing in some of Turkey’s worst cinematic offenses, I have some new titles in stock. Though many aware of Turkish movies are familiar with that period of superhero movies and bizarre Turkish takes on popular Hollywood movies, there is a legitimate face to Turkey’s movie scene. In recent times, they’ve been responsible for some really good genre movies. A while back, I reviewed Son Osmanli favorably and I’m on track to add Karanlik Sular to that short list, too.
I don’t have much experience with middle eastern movies, but I’m fascinated by the genre fare that I’ve seen. As I stated in my review of Seytan, the differences in what scares westerners and people from the middle east are often so great that each culture’s fears seem entirely alien to one another. In Seytan, an easy example, the Catholic panic over Satan, evident in movie’s inspiration, doesn’t translate to the Muslim world at all and the result is a stilted, awkward adaptation that attempts to translate those fears into something that the Turkish can understand. It doesn’t work out so well in the end. Karanlik Sular doesn’t exactly share that misunderstanding that made Seytan so entertaining but their take on the traditionally European legend of the Vampire is something else, entirely.
Among its confusing 88 minutes, Karanlik Sular weaves several plots into one. A cabal of vampires, led by an ancient Byzantine princess trapped in an 8 year old girl’s body, search for a pair of cursed scrolls. The scrolls have fallen into the hands of a cult who hope to unlock its secret which reveals the key to eternal life among the voice of god yet kills the reader at the same time. An American contract researcher turned hitman seeks the same scrolls for the vampires, acquiring their curse in the process and opening the wounds of a mother in possession of the scrolls, grieving the drowning death of her son (now one of the vampires) a year prior.
Karanlik Sular takes an actively hostile approach to easy classification and even though it is lumped in with horror movies because of its identification with vampires, it’s not an easy fit at all. If anything, its winding plot is closer to something like a David Lynch film. Soaked in circular dream logic, characters suddenly shift identity, changing sides in the struggle for the scrolls. Language suddenly shifts from Turkish to English (with the majority of the movie in spoken English), constantly keeping the viewer off-balance, suggesting the collision of two different worlds, a constantly recurring theme throughout the movie; West meets East, living meet the dead, old meets new. Though less than 90 minutes long the movie packs a huge punch of compressed symbolism and surrealism.
The film is set in modern Istanbul, depicted here as a bustling city seemingly oblivious to its sprawling, baroque architecture. A decaying, ancient city bathed in Dario Argento color palettes. Our characters navigate its winding roads almost exclusively by night, lit by torches. The striking visual appeal can often alleviate the deliberately frustrating nature of the plot.
While Karanlik Sular doesn’t always come together, it is constantly hinting at a larger metaplot. Maintaining the strange, dreamlike storytelling, which leaves out large, important chunks of what is going on could still have been possible while explaining at least a little bit about the forces at work in the movie. Vampires, a vaguely outlined cult and a major construction corporation all compete for the same prize at a terrible cost for all parties involved but without the proper background, we as viewers can’t really be asked to care too much about what is going on. We become more or less spectators who step into a story already in progress much like the people in the theater at the beginning of the movie. Gaping holes in the plot and logic can be excused as Karanlik Sular is a genuinely original movie from a region not usually associated with artistry and filmmaking. Shock and terror are abandoned in favor of much more unconventional devices of fear and paranoia created by shifting languages, themes and identities set in a city of unparalleled atmosphere.
Though Turkey has a reputation for letting the prints of their movies rot, probably to hurry the process of forgetting Turkish Star Wars, they wind up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In spite of there being no vault materials to work with, no negatives, nothing, Onar Films pieces together an admirable limited edition DVD package of one of the Middle East’s most original and strange art-horror movies complete with trailers, posters and an interview with director Kutlug Ataman. The All Region DVD can be purchased from their website.