Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Movies Worth Googling: strange movie reviews by Jenny Orosel

It’s that time of year. The chill of fall is in the air, the leaves are gliding groudward, and the hordes of frozen turkeys are invading the grocery store. And that makes me think fondly on Turkish films.
Yes, there was a golden age of Turkish cinema. Around the mid-sixties, Istanbul (not Constantanople) and the outlying had their theatres that showed either one of the few homegrown studio pictures or, more likely, imported and subtitled flicks from Europe or America. Those not wanting to venture outside for entertainment could watch a program on one of those new televisions that was the rage. The rural areas, on the other hand, were out of luck. The prohibitive price of TV sets aside, reception was impossible outside the city areas. And when it was time to treat themselves to the movies, the last thing they wanted to do was read along with a foreign flick. They wanted pure, casual fun entertainment. Thus, around 1965, the Turkish independent film business was born.
The producers and directors weren’t film school graduates, but con men and merchants who could get a hold of a movie camera. The stars didn’t come from soap operas or repertory theatre, but were friends of the producers, or the farmer who lived down the road. They started cranking out movie after movie, mostly cheap action flicks made in less than a week with a budget a fraction of what Hollywood studios were paying on catering alone. With the actors doing all their own stunts, it was cheap to string together a bunch of fight scenes with minimal plot to tie it all together. The audiences loved them, demanded more, and these filmmakers were happy to feed the need.
Eventually, even with the miniscule storylines needed, they started to run out of ideas. Instead of using part of the precious budget to pay writers to come up with original plots, they simply found the biggest grossing American media and remade them, using their own actors and their own languages. Hence, the “Turkish Remake” was born, and the subgenre that most people are familiar with from the golden age.
Nothing was outside the realm of the Turkish filmmaker. There was a Star Trek rip-off (the Enterprise crew picks up a Turkish hitchhiker), a fun little piece called 3 Dev Adam (Three Mighty Men)where Captain America and Santos fight the evil crime lord, Spider-man (side note—that one is definitely worth looking up, if anything, for the scene where Spidey feeds an innocent woman into a boat’s propeller). Those ones took known characters and gave them a whole different storyline. Then there were the more blatant rip-offs.
The Turkish Star Wars not only went for a remake, but used footage from the real version to pad their effects-starved production. The Turkish Wizard of Oz looks oddly familiar, like watching the movie through funhouse mirrors. My favorite was Seytan, the Turkish Exorcist.

I’ve read a number of reviews ripping Seytan apart for being a cheap shot-for-shot remake. That is unfair. Yes, the story is basically the same—twelve year old daughter of a single mother gets possessed by the devil and two older men help chase the demon from her body. Yes, a lot of the key scenes are intact, including the projectile vomit, the peeing herself at the middle of a party, the bed levitations. However one key factor is missing—the Catholic factor.
There aren’t a whole lot of Catholics in Turkey, certainly not enough to fill multiple theatres. So the Catholic part of the movie had to go. Step one: remove the priests. The part of Father Damian Karas became a writer. The Max von Sydow character is now an anthropologist. With no religious training whatsoever, how are these men qualified to perform an exorcism? One wrote a book on devils, the other was on the dig that unearthed the demon possessing little Gul’s soul.

Okay, so we have an Exorcist remake with no religious references (other than an occasional uttering of Allah’s name during the ceremony), no special effects, and no budget. Can that work? In some ways, yes it can. However, for it to do so, it has to be judged on a whole different scale than the original. Friedkin’s The Exorcist was done not just as story, but as art. It was a movie that wanted, not just to scare or entertain, but get under the audience’s skin and stick around long after the last reel was done. Even though it’s been thirty five years since The Exorcist and special effects have become more realistic, it continues to disturb audiences even today.
Seytan is pure popcorn entertainment. There was no statement of faith, no subtext. We are presented with a classical battle of good versus evil, tainted versus pure. And there are some genuine scary moments. Granted, those are more along the “Boo!” lines than the disturbingly horrific scares of the original. Still, it works for what it wanted to be—a fun piece of escapist entertainment.
Yes, Seytan has its bits of craptacularity. The effects are horrible. Instead of spewing pea soup, for example, it looks like they just splashed yellow paint on the writer’s face. The lights in the room magically disappear during the bed levitation scene, but if you look close enough, you can still see the ropes pulling it up. The camera work, especially if you compare it to the original, was flat and uninteresting. It’s hard to say if the script was poorly written because it could either be the dialogue, or the horrible subtitling job on the version I saw (a few lines were subtitled with “?????” where the translator couldn’t figure out what the translation was, and another time “search Google” came up on the subtitles. This was on a version uploaded to YouTube, so I guess I got what I paid for).
When Seytan worked, it was mainly due to the actors. The little girl playing Gul gave a surprisingly subtle performance when she was the girl herself, confused and scared. While possessed, she was gleefully over the top, the evil demonic force necessary to deliver the fun. Tugrul, the writer, conveys regret about his mother almost equal to Jason Miller’s performance as the tormented priest.
Still, it’s impossible to not watch Seytan and compare it to The Exorcist. It’s like being in the mood for a steak and getting McDonalds instead. Yes, they’re both cow meat, and McDonalds isn’t necessarily all that disgusting, but there is no mistaking one for the other.
Turkey continued with the remakes for another ten years after Seytan. However, around the mid-eighties, production died down. More and more people had access to television, and no longer needed to go to the movies and pay for cheap entertainment. Independent film production tapered off and finally died, around the time of the Turkish E.T. Eventually, most of these movies were bought by television and became a staple of weekend or late-night programming, any time they needed a cheap time filler, there were thousands of films to fill the need.
As a film lover, I look at the body of work from Turkey’s golden age and see a bunch of action flicks with minimal plot, remakes and rip-offs which, while loved during their era, are viewed now with either total disgust or a nostalgic humor. Then I look at the listings currently playing in theatres…cheap remakes with no respect for the original, mindless action flicks, rip-offs. I have to wonder—have we in America entered a golden age ourselves?

WHERE TO FIND THEM: There are a handful of bootleg retail outlets that sell DVD-r copies of Turkish remakes. I wouldn’t bother paying, as you can easily browse YouTube or Google Video and find a whole bunch for free. Trust me, that way you get your money’s worth.