The Serpent’s Tale
Original Title: Karanlik Sular
Directed by: Kutluğ Ataman
Distributed by: Onar Films
For the last few years, fans of fantastic cinema have been rejoicing over the availability of many rare Turkish movies that one previously only heard of, read about or seen clips of on that infinite source You Tube. Movies like Turkish Star Trek 1973, Turkish Star Wars 1982, 3 Adem Dev 1973, Tarkan 1969 and the Kilink movies have for ages been sought after gems, especially by those who faithfully read Pete Tombs Mondo Macabro book and set out to track down the movies he discusses there, an almost impossible task in itself. But like so many other lost gem’s of the minor and more independent studios, taking care of their source materials have not been the main priority, and more than often, the only remaining sources are in pretty beat up shape.
That’s where the real enthusiasts make an important difference.
In all honesty I haven’t really seen that many Turkish movies apart from Faith Akin's brilliant Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul 2005 and the obligatory Turkish Star Wars [Dünyayi kurtan adam] 1982 and Öhmer Tourist in Star Trek [Turist Ömer Uzay Yolunda] 1973, but then again there’s not that many Turkish films on DVD to start with is there. But that’s all changing thanks to Bill, a true enthusiast and his company - Onar Films - a Trojan Horse packed to the rim with amazing, lost treasures of Turkish Fantastic Cinema.
Even though the movies that us treasure hunters are familiar with may be in the more fantastic sphere and give an impression of being lower budget productions, Turkey was in no way a late comer to the world of cinema. As early as 1914 director Fuat Uzkinay shot the first Turkish movie, a documentary and only twenty years later Turkey even had their own equivalent of Hollywood, Yesilçam. In its prime during the 50’s-70’s Yesilçam was releasing between 250-350 films annually – and that’s probably not even counting all those glorious movies made by independent players. It says something of the quantities of film being produced there and the sad fact that many, many movies are really lost. Like so many other countries, Yesilçam saw production costs shoot through the roof, they also suffered from the advent of television, and later Video, leaving the cinemas almost empty and ticket sales dropping drastically. In the mid nineties there where sadly only a handful of movies being made each year.
But during the last fifteen - twenty years a new wave of directors have started coming forth, many of them with documentaries, comedies, dramas and horror is starting to creep back, and it's among these directors we find Kutluğ Ataman.
Kutluğ Ataman’s debut feature Karanlik Sular (The Serpents Tale) is an odd little jewel that walks that tender line between art house and horror. Not surprising if you have any insight into the later works of Ataman, who spent the early years of his career directing philosophical, arty dramas which focus more on the characters and style than staying true to the genre it uses as an inspirational basis. Ataman was acknowledged for his first feature and became a frequently featured guest at many film festivals where his movies often are awarded.
During the last decade, Ataman’s movies have slowly moved into pure art itself, and his installations have been shown in some of the finest art houses in the world. His piece Woman who wear wigs is currently being exhibited at Malmö Konsthall here in Sweden [10 October 2009 – 31 January 2010]
See, horror films do lead to good things!
Genre is sometimes a difficult thing to determine, what one person feels is a terrifying horror film, the next may call a drama with scary scenes. The Swedish movie Let The Right One In 2008 is a great example of those kinds of movies, ones that are more complicated to pigeonhole. I call them Dramas that use horror traits. And this is just the case with Karanlik Sular. There’s no debating that it’s a highly impressive movie, that definitely stands out among those other great titles released by Onar Films, as it moves in a more philosophical and art house circuit than being just a plain horror flick. Sure it does use traits from the Horror genre, and the main plot is horror related, but I’d probably not call it a horror film. But that’s only by definition and in no way a final say. If it scares you and puts the fear of god in your heart, they you can call it a horror film.
Karanlik Sular starts with a poetic little animated sequence telling the tale of a nineteenth century calligraphy artist named Mevhes who once wrote futuristic story that took place in 1990’s. Being insulted by the critique she received for her story, she licked herself away until the day she passed away. When she died in 1873 an equally strange series of events took place that destroyed the manuscripts leaving only notes and ancestors down told tales for Ataman to build his script upon.
The pretext explains, almost apologetic that Mevehs manuscript is based on the rules of the aruz metric system, Ottoman Divan Poetry and the aesthetics of Islamic Art of Calligraphy, which takes a detour from the classical plot device of cause and effect in favour of a rhythmic, decorative fashion and may not be easy to understand. There's also a warning that the manuscripts and possibly the movie are cursed. Ok…
But what does it mean?
The aruz metric System is the structure of Ottoman Divan Poetry, Ottoman Divan Poetry isn’t some bloke’s texts, but a form of ritualized and symbolic poetry not too know outside of Turkey written during the Ottoman Empire and influenced by Sufi thought. Sufi being the inner mystical dimension of Islam, and the aesthetics of Islamic Art, calligraphy included, primarily consist of anthropomorphic figures, and the intricate patterns all create an impression of unending repetition!
With all that in mind, the pretext falls into context, as just like the description of Mevhes texts above, it’s just what Ataman does with his film, it comes round full circle and gives the impression of easily being played in an eternal loop – Just like the aesthetics of Islamic Art. It makes sense when you take time to let it sink in, and I promise that I’ll get back to the curse later
After the pretext, we are placed in front of women crying as they watch images on a cinema screen. Images of a saddened woman throwing ashes into the sea, images that will come back later to make that pretext fall into place. Among the women sits an elderly gent, a young girl – Princess Theodora, Haldar, and Richie Hunter [Daniel Chace]. The little girl leaves the theatre, with teddy bear in hand, only to be followed by the old geezer. Hunter sneaks along and while the old man makes contact with the young girl Richie hides in the shadows. But before he can interact, he’s startled by Haldar [Metin Uygun] who picks up conversation with him. Trying to refocus on the little girl and the old man, Richie sees that the girl has disappeared leaving the man with a bleeding vampire bite to the neck.
Haldar takes Hunter out on a stroll though the night and the vampire elements are firmly established through his dialogue. It’s neat as the old initial attack and fanged hissing vampire is more often used, perhaps too much. This is a more subtle and just sneaks it into the story – Haldar talks about having to be enchanted before the bite, that he has to leave when he hears the church bells, that the little girl was Theodora, a Byzantine Princess and gives a warning to stop following her. He leaves Richie with a small cased medallion that he suggests he take to Haldar’s mother Lamia [Gönen Bozbey].
This is how Ataman presents his main plot and his lead characters, it’s effective and at the same time getting there rapidly, he's wasting no time. Pretty soon the whole thing starts unravelling as the mysterious medallion leads to the strange manuscripts that Lamia has, which her servant has secretly studied as to copy them for the cult he’s connected to. The cult want the manuscripts so that they can reshape the world religion, and rule as masters, and at the same time the vampires want the manuscripts too, which gives for some great moments of tension between the two fractions.
I feel that trying to analyze the movie is in some ways uncalled for and unfair, as I’m sure that each viewer will come to different conclusions about the movie with it's rich symbolism and enigmatic ending. Also I think that it may take away some of the mysticism of the film - You don’t need to know exactly what happens where before watching it. And watch it you should, because a movie with vampire mythos, cursed manuscripts, secret cults chasing the same fragments of paper and violent deaths lurking around every corner are just some of the wonders that this movie will show you.
So what about that curse mentioned in the pretext?
It is possible to read the movie as the pretext curse. Haldar found the manuscripts and became cursed – an undead wanderer, a slave of the vampires. Hunter who also comes in contact with the manuscripts also becomes cursed. Remember there’s that one scene where he suddenly feels that he’s been bitten and holds his bloodied neck. Well he ain’t himself after that and also becomes an undead, he’s been cursed. The Prophet! Cursed, his dabbling with the mysterious manuscripts cost him his life. And don’t forget Lamia’s chauffeur whom get’s an ice pick rammed in his eye while snooping for the scrolls whereabouts. And finally Lamia; she’s screwed from square one. She has lost everything from the moment Haldar hid the manuscripts in her home. Her family, her lover, her son and eventually her home - all gone. The only person who wins anything in this film is Lamia’s boyfriend (or whatever he is) because he gains everything. Life, a prosperous future and fortune – even it means burning down Lamia’s house and collecting the insurance money that he earlier forced her to sign over to him.
So Lamia has lost everything and in the final moments of the film she realizes this as her house burns. Scattering the ashes of her once great life (most likely Haldar and the house ashes) to the sea, we cut back to the cinema from the start of the movie and the story comes full circle, only to give the impression of all characters caught in an eternal loop. Remember - The aesthetics of Islam art. The manuscript of the movie is obviously Mevhes manuscript and the curse is very real in the narrative of the film. And I'll let you in on a little secret - it's all made up, the pretext, Mehves, the cursed manuscripts and everything else. Ataman wrote the script and worked that backstory into it masterfully, it's like the "based on a true story" gimmick used in so many classic horror films but much more meatier and elegantly performed.
Karanlik Sular takes a bold approach to its narrative interweaving social drama, strange cults and vampire mythos. Although the vampirism is possibly held to a minimum, I feel that it helps Ataman get away with some of the more confusing parts of the narrative. Not that this is a bad thing, directors like David Lynch, Peter Greenaway and Alejandro Jodorowsky have been getting away with strange movies by covering it in imagery, symbolism and slight of hand for ages.
As frequent readers of this site will know, I’m a sucker for imagery, it’s the stuff that can keep even the worst of films interesting and appealing for me. Karanlik Sular contains a load of great images and some wonderful compositions by cinematographer Chris Squires, who has worked on many a big budget Hollywood flicks since. Fantastic shots with dark deep colours, freaky lighting and all set in a decayed background of Istanbul to give a really dreamy and apocalyptic feeling. There’s no denying that Ataman’s art vibe is definitely a plus for the production, and I was thrilled by the way the movie looked, as I definitely have seen stuff that looks a hell of a lot worse off than this stylish little movie.
So yes, I enjoyed Karanlik Sular even though it has some minor flaws, but that’s why we enjoy alternative cinema and don’t waste our time going to see Avatar or the Twilight movies at the cinema. Karanlik Sular is an entertaining and definitely an interesting movie that had me surprised with its high production values and intriguing story. I wasn’t expecting such a treat, and my favourite sequence has to be the scenes where the vampires go underground to re-claim the sacred scrolls. It had me remembering the climax of Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears - but better. Kutluğ Ataman has with Karanlik Sular managed to create a suspenseful, visual and intriguing movie that really is top notch - odd, but fascinating.
I sincerely suggest that you get yourself over to the Onar Film’s store right now and treat yourself to something that you haven’t seen previously, because not only is this movie on limited 1200 edition release only, but it’s worth every penny and could just well be one of the best Turkish movie you’ll ever see.
16x9 widescreen version.
2.0 mono Turkish and English Dialogue with optional English or Greek subtitles.
The Onar Film releases are always filled with extras, Karanlik Sular is no exception. There’s an insightful interview with Kutluğ Ataman, who tells his story, a photo gallery, text biographies for cast and crew, excerpts from what European, American and Turkish press said about the movie and trailers for several other Onar Film releases