When it comes to viewing classic or cult Turkish cinema, it’s a little bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, there are quite a few classic Turk films out there (the majority of which lean towards melodrama), that come off as fairly well-made and worthy of re-evaluation. And yet, on the other side of the coin, most cult film aficionados tend to judge Turk cinema on the merits, or lack-thereof, of their pop-cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. Consisting of action, westerns, and adventure dramas, these films had a tendency to knock-off popular American or Western films, copyright infringement be damned! A perfect example is Three Mighty Men (1973; Turkish title: 3 Dev Adam), which features none other than Captain America and El Santo taking a little trip to Istanbul to take down their arch-nemesis…Spider-Man! I’m certain Stan Lee would be none too pleased with that film.
But when it comes to classic Turkish horror, it’s an even trickier beast to tackle. While as of recent, Turkey has made a few horror films, but looking for any Turkish horror made during the Golden Era of the 1950s and 1960s they are very few and far between. Therefore, this article presents three titles that, while they may not represent the best of early Turkish horror, are worth a re-evaluation.
It’s interesting to see that whenever a particular foreign country embarked on the horror genre during the heyday of their cinematic achievements, they would tend to rely on the vampire-mythos for inspiration. In Mexico, you have Fernando Mendez’s The Vampire (1957; Spanish title: El Vampiro) featuring German Robles as a fanged blood-sucker named Count Lavud; in Pakistan there is The Living Corpse (1967; Urdu title: Zinda Laash) in which a noble scientist experimenting with an elixir of life turns him into a vampire; in Finland there was Erik Blomberg’s The White Reindeer (1953; Finnish title: Valkoinen Peura) which mixed vampires, witches, and werewolves in an odd brew; and in Malaysia the competing Hong Kong companies Cathay-Kris Organization and the Shaw Brothers would do their own cinematic adaptations of the Malay vampire legend named the “Pontianak.” In the case of early Turkish horror, there was Dracula in Istanbul (Turkish title: Drakula Istanbul’da), a Turkish take on the Count Dracula story helmed by minor studio-director Mehmet Muhar. While Dracula in Istanbul was not the first Turkish horror film produced—that honor goes to an early film called Scream (1949; Ciglik), a “lost” film by Aydin Arakon that supposedly involved a haunted house—it is one of the earliest to survive.
Dracula in Istanbul opens in modern times as Turkish realtor Azmi (Bulent Oran) travels to Romania to meet Count Dracula (Atif Kaptan) at his private castle in regards to his purchases of certain properties in Istanbul. Despite the villagers fearing the Count, Azmi is taken to a side road and is picked up by Dracula’s coach. Azmi arrives at the castle and is greeted by Count Dracula and his hunchback assistant. While spending a few days at the castle, Azmi finds a book on ancient superstitions, which has a chapter on vampires and proceeds to read up on it. Eventually, Azmi wanders around the castle and finds Dracula sleeping in a coffin and quickly realizes that the Count is a vampire. Azmi fails to destroy the blood-sucker and goes crazy, fleeing the castle in hysterics. Count Dracula then heads off to Istanbul and starts to stalk Azmi’s fiancée, Guzin (Annie Ball). Her friend Sadan (Ayfer Feray) has already become a victim of Dracula’s bite, and it’s up to Dr. Nuri (Kemal Emin Bara) and a recovered Azmi to destroy the evil vampire.
It should be made clear that while Dracula in Istanbul is not an unofficial remake of the Universal horror classic Dracula (1931), it does rely on Bram Stoker’s novel for inspiration. And yet, Stoker and his novel are absent from the credits; the film credits a 1928 novel entitled “The Voivode With the Stakes” by Ali Riza Seyfi. According to Kaya Ozkaracalar’s chapter “Between Appropriation & Innovation: Turkish Horror Cinema,” published in Steven Jay Schneider’s Fear Without Frontiers (Publishing date: July 2003; FAB Press), Seyfi’s novel was an altered translation of Stoker’s book. An interesting element Ozkaracalar’s chapter reveals is that Dracula in Istanbul was the first film to touch on the background of Count Dracula and the 15th century Romanian figure Vlad Tepes. In Stoker’s novel and Seyfi’s adaptation, Count Dracula is referred as being a ‘voivode’ who had battled the Turks many years past; this was a reference to Tepes, who was a Walachian ruler (dubbed ‘voivode’) who would impail his enemies including the Turks, and thus was given the moniker ‘Dracula,’ which translates as either ‘Son of the Dragon’ or ‘Son of Satan.’ In Turkish history, Tepes is referred to as “The Voivode with the Stakes,” and it’s this connection that certainly caught the attention of Seyfi in his translation of Stoker’s novel. The connection between Count Dracula and Vlad Tepes is briefly addressed in Dracula in Istanbul when Azmi asks Count Dracula why the local Romanian villagers fear him, the Count answers that he is a descendant of ‘Voivode Dracula,’
There are other interesting “firsts” with Dracula in Istanbul that makes the film very unique in portraying the vampire lore. It’s the first film to show the vampire complete with canine fangs; in the original 1931 film Bela Lugosi is never seen with fangs of any kind, mostly implying his vampire bite whenever he encounters a hapless victim. The Turkish film elaborates a little on Count Dracula’s supernatural powers. When Azmi is reading a book on vampires, the text describes Dracula as being able to transform into a wolf or a bat via his cloak (and we do get to see a brief scene of Dracula transforming into a bat, portrayed by a rather ratty looking puppet). The film also displays a rather interesting way of how Count Dracula is dispatched. When Azmi puts an end to Dracula, he drives a stake in his chest and then proceeds to cut off the vampire’s head and stuff it with garlic. And, because Turkey is an Islamic state, don’t expect to see any Christian holy cross on display as the only way to repel Count Dracula is the usage of garlic necklaces.
While Dracula in Istanbul displays some interesting elements that were rarely explored in other vampire films before it, in terms of its technical aesthetics it is decent at best. The film is primitive by today’s standards (i.e., shaky optical effects, languid paced editing, questionable sound editing and dubbing). One major issue with the film is the 102 minute runtime just feels a bit too long; the first half, which is the set-up introducing Count Dracula, is well-paced and holds interest but once the story shifts to Istanbul at the 50 minute mark the pacing starts to run a little slow and it takes the film’s finale to pick everything back up to speed. Another issue is that while Dracula comes off as an interesting figure (and very well-played by Atif Kaptan, decked out with cape and tux), the other characters whom the audience are supposed to root for and relate with are bland and not worth much interest in regards to their outcome. The entire production value alternates from the well-designed to bottom-of-the-barrel sets; Count Dracula’s interior castle is very effectively designed, while the graveyard where Dracula sleeps looks like it was designed for a high school stage play and nearly resembles the graveyard set in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958). The huge saving grace is Ozen Sermet’s black-and-white cinematography, which helps lend the necessary low-key lighting and atmosphere needed in a production made by those who’ve never made a horror film before.
Technical flaws and budget issues aside, Dracula in Istanbul is a decent take on the Count Dracula legend and I’ll give the Turkish production credit for doing the best they could do. The film certainly isn’t scary, but it manages to entertain as a whole and makes for an interesting viewing.
Despite the release of Dracula in Istanbul (1953), it would be a full 17 years for the Turkish film industry to unleash another horror film. Low-budget jack-of-all-trades genre filmmaker Yavuz Yalinkilic would take a stab at horror with The Dead Don’t Talk (Turkish title: Oluler konusmaz’ki), a surreal, supernatural Gothic tale, filmed in black-and-white with a storyline that is best described as “confusing,” to say the least.
The Dead Don’t Talk opens with a young couple, Melih (Aytekin Akkaya) and Oya (Oya Evitan), walking in a small village and looking for a place to sleep for the night. A carriage, driven by the strange coachman Hasan (Giray Alpan), arrives and offers to take the couple to the mansion of a Mr. Adem for shelter. Once they arrive, Melih and Oya discover there is a dinner table for them, prepared by Hasan. Afterwards, Hasan shows Oya a painting of a woman that he worships and cries over. At night, Hasan and Oya are killed by a man, dressed up in a trench coat and hat, who turns out to be a maniacally laughing ghost. Afterwards, the town’s new schoolteacher Sema (Sema Yaprak) arrives and ends up taking a room at the haunted mansion. The crazed spirit, in conjunction with the school’s dean Nuri (Dogan Tamer), starts to haunt Sema and it’s up to the young city-dweller Kerem (Kerem Mertoglu) to help vanquish the ghost.
If anyone is looking for a strong story in The Dead Don’t Talk, you best look elsewhere, for the film abounds with unanswered questions and a very flimsy plotline. Why is Hasan obsessed with the painting of a dead woman that he hardly knew? What is the supernatural connection between the evil ghost and the school’s dean? Why does the new schoolteacher take a room in the haunted mansion, never once showing her being invited or offered to stay there? Good luck hoping for answers, because you’ll never get one. In terms of plotting, The Dead Don’t Talk is a complete train wreck. Even the background of the evil ghost, why he is killing people or laughing hysterically for that matter, isn’t elaborated on. It’s difficult to attribute the unanswered questions and haphazard plotting to Yavuz Yalinkilic’s thin script and choppy continuity editing (at one point, after the ghost kills the young couple in the first 20 minutes, it jump cuts to a brief aside showing two men digging a grave open and unleashing the killer ghost…is this meant to be a flashback scene, or did the editor get things mixed up?), or is the film’s sole existing copy of the 35mm release print possibly missing scenes?
Minimal writing, ropy editing, and questionable production values aside, The Dead Don’t Talk manages to be entertaining despite its bumpy ride. Its huge saving grace is the black-and-white cinematography, capturing the small town location and fall setting quite well. The usage of long staged takes—possibly in an attempt to reduce the editing chores, as opposed to creating these long-staged shots as an “artistic choice”—are, thanks to the cast’s performances, handled well. The music score, mostly comprised of stock music cues from other films, certainly helps a bit. However, Yalinkilic slips in some rather unnecessary cues that under-mine the horror elements, a very familiar score from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) is utilized in a scene in which a creaky door inside a dark room opens to startle one character.
If any, The Dead Don’t Talk plays much like a dreamlike, Lynchesque film shot on Ed Wood’s budget. In comparison, Dracula in Istanbul (1953) is certainly the better horror film of its era, but The Dead Don’t Talk is worth taking a look at just to see how weird and demented it is.
And now, we come down to Satan (1974; Seytan), also known under its alternate title as—Get ready, here it comes—“Turkish Exorcist” (a title coined by bootleggers when the film made the rounds on questionable VHS copies). That’s right, Satan is a Turkish scene-for-scene rip-off (or “remake”, depending on which term you would like to use) of William Friedkin’s film The Exorcist, re-creating the spinning head, wire-hanging levitation, and vomiting scenes for the Turkish audiences—yet featuring an Islamic take on the subject. However, it should be noted that Satan was not directed by some lowbrow exploitation filmmaker. In reality, Metin Erksan, one of Turkey’s prestigious ‘auteur’ filmmakers who made melodramas aimed at a more personal level, directed it.
Metin Erksan started out as Turkey’s first film critic in the 1940s and would eventually break into feature-length filmmaking in the early 1950s. In 1964, his stark melodrama Dry Summer (Susuz Yaz) won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival, bringing attention to Erksan and the Turkish film industry for a brief period (and, incidentally, The Dead Don’t Talk director Yavuz Yalinkilic is credited as playing a small acting role in Dry Summer). Yet, despite the critical acclaim for Dry Summer, the Turkish film industry would continue to lean towards making cheaper domestic product, most of which would be rip-offs of American films and Erksan would follow that path at least once in his career. In 1973, Erksan had seen a screening of The Exorcist and was apparently so taken with the subject matter that he went ahead and did his own version of it. Satan would be Erksan’s first plunge into the horror genre, albeit in rip-off form. And it was perfect for Erksan, for The Exorcist wouldn’t be released in Turkey until 1981, making it easy for Satan to capitalize on the whole ‘devil possession’ genre without having to compete against the original film.
The best way to describe Satan is that it plays like a ‘Cliff Notes’ version of The Exorcist, only it’s in a foreign language and replaces Christianity for Islam. Erksan’s version relies heavily on the same set-up, character traits and themes, but delivered in such an un-stylish manner. In the original film, Friedkin under-scored some of the horror, relying on slow-burn tension and adding a sense of mystery to everything. In the case of Erksan’s film, much of the horror in the Turkish version is overstated to the point of ridiculousness. Friedkin utilized ambient sound, subtle visual motifs, and an element of Gothic mood in The Exorcist; Erksan goes the other way around in Satan with loud sound effects, over-lit cinematography and constant use of the zoom-lens (it would’ve given Jesus Franco a run for his money!). Unlike the Italian Exorcist cash-ins like Alberto De Martino’s The Antichrist (1974; Italian title: L’Anticristo/American title: The Tempter) and Ovidio G. Assonitis’ The Devil Within Her (1974; Italian title: Chi sei?/American title: Beyond the Door), which those two displayed a sense of visual style, playfulness with the material, and an attempt to tell a different tale of devil possession, this Turkish take on the story is rather bland and visually dull. Even utilizing the Mike Oldfield ‘Tubular Bells’ cue over-and-over again, along with wall-to-wall scoring, Erksan takes away any attempt at creating atmosphere or mood in his version.
Another problem with Satan is that Erksan really can’t quite get a grip on the direction of his main performers to match the characterizations of Friedkin’s film. In The Exorcist, Ellen Burstyn’s performance as the concerned mother of her possessed daughter is effective and natural, relying less on over-the-top hysteria and going for inner turmoil. Yet, in Satan, actress Meral Taygun is a very poor substitute (or, should I say imitation?) of Burstyn’s performance, constantly over-acting and yelling her lines to the point of being annoying and near unbearable (one could only wonder if she is possessed?). And, yes, Erksan’s version relies on the whole police investigation subplot from the Friedkin film, with Turkish actor Erol Amac delivering a very poor Lee J. Cobb imitation. However, Erksan manages to succeed in getting Canan Perver in the proceedings of playing the possessed child, and she does a good job of imitating Linda Blair’s performance. The special make-up effects are fairly decent, particularly one scene when Gul’s neck expands via the usage of rubber bladders (I’m sure make-up artist Dick Smith would’ve been proud), and the levitation effects are nicely done for the film’s budget.
All in all, it’s a shame that a good director like Metin Erksan churned out a soulless horror effort/rip-off like this. Satan is a curiosity-piece to be sure, and its best to watch it with that frame of mind, that is if you should ever want to see it.