Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Serpent’s Tale – review


Director: E. Kutlug Ataman

Release Date: 1995

Contains spoilers

Also called Karanlik Sular, this is a reasonably obscure and yet acclaimed Turkish horror movie and, for a moment, I wish to turn to part of the blurb on the DVD cover: “It’s better watched than talked about but when watched it must be talked about!”

Never has a blurb been so accurate. It is better watched than talked about as the film is a smorgasbord of imagery and concept that is pieced together in what could best be described as a Lynchian manner. As well as this the film is a treasure trove of revealed secrets that are wondrous when uncovered, thus revealing them here seems almost sacrilegious. Yet the blurb also says it must be talked about and this is also true as the film is one that took my breath away as I watched it and contains so much it leaves the viewer wishing to discuss it.

It begins with a voice over, as a calligraphic image is drawn on screen, talking of the Islamic story the film is based upon; of how it was written and the film within the filmof the fact that the story is said to bring death and despair to those who hear it. This then moves into an image of a woman casting something upon waters. We realise that this is a film being watched in a cinema in Istanbul. Does the voice over refer to the film we are watching or the film within the film? In truth, given the cyclic nature of the movie it is both.

Metin Uygun as HaldunWomen weep in the cinema but there are three men who seem preoccupied. A young girl, later revealed to be called Theodora (Beste Cinarci), stands and leaves. The men, from their various seats, follow. The oldest man approaches the girl and moves to touch her head. A young American man, Richie Hunter (Daniel Chace), seems to react but is intercepted by the third, Haldun (Metin Uygun).

Haldun suggests to Richie that she is not so innocent and, when Richie turns back, we see that the girl is gone and the man who approached her is dead, bleeding fang marks upon his neck. Haldun explains that ‘they’ try to seduce you and, if they cannot, you are safe. He also explains that Theodora is a Byzantium princess. He gives Richie a gift, a box that contains a segment of parchment and a compass, and tells him the address of his mother – then he vanishes.

When Richie goes to the address he meets Lamia (Gönen Bozbey), Haldun’s mother. She tells him that her son is dead but then whispers to him that they are being observed and suggests that ‘they’ are trying to convince her that her son is dead, indicating that she doesn’t believe it.

unlocking the secrets of the scrollWhat unfolds is a complex story of a scroll that contains truth. The scroll is corrupting, each word a poison for the soul when translated. A prophet, who shows the future in his paintings, searches for the scroll and with it will create a new religion. A multinational company, which Richie works for, also searches for the scroll. It seems that the vampires wish to prevent it being found.

victimWe get some interesting vampiric imagery and stories through the film, much in snippets. One visual scene is an attack on a woman pushing a pram. As she is grabbed she releases the pram and this rolls away down a hill. As we see her fall to the ground, bite marks on her neck, we see the pram overturn and fall.

death by fangThere are stories, such as one of a son who died and the mother prayed to God to bring him back. This offended God and so the son returned, bloodless, and killed the mother with a bite but in doing so he was God’s instrument of vengeance. I also liked the addition to a story that explained why sunlight affects vampires, “A single ray of sunlight will penetrate your skin and burn your unprotected soul to ashes.” Okay, it doesn’t explain that much but it is wonderfully poetic and this underscores the film, which is wonderfully poetic throughout.

opening the casketOne large vampiric sequence involves Richie going to a club where an entertainment is being announced, featuring a creature eight hundred years old, an immortal. A casket is opened and Theodora emerges. The crowd laugh though a woman is reluctant to go to stage to feed the creature. A man is taken to the stage – though he is part of the show in reality.

Theodora 'feeds'Theodora approaches him, as a viewer we have noted that her fangs almost seem fake but then she bites him and blood gushes as she feeds. The crowd is in shock but the camera pulls around to show his hand pumping a concealed bulb that produces the stage blood. The entire scene is fake, stagecraft for the patrons. Richie is summoned backstage.

Once backstage we realise that whilst the show was faked Theodora is no fake herself, and she is very much in control of the events unfolding.

The soundtrack of the film is strange and yet very effective. Discordant music really raises the tension within the film and, mixed with the almost decayed views of Istanbul, this paints a corrupted cityscape around us.

In the main the acting is excellent with special mention to Gönen Bozbey as Lamia, whose performance is superb. I am sure, of course, that the significance of her character’s name has not escaped you. Not all the acting is fantastic however.

Whilst it is clear that Theodora is in charge, the performance is very much that of a child actor without the mature nuances that perhaps other films with child vampires might have had. Chace as Richie is poor.Daniel Chace as Richie The dialogue is in a combination of Turkish and English and yet, when Bozeby seems to be speaking both languages, Chace seems badly dubbed. Something in me, however, suspects that this was purposeful on the part of the filmmakers. Indeed with his stilted dialogue and the black suit and glasses he later wears we almost have a prototype of Neo from the Matrix!

Beste Cinarci as TheodoraThis is a superb piece of cinema, though it will not be to everyone’s taste. I loved it however, it was by turns confusing and enlightening with a poetic and lyrical content so often missing from movies. 8.5 out of 10, for a film that needs more than one watch to get the most out of and will, without a doubt, haunt your thoughts after viewing. All in all I hope that I have managed to talk about this film without actually revealing too much.

There is, at the time of writing, a trailer on YouTube.

The imdb page is here.


House of Karnstein said...

This looks quite fascinating. I love some of the vivid Argentoesque/Bavaesque colours and those bottom stills remind me of some of the fascinating cinema of the Ramsey Bros ala "Bandh Darwaza", or something along those lines. Thanks for the heads-up review, I will be picking this up asap.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

House of Karnstein, I picked this up via a dutch DVD site. Unfortunately that site has gone but the disc, as far as I am aware, is still available out there.

hope you enjoy it as much as I did when you track it down.

House of Karnstein said...

I bought me one today so hopefully it'll be here in a week or so. It's coming from Greece and the dvd is by the same company that put out the limited/numbered edition, like you have. You learn something new everyday and I'm stoked about this movie after reading your review. I'm a huge fan of dreamy atmospheric non-linear (lol) thinking man's vampers, so this will probably be right up my alley. I'll share my thoughts here once viewed.

House of Karnstein said...

Wow. This finally came in the mail and I watched it last night. I thoroughly enjoyed it immensely! A fascinating off-beat slice of vamp cinema unlike anything that I have seen in the sub-genre. The location photography, the colors and dream-like hazy atmosphere. A deep "thinking man's" vamp story that has to be viewed more than once to even begin to get a grasp. The three scenes that really blew my mind were the "vampire club show", "vamp attack & rolling baby carriage" & "labyrinth of new religion cult seekers". Overall, quite the mind-blower. 9 out of 10 fangs and thanks to Taliesin for bringing this one to my attention on his blog.

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Taliesin_ttlg said...

I'm glad you emjoyed it and also glad that I could put you on its track. :)