Monday, June 27, 2011

Semum (2008)

The weight of professional and personal responsibility has been crushing as of late and it has all but completely denied me the ability to do the things I enjoy most. This malaise I have developed over the past six months is probably the driving force behind my recent focus on broadening my horror movie horizon.

My primary focus as of late has been on Turkish horror films. As formulaic and derivative as movies can often be, I still find foreign films to be fascinating windows into the culture of countries I've never visited and this was my main reason for seeking out these particular motion pictures.

As wonderfully addressed in the ongoing Turner Classic series, Race & Hollywood: Arab Images In Film, the onscreen persona of the Muslim has always been less than flattering and I saw my journey through Turkish horror as an opportunity to see Turkish society and Muslim culture through their lens rather than the lens of Hollywood.

I had heard quite a bit of chatter about a 2008 film entitled Semum, so I decided that this should be the first one I watched. I knew I was in for some rough chop when my research turned up the notion that Semum was "based on actual events."

Hasan Karacadağ's Semum starts off rather ominously as the defiant forces of Hell and damnation (the Djinn in Islamic mythology) issue a direct threat to the more benevolent forces in the cosmos. Their intent is to rebel against the mandate of Heaven by taking out their frustration over being banished from the sight of God by tormenting the beings in the universe most beloved by God.

Naturally, that's us.

Humans... wonderfully oblivious to the machinations of the cosmic forces acting against us...

The very next scene may as well be from Poltergeist as we peep in on Canan (Ayça İnci) and her husband Volkan (Burak Hakkı) as they go through the final bit of financial wrangling needed to purchase their brand new house in the suburbs near Istanbul.

All seems bucolic, but we know that won't last for long. As time progresses, Canan begins to have odd experiences that start off as isolated noises and progress dramatically from hallucinations to wild, out-of-body experiences.

Before too long, poor Canan's mind and body become the battlefields in the war between the forces of good and evil.

My experience with Semum was a mixed bag to be honest; a journey filled with remarkable extremes.

The best thing about this movie is the portrayals of the characters. Semum is chock full of horror staples. Everyone is present including the fearful wife, the doubting husband, and even the creepy gardener.

Derivative though it may seem to be, I found these depictions to be refreshing. Here were folks that, for better or worse, acted like "normal people."

The trappings of stereotypical depictions of Muslims were stripped away and replaced by a husband that loved his wife, a terrified wife helpless against the demon that ravages her soul, and a creepy gardener acting suitably creepy.

Things in Semum started to break down for me at the worst possible time...

When the movie was supposed to be frightening...

What started off as an interesting premise ultimately devolved into a formulaic possession film not quite as horrible as Exorcist The Heretic but not even on caliber with lower range but entertaining fare like the blaxsploitation classic, JD's Revenge.

The CGI climactic showdown between the film's version of Father Merrin and the evil Djinn seems to draw more inspiration from Street Fighter II Turbo than it does the Koran and it is so campy as to be completely laughable.

I forgave this transgression, though. If you expect every horror film audience around the world to accept the same standards as North American gore hounds do, you'd be quite wrong.

Turkish horror is a genre still in search of its identity. Though the genre makes admirable strides to present itself in a more progressive light, cultural forces still hamper its development.

Directors like Karacadağ are fearful of making these films too scary as they might either frighten off a slowly developing fanbase or draw the wrath of fundamentalist schools of thought that are entrenched in Turkish society. Hence, there is always a bit of humor, camp, or "edutainment" thrown in for good measure.

As much as I'd like to consider myself to be a connoisseur of world cinema, I still wrestle with some of the cultural nuances. This is perhaps a bit of hypocrisy on my part as I commend Karacadağ for giving me non-stereotypical Muslim characters yet blast him for not crafting a film more in line with my American expectations of what a horror film should be.

Therefore, as much as I found experience with Semum to be somewhat disappointing, I cannot completely condemn the film. If I do, I may as well write a scathing review of Ring and base my critique on the grounds that Rinko does not act in a manner befitting a person with American sensibilities concerning the unknown.

To fully appreciate the Turkish perspective when it comes to horror films, I clearly need to watch more Turkish horror films.

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