The special thing about Turkish pulp films is how, even at their most plagiarized, they can serve as an example of just how unique a complete rip-off can be. After all, no one ever mistook Turkish Star Wars for regular Star Wars, or Bedi, the Turkish E.T., for E.T., the American E.T. And the same goes for Seytan, director Metin Erksan’s almost ludicrously faithful remake of The Exorcist.
Of course, in the case of putative family fare like Bedi — or Aysecik Ve Sihirli Cudeler Ruyalar Ulkesinde, aka The Turkish Wizard of Oz — what’s demonstrated is how easily something saccharin can be, even unintentionally, reinterpreted as something creepy and vaguely unwholesome (hint: the porn level production values don’t hurt). But what about when the source material is a film that’s widely considered to be one of the most frightening of the modern era? For many of its English speaking viewers — for whom bootleg copies of Seytan have long since become highly in demand party tapes — the answer to that question seems to be that Seytan is laughable, and raucously so. There are departures from that opinion, of course, but I doubt many would depart to the extent of asserting that the film is actually scary.
And, to be sure, there are reasons for that. First of all, for all its adherence to its source material, the one character from Williams Friedkin and Blatty’s original that Seytan conspicuously omits is Jesus. This is understandable for a film made in a country with an over ninety-nine percent Muslim majority. But it also means that Seytan speaks not to an audience laced with lapsed Catholics who come to it pre-spooked by their religious upbringing. One can never overstate the debt that Western horror films owe to the Vatican, and without that ace up its sleeve, Seytan seems doomed to fall sadly short of its mark with God fearing American and European monster kids.
Those same kids, for whom The Exorcist is canon, will also likely experience the disconnect that comes from watching unfamiliar foreign actors marching dutifully through the familiar paces of those who came before. Seytan has been called a “shot-for-shot” remake of The Exorcist and, while that’s not entirely accurate, it is certainly a scene-for-scene one, following the original’s screenplay almost to the letter. This parallel nature makes it that much easier to make unflattering comparisons between it and the well funded, “A” list Hollywood production that inspired it.
And indeed, there are glaring budgetary shortfalls in Seytan, especially when it comes to the special effects. For instance, the “shaking bed” stunt from the first film is here simply accomplished by having the spread-eagled young actress energetically bouncing up and down on the mattress as best she can, which looks ridiculous — especially once Mom belly flops on top of her and joins in. In addition, a funky, contemporary approach to art direction robs the film of the former’s gothic atmosphere, instead setting the action in a home that looks like it could belong to Turkey’s answer to the Partridge Family.
But despite these admittedly hilarious foibles, it would be a mistake to call Seytan “amateurish”. Director Erksan, far from being a hack, is considered a legend of Turkish cinema, his early films marked both by serious artistry and a commitment to progressive social concerns. His 1964 feature Dry Summer (Susuz Yaz) was Turkey’s first to win International awards, at both the Venice and Berlin film festivals, and went on to receive an English dubbed theatrical release in the U.S. under the title Reflections. By the time of making Seytan, Erksan had come to focus exclusively on making commercial films, yet his technical skill is still well in evidence; there is no shortage of expressive and imaginatively composed shots, and the performances wrought from the obviously professional cast, if not revelatory, are uniformly competent and complimentary to one another. If anything obscures these attributes, it is the fact that Seytan, like so many older Turkish films, has not been served well by age; existing copies tend to be badly washed out and damaged, which makes it hard to assess the quality of the images as they were intended to be seen.
At the same time, Erksan’s take on The Exorcist, perhaps catering to the tastes of Turkish audiences at the time, can’t be said to be high on subtlety. This, perhaps above all else, hurts the film in comparison to Friedkin’s original, which is a masterful exercise in the gradual — almost subliminal — ratcheting up of tension. Where Freidkin shows us just one un-sprung mousetrap to establish that it’s not rats causing those mysterious noises, Erksan shows us four, each one accompanied by an ominous musical sting. Friedkin’s use of music in The Exorcist overall is striking in its minimalism, which perhaps makes the use of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” in Seytan (this being a Turkish pop film, you can be guaranteed no Turkish musician found employment in composing an original score) the most symptomatic of its excesses. While that piece was used only sparingly in the original — appearing just once in the middle of the film before being reprised at its close — Erksan plasters it liberally throughout his version like a kind of aural wallpaper.
Yet, as dubious as some of Erksan’s choices may be, I think his most interesting was in taking The Exorcist’s heavily Christian-infused storyline and, rather than making the obvious choice of recasting it in Islamic drag, instead endeavoring to make it secular to the absolute farthest extent possible. After all, despite its Muslim majority, Turkey is and was an officially secular country, so there would have been little societal pressure at the time to make it otherwise. Thus, to this end, the two heroic priests of the original film are significantly recast. The younger of the two, Father Karras, becomes here Tugrul (Turkish stage actor Cihan Ünal, here making, if the IMDB is to be believed, his screen debut), who — rather than being a Priest with a background in psychology and an initial skepticism about exorcism — is instead just a psychologist who wrote a book about exorcism. Tugrul’s interest in the subject seems to be purely academic, as he is not a believer himself, which robs the film of the thematic dimension provided by Karras’ crisis of faith in the original. Incidentally, it is the completely unexplained appearance of Tugrul’s book, also called Seytan, in the attic of Ayten (Meral Taygun), the film’s besieged mother, which initially leads her to seek his help with her demonic problem.
As for the Exorcist himself, Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin, Seytan’s reluctance to pin itself to any specific belief system casts him as something far more nebulous, a mysterious figure bereft of any stated name or vocation: an Exorcist with No Name, if you will. Indeed, we see this bearded character, played by Agah Hun, making a wordless appearance at the beginning of the film in almost identical fashion to Von Sydow, as the overseer of an archeological dig at which a sinister demonic artifact is unearthed. Again like Von Sydow, he does not appear again until summoned during the film’s final act, in this case upon the recommendation of another holy man of equally vague distinction, who recommends him as the only man for the job once it is determined that a “powerful inspiration” is called for to cure the afflicted young girl, Gul (Canan Perver, a young woman of indeterminate age who, by all appearances, is really enjoying the opportunity to raise Hell).
It is not until Tugrul and this unnamed man arrive in Gul’s bedroom — and adherence to the scene structure of the original requires a more specific reliance on scripture — that we begin to hear anything approaching any explicit reference to Muslim practice or belief. Father Merrin’s holy water becomes here “Zamzam water”, a reference to water drawn from a divine well in Mecca, and the references to the devil become more in line with Satan as he is portrayed in the Quran. Furthermore, Karras and Merrin’s chant of “The power of Christ compels you” becomes “Allah’s grace be upon you”. Up to this point, the film has simply dealt with the devil in the more universal sense in which he seems to be understood from culture to culture, which certainly makes the film more accessible to non-Muslim audiences, if at the same time leaving the finished product feeling a little unmoored.
It occurred to me while writing this that the awkwardness in cultural translation that I’m describing in Seytan might be due to their being no equivalent in Islam to the practice of exorcism. But now I return to you from a brief jaunt over to Wikipedia with the knowledge that that is not, in fact, the case. More likely, then, is that the altar being bowed to here was that of The Exorcist itself, a phenomenally popular film believed capable of blessing rich rewards upon the filmmaker who could imitate it most exactly. Still, I would like to believe that Erksan’s aping of the film was more than just a cynical maneuver. After all, not many of Turkey’s notorious clone films are as scrupulous in their mimicry as Seytan. (Turkish Star Wars, for example, doesn’t even follow the story of Star Wars — although it does steal special effects footage from Star Wars, which is probably worse.) Better to think, then, that Seytan represented for Erksan a challenging formal exercise, something like Gus Van Sant’s crazy remake of Psycho.
Still, as with Van Sant’s Psycho, the question as regards Seytan is whether it’s capable of standing on its own as an entertainment without reference to the novelty of its origins. And while I can offer an answer in the first case (no), I am at a total loss when it comes to the second. That’s because it’s simply impossible for me to confront Seytan on any level without thinking of The Exorcist, and I suspect that’s not true only for me. It’s a lot like how, no matter how hard I try, I can’t see the word “phlegmatic” without imagining the sound of someone noisily clearing their throat. (Also, I’m ten.) It doesn’t help that I had for years only known the film as The Turkish Exorcist, a title that begs comparison, while a title like Psycho, in the case of Van Sant’s film, asserts itself as equal to — and perhaps even commutable with — the original.
Okay, I can at least say that Seytan is not capable of _replacing_ The Exorcist, but I imagine you guessed that already. As for whether it would be entertaining for someone who had never seen The Exorcist, I imagine it would be, though it certainly wouldn’t be as much fun. There’s just so much enjoyment to be had in playing compare and contrast with it — for instance, in watching the contortions it goes through to avoid the original’s Christian iconography, such as in the scene where a letter opener with a devil’s head on it is substituted for the crucifix Linda Blair uses to penetrate herself. I also enjoyed the old timey language that was substituted for Mercedes McCambridge’s jaw dropping streams of profanity. According to the translation I watched, that includes singling a person out as either an “arrogant crock” or an “old dotard”, among other things, which is pretty excellent.
And speaking of translation, the version of Seytan that I watched was the one found on the Substance DVD, the subtitles for which seem to have been done by some insecure individual who was desperate to have us know he or she was in on the joke. This results in a series of parenthetical, editorial asides within the subtitles themselves, of a type that I’ve never seen before and hope to never see again. These include text message ready sentiments like “(*hehe)” and “(*at last!)” — in the last case, alongside the end title — as well as, accompanying the reference to Zamzam water, a recommendation to “(*google it)”. (I did.) Now, I want to say to the person who subtitled Seytan that I appreciate your translation work, because, had you not done it, I probably would have gone ahead and watched Seytan anyway and missed a lot of interesting nuances. At the same time, I kind of hate you, because I feel that you’ve set a pretty diabolical precedent, one that I dread seeing any other DVD companies following (please don’t, dudes).
At the same time, seeing this instance of the snark toward Seytan leeching into the very subtitles of the film itself served to remind me that it’s a film that many, many people have lined up to sneer at and feel superior to — which is a guaranteed way to insure my being much kinder to it than it probably deserves. And the sad thing is that I’m not even really praising it. What I am saying, though, is this: whatever feelings you may walk away from Seytan with, come to it with love in your heart. Because, number one, why not? And, number two, you will be a better person for it, and the world a minutely better place. Thirdly, when you do end up laughing you ass off at it, it will feel that much more well earned. Also, it’s what Jesus would do.
Release Year: 1974 | Country: Turkey | Starring: Canan Perver, Cihan Unal, Meral Taygun, Agah Hun, Erol Amac, Ekrem Gokkaya, Sabahat Isik, Ahmet Kostarika, Ferdi Merter, Ali Taygun | Screenplay: Yilmaz Tumturk | Director: Metin Erksan | Cinematography: Nihat Cifteoglu | Music: Mike Oldfield, various | Producer: Hulki Saner