The concept behind Lucid Screening’s second annual April Fool’s day White Elephant Blog-a-thon seems pretty straightforward: submit the title of a (presumably awful) movie for some other participant to review, then review whatever title happens to come your way. The spirit of the event is similar to the gag birthday gifts my friends and I used to give each other in high school—a copy of Mr. T’s autobiography; an album of movie themes performed disco-style. But what happens when the randomly assigned gag-gift film turns out to be something other than putrid? What if it turns out to be, if not great, then at least interesting?
I didn’t expect to face this conundrum when the White Elephant Blog-a-thon’s publisher, Benjamin Lim, sent me my assignment: Seytan, a 1974 Turkish remake of The Exorcist. But if you can get past the American DVD’s astoundingly wretched presentation and the fact that the film was unabashedly conceived as a rip-off from the word go, Seytan is well worth a horror buff’s time: cheaper and grungier than William Friedkin’s groundbreakingly graphic demonic possession movie, and generally less scary, but also more cleanly plotted, thematically coherent, and sympathetic to its characters’ plight.
First, the caveats: I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a more atrocious DVD release of a foreign film, however disreputable. Home video versions of the most worthless American drive-in films of the ’70s are treated with more care. The soundtrack is muddy, sometimes warped; the print of the movie is faded, scratched and in a few places, seemingly broken and then re-spliced. The disc appears to have been made from a substandard videotape master, probably one that was nearly played-out on a TV channel; there are digital artifacts the size of Scrabble tiles and bursts of visual noise that look like the thick horizontal bands that used to appear while adjusting the tracking on a VHS player. And not only are the subtitles ineptly translated, they’re rife with random parentheticals that might be the subtitler’s un-deleted research notes (“check Google”) and snotty editorial comments (the final subtitle reads, “The End (* at last)”). And there’s no shortage of hoot-able, only-in-a-horror-movie moments. The reaction shot of the hypnotist recoiling in agony when the devil-possessed heroine punches him in the ’nads might be even worse than Keanu Reeves’ seemingly drug-addled “Holy shit, where am I?” reaction in Bram Stoker’s Dracula when his character sees Vlad shape-shift into a bat monster. Stupidest of all is the early bit where the mother of the possessed girl hears echoing guttural voices emanating from an upper floor of her house, climbs the stairs to investigate, dotes on her sleeping child, Gül (Canan Perver), hears another ghastly, no-way-that’s-anything-but-pure-evil growl coming from the attic, then tucks her daughter in and heads downstairs. (“There are mice up in the attic,” she tells her servants the next morning. “They made too much noise last night.” Do Turkish mice growl like Bengal tigers?)
Nevertheless, Seytan still compels a more than campy fascination. It’s not just the superficial differences between Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s Catholic exploitation novel and this Muslim-flavored remake; it’s what the screenwriter Yilmaz Tümtürk and the director Metin Erksan do with the changes—specifically, how they visualize a secular-minded, intellectual middle class that’s confronted by a vomit-and-phlegm-spitting, mother-cursing, head-twisting, bed-levitating reason to bust out the Koran and get to a mosque, pronto. Seytan has more or less the same goal as The Exorcist (novel and film): to play on a contemporary Westernized society’s deep-down fear that in abandoning (or glossing over) faith, its members have lost touch not just with the rituals and traditions that bind different social classes together, but with the uncanny and supernatural, and with the once pervasive belief that good and evil are not abstract concepts, but cosmic forces battling via human proxies.
The creature that possesses Gül isn’t a generalized evil force (presumed to be Satan in the 1973 Exorcist, but specificed as the demon Pazuzu in Exorcist II: The Heretic) but The Devil Himself, sent to earth not merely to abuse and disfigure his mortal host, but to test the men and women around her. The Exorcist character of Father Karras, a young Catholic priest struggling with his faith, is changed here to a former psychologist and secular-minded Muslim named Tugrul Bilge (Cihan Ünal), author of the obscure academic book “Seytan,” which (as far as I can tell from the mangled subtitles) posits a psychological explanation for demonic possession and the effects of exorcism.
For all its crudeness, the film is surprisingly adept at making its drama metaphorical and its metaphors dramatic. For instance, where The Exorcist had a grab-bag of vaguely defined and somewhat cynically deployed subtexts—puberty, sexual hysteria, fear of the adult female body, a generalized adolescent sense of alienation—Seytan grants the same material a more sincere and pointed treatment. It gives The Exorcist’s “Is she evil or just mentally disturbed?” aspect more play, links it to the subject of Tugrul’s book (which rationalizes uncanny events), and clearly establishes that the mom’s soon-to-be-killed-by-Satan boyfriend is angling to replace the dad that young Gui lost to divorce—a dad so disconnected from his daughter’s life that he fails to attend her birthday party. It’s more clear here than in Friedkin’s version that the devil, who manifests himself in Gül after her birthday party (the notorious peeing-on-the-rug bit, replayed here with an oddly soupy, greenish urine), is an evil father figure that’s simultaneously inhabiting a body and filling a psychic void.
On the flip side of the psychosexual fence, Tugrul’s guilt over his mom (who goes from lonely widow to mental patient to dead and buried in no time) is made much more specific, and thematically relevant, in this cheapjack Turkish remake than in Friedkin’s original. Tugrul’s mother—from appearances an Old World, presumably devout matriarch—gave up so much to pay for Tugrul’s college that she was briefly reduced to panhandling. Seytan juxtaposes Tugrul’s mother’s sacrifice on behalf of a son that takes her for granted with Gül’s dad’s neglect of a daughter that craves paternal guidance. This compare/contrast strategy (devoted mother and unappreciative son, distant father and needy daughter) isn’t subtle. But it makes a clearer metaphorical case than The Exorcist for the notion that organized religion (the parents) and the masses (the children) are estranged from each other, that there’s blame on both sides, and that a failure to reconcile through ritual and tradition invites evil to slip in and fill the emotional/spiritual gap.
Overall, one can’t help being struck by the difference in tone between The Exorcist and Seytan. The former is undeniably more technically slick and viscerally effective; it’s hard to imagine anyone being as weirded out by the Turkish version, with its acrylic-paint-looking body fluids and its theft of the Exorcist theme “Tubular Bells” (plainly lifted from a scratchy vinyl LP; you can hear the needle drop!). Nevertheless, Seytan boasts touches that suggest that despite their poverty, the filmmakers sweated the small stuff, from the many precise, Italian horror-style snap-zooms to the moment where the police inspector tells Tugrul that the ghastly circumstances of her boyfriend’s death (he was tossed from the girl’s bedroom window and found at the base of a long staircase, his head twisted 180 degrees on his neck) echoes his book’s description of how the devil punished arrogant sorcerers. A few scenes later, the inspector asks the mom if her daughter recalls what happened that night; in the very next scene, the devil twists the girl’s head around in her mom’s presence—wordless confirmation that Satan killed the boyfriend in a manner intended to announce his presence to those who know their history.
None of this is meant to imply that Seytan is a neglected masterwork of horror—only that even rip-offs can contain thoughtful touches, and that if we’re unwilling to look past budget constraints and poor presentation and meet a film on its own terms, we’ll never see them.
Matt Zoller Seitz is publisher of The House Next Door.