Horror Double Feature: Baskin and Under the Shadow

I decided to do something of a Middle Eastern theme for today’s double feature, consisting of two films I had heard a great deal of positive press about and had been wanting to see for ages. The first is a surreal torture-fest from Turkey, the second a more traditional metaphorical ghost story with an Iranian-born director and an international production team hailing from Qatar, Jordan, and the UK. So let’s get started.

Imagine, if you will, a bizarre, hyper-gory, Turkish-flavored version of Hellraiser, but filtered through the surrealist sensibilities of a hypothetical love child of Dario Argento and David Lynch, and you might come close to getting an idea of the vibe of the 2015 flick Baskin (whose title loosely translates to “raid” or “descent,” either of which fits in with the theme of the story, at least as I was able to puzzle it out).

While I admit I didn’t have much of an idea what in the hell was going on most of the time, there was something queasily alluring in its dreamlike narrative that just kind of sucked me in and kept me watching as the thing got weirder and weirder and sicker and sicker. Since I deliberately refrained from reading any reviews before I watched it, I really had no idea what it was about or where it was going, and I think that definitely made me intensely curious about what weird shit was gonna happen next.

Heavily symbolic and very deliberately paced, I can see this movie just pissing some people off for taking a while to get where it’s going and for “making no sense,” and while I do respect that as a valid complaint, I don’t think a pat, open and shut plot was really what first-time feature-film director Can Evrenol (who expanded Baskin from his own 2013 short film) was shooting for, which is a good thing, because this is one strange-ass movie, to put it mildly.

The film opens with a creepy, unexplained sequence in which a little boy is awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of a woman (his mother?) in the next room having sex (or perhaps being brutalized; this isn’t clear). The noise stops, abruptly, after which the boy goes out to the living room and sees that the TV is on, showing nothing but static. He then looks back down the hall into his room, seeing that the light has turned red. He looks terrified, and starts banging at his mother’s bedroom door, but there is no answer, and in the next moment, an arm emerges from the darkness and snatches him.

After this intriguing setup, we are introduced to the movie’s main characters; they are five cops, sitting in a run-down old restaurant in the middle of the night and out in the middle of nowhere. They’re all shooting the shit, betting on soccer games and joking with each other about their sexual encounters with both animals and hookers. They are Boss Remzi (Ergun Kuyucu), Yavuz (Muharrem Bayrak), Apo (Fatih Dokgöz), young rookie cop Arda (Gorkem Kasal), who we later learn is the grown-up version of the boy at the beginning of the movie, and Seyfi (Sabahattin Yakut), who seems to be feeling unwell and refrains from participating in all the banter.

Baskin1

Throughout this entire scene, strange little details put the viewer on edge. An unidentified person in a hooded robe carries a bucket that appears to have some bits of bloody meat in it to the back of the diner, and the cook puts the (human?) meat on the grill. Seyfi runs to the bathroom to throw up, and sees a frog in the soap dish, after which the hooded figure is briefly seen behind him. He screams, but after a few minutes he’s fine, telling his fellow cops that he just thought he was losing his mind for a second. The loudmouthed and bravado-packed Yavuz tries to start a fight with the waiter for implying that he’s gay, even though moments before he told the story of going to a hotel with a prostitute who looked like a Victoria’s Secret model, finding out it was a dude, then having sex with him anyway.

Eventually, the cops, who are working the night shift and clearly bored as hell, pile into their cop van and start driving down the desolate rural road, singing along to a pop song on the stereo and generally having a grand old time. Then a garbled message comes over the radio, calling for backup at a place called Inceagac (the crime code is given as a 4455, but I don’t know what that signifies in Turkey, and Googling it gave me bupkis). Seyfi, who is driving, says he’s heard of the place and it isn’t far away, but he also makes some vague pronouncements that he’s heard a lot of bad shit about it, though he notes that there are three shrines there.

Even though Seyfi insists he knows where Inceagac is, they keep driving and he can’t find the turn-off, even though they should have passed it by now, and then he sees a naked man dart in front of the van and disappear into the woods. They stop the van and pile out to find the guy, but can’t, and then they notice all these weird scratches that kinda look like symbols etched into the side of the van. They also see a whole shit-ton of frogs on the side of the road, a rather unsettling sight. Eventually they get back on the road, but they haven’t gone very far before they actually hit what appears to be a bloody figure who looms in front of them, and the van crashes into a stream.

It’s here where the movie really begins to fuck with reality. Just after the wreck, we’re suddenly back in the restaurant again. Boss Remzi and Arda are at the table, while the other guys quietly watch TV across the room. It comes to light that Arda’s parents died when he was young, and that Boss Remzi essentially adopted Arda at the request of Arda’s uncle.

Arda then tells a story about a recurring nightmare he has, which relates back to the sequence at the beginning of the film. He says that when he was a child, he and his friend promised each other that whichever of them died first would appear to the other, but without scaring them. Arda then tells Boss Remzi about the dream at the beginning of the movie, and specifies that when he looked back into his room and saw the red light, he knew that his friend was in there and he didn’t want to see him. He then says he woke up, but was still in a dream, and then he says that the next day he found out that his friend really had died the night he first had the nightmare.

The restaurant then starts to fill up with some black fluid that comes out from beneath Arda’s hands and drips down from the ceiling. This was actually my favorite scene in the film; it reminded me strongly of the infamous Winkie’s Diner sequence from Mulholland Drive, and had the same sort of eerie, unmoored-from-reality quality. In parts, the whole film also reminded me a bit of Adobe James’s short story “The Road to Mictlantecutli,” which was in an anthology I wrote about here.

Baskin5

But then we’re back in the wrecked van, and everyone has gotten out of the crash just fine, but then they come across an encampment of gypsy-type folk who have a bucket of frogs (like you do) and are sitting around a fire kinda laughing at the cops, sarcastically taunting them about the accident. A little girl bangs a spoon on a pot and says something to them, but I don’t know what it was because there were, cleverly, no subtitles at that point. The cops ask if these people know where Inceagac is, and they say it’s just through the woods, so the cops set out on foot, with one of the guys from the encampment leading the way.

Once they reach their destination, which is a huge abandoned building that the gypsy guy says used to be a police station and then a stable, they see another police car with its lights flashing out front, though there is no sign of the cops who called for backup and the radio isn’t working. The five cops troop into the building, and end up walking straight into Hell; in other words, this is where the Hellraiser/torture-porn part of the movie begins, though it still retains its surrealist, dreamlike, overlapping timeline deal throughout.

In short, the building appears to be home to a sort of sadomasochistic and cannibalistic cult that seems to worship the man in the hooded robe from earlier. When this particular individual finally reveals himself, he is SUPER freaky looking. He’s essentially what it would look like if Michael Berryman and Rondo Hatton somehow had a baby who was also a roided-out little person doing partial Yoda cosplay. This person is known as Baba, is festooned with padlock jewelry, has a tattoo of a keyhole in the middle of his forehead, and proceeds to do all kinds of nasty things to our “heroes,” under the guise of shepherding them into Hell, or enlightenment, or something. Eyes are gouged out and then the empty sockets are tongue-kissed, intestines are yanked out, Yavuz is forced to have sex with a woman with a goat head, after which she squats and gives birth to what appears to be a stone fetus. It gets weird, and gross, and fairly WTF.

Baskin2

Throughout all this, Arda is somehow still going back and forth between the situation they’re in and the diner scene with him and Boss Remzi, and I’m not really sure if everything in this sequence is a collective hallucination, if they all died at some earlier point, if this is all happening in Arda’s dreams, or what. A whole “caught in a time loop” angle is suggested by what happens at the very end (when — very late spoiler alert — it’s revealed that Arda was actually the bloody person that the cop van hit before crashing into the stream), but it isn’t really explained why these particular men were singled out in this way, if they were being punished for something (and really only Yavuz was a mouthy, abusive asshole; the others were mostly inoffensive, and Arda and Boss Remzi were actually pretty nice guys), or if it was something they all imagined. I’m operating under the assumption that the restaurant at the beginning was supposed to be purgatory, and the choices the characters made along the way eventually led them into Hell, but I could be wrong about that.

Baskin3

There is also Arda’s character, who is obviously “special” in some way, as much is made of his psychic dreams, and Boss Remzi makes several references to him having known about all this stuff (i.e. Hell and the Devil) since he was a child. It’s also Arda who ultimately ends up defeating Baba, by inserting a key (which he pulls out of the slashed throat of the dying Boss Remzi) into the keyhole tattoo on Baba’s forehead.

After I watched the movie, I was intrigued enough to do a bit of research about it to see if I could figure out some of the symbolism, and I came across a theory that seemed pretty spot-on: that the entire thing was based on Zoroastrian myth about the crossing of the Bridge of Judgment into the realm of the dead, with the arm at the beginning belonging to a child-snatching nightmare demon named Taram Baba, the abandoned building being a type of Hell called the House of Lies, and Arda representing a savior figure who ultimately frees the souls of the other cops from the purgatorial loop they all found themselves caught in.

It was a nightmarish experience, to say the least, and while I’m not going to pretend I knew exactly what the meaning of it was, I got enough of the gist to enjoy the ride, and it’s definitely a movie that I think will get better with multiple viewings, since it’s so threaded with metaphor and significant imagery. Though it borrows generously from a bunch of other films, notably Hellraiser, Hostel, Suspiria and Inferno (particularly in the color palette), The BeyondCarnival of SoulsLost Highway, Martyrs, and A Serbian Film, it’s still a pretty original take on the genre, and it was really cool to see a horror film from a country that doesn’t make a lot of them (or at least doesn’t make many that get U.S. releases). Recommended if you like surrealistic gore flicks with something of an eerie, slow-burn vibe and if you can handle not having everything explained.

Next up is 2016’s Under the Shadow, the directorial debut of Iranian-born Brit Babak Anvari. It’s a far more low-key piece than Baskin, playing something like a Middle Eastern version of The Babadook cross-bred with The Devil’s Backbone and Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water, but it’s a fantastic, spooky tale laden with subtext and peppered with unsettling images.

UndertheShadow1

The film is set in Tehran in 1988 during the long-running Iran-Iraq War. Main protagonist Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a thoroughly modern, Westernized woman who, at the beginning of the movie, gets kicked out of medical school for her involvement in leftist politics during the Cultural Revolution. Her dreams of becoming a doctor dashed, she also has to deal with her physician husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) thinking that maybe it’s all for the best, telling her that maybe now she can focus more on caring for their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Shideh bristles with resentment at being forced into a more traditional female role that she never wanted, and although she clearly loves her family, she begins to take her frustrations out on them, as well as pouring her energies into endless aerobics undertaken in front of an illegal, bootlegged Jane Fonda workout video.

As the war drags on, Iraj is forced to the front lines to tend to the wounded; if he doesn’t go, he will lose his license to practice. Shideh is doubly irritated that she is now obligated to care for Dorsa all on her own, but she stubbornly refuses to go to Iraj’s parents house for support and relative safety from air raids, insisting that she and Dorsa will be just fine staying in their own home.

UnderTheShadow2

But shortly after Iraj leaves, Dorsa begins to complain about hearing noises in the house, and she later tells her mother that a mute neighbor kid, Mehdi (Karam Rashayda) has told her that there is an evil djinn haunting the building. Shideh has no patience with fairy tales, and angrily tells Mehdi’s caretakers (who took him in after his parents were killed in the war) to have the child stop telling her daughter scary stories. The neighbors, though, are traditional Muslims, and believe that djinn are real.

The creep factor really begins to ramp up after their apartment building is hit by a missile, which fails to explode but causes some significant damage. Shideh is called to help one of the neighbors who has had a heart attack, but he dies anyway, and the guilt begins to get to her. During all the hubbub, Dorsa loses her beloved doll, Kimia, which was ostensibly protecting her from the djinn, and then Dorsa starts getting ill, contracting a fever that won’t go away, losing her appetite, and having trouble sleeping.

As the film goes on, the child becomes convinced that the djinn took Kimia and she needs to go up to the fourth floor to save her. The building begins to empty out, as neighbors flee the war-torn city for safer locales, until eventually only Shideh and Dorsa remain. Meanwhile, Shideh starts seeing glimpses of creepy shit too, but for a long time she refuses to believe that the haunting is really happening. The cracks in the walls and ceilings of the apartment, much like in Dark Water, reflect the cracks appearing in Shideh’s belief system as well as her relationship with her daughter.

The great thing about Under the Shadow is that, like The Babadook, the story can be enjoyed simply as an eerie supernatural horror flick, or as a multilayered metaphor. Clearly, the character of Shideh is having a hard time accepting that the (traditional, fairy-tale) haunting is real in much the same way that she does not want to accept that the war and the creeping sharia law taking over her country is real, and as I said, she fights against the suffocating forces of traditionalism by lashing out at her husband and, particularly, her child, both of whom represent a female’s hated traditional role. Shideh is trying to hang on to all the rights and privileges of the normal life she previously enjoyed, even as they are slipping away from her. This is amply illustrated by a great scene near the end of the film where Shideh grabs Dorsa and flees from the apartment after seeing the djinn, only to be caught by police out in the street and arrested because she failed to cover her head. She is then berated by the morality police because, according to them, a woman should be more afraid of being exposed in public than anything else, even, the unspoken subtext implies, murderous djinn.

UnderTheShadow6

Thematically, it is also significant that the djinn in the story is portrayed as a ghostlike figure wearing a chador, which not only almost succeeds in convincing Dorsa that it would be a better mother than Shideh is, but ultimately tries to smother Shideh and Dorsa at the end before they finally escape, suggesting that not only will the pall of conservatism envelop Shideh, but also girls of the upcoming generation. And at the end of the film, when it is revealed that, although Shideh and Dorsa managed to drive out of Tehran, the doll Kimia’s head and one of Shideh’s medical books was left behind, it is implied that the oppressive forces of the djinn/sharia law will follow them wherever they go.

Despite all the heavy symbolism, as I mentioned earlier, this is still also a creepy ghost story and can be enjoyed simply on those terms. It’s more subtle and character-based, with only a couple of jump scares, but it does have some wonderfully uncanny imagery, including a chilling scene where Shideh is pulling a figure she thinks is Dorsa out from under the bed. Recommended for fans of interesting metaphorical ghost stories; if you liked The Babadook (or Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, which explores many of the same themes), this should be right up your alley. My only complaint about the movie is that the version currently on Netflix is dubbed (UGH), when subtitles would have obviously been much better. The dubbing is a bit wooden, which mars the experience somewhat, but I got used to it after a while and it didn’t bother me so much. Still, though, I hate dubbing; it’s too distracting knowing that I’m not hearing the actors’ real voices.

That’s all for this installment of Horror Double Feature, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

 

Advertisements

The Goddess’s Top Ten Horror Novel Adaptations

I can’t believe it’s been a week since my last post! Sorry about that. I really do try to keep up with this thing, but sometimes I get busy with all my other endeavors (writing, book promotion, graphic design work) and run out of hours in the day. When it finally came time to do a new post, I was scrabbling for a subject, so I just decided to do something fairly pedestrian by discussing my ten best horror films based on novels. I’m not dropping my nuts here and proclaiming that these are the BEST ADAPTATIONS EVAR, but they’re certainly my favorites, and before anyone argues, YES, I know there are lots of other great horror films that were based on books, but I wanted to showcase great movies that were made from novels that were themselves fantastic and familiar to me (for example, while John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my favorite horror movies of all time, I’ve never read the book it was based on, and as far as The Exorcist goes, I actually thought the movie was light years better than the novel). So now that we’ve got all that out of the way, allons-y.

GirlNextDoor

10. The Girl Next Door (2007)
Based on Jack Ketchum’s horrific, you’ll-need-a-shower-afterwards novel (made all the more squicky by the fact that it was based on a true story), this 2007 adaptation mostly doesn’t shy away from the more terrible aspects of the book, and is all the more powerful for it. While I admit I found the novel a great deal more disturbing, the film is a worthy addition to the evil-that-humans-do canon. Some of it is a little too aw-shucks, fifties-stereotypical, but Blanche Baker is chilling as Aunt Ruth, and the mostly young actors are great, particularly 21-year-old Blythe Auffarth as the doomed Meg.

Hellraiser

9. Hellraiser (1987)
Adaptations of Clive Barker’s infernal works are generally hit or miss, but I think we can all agree that this is the best by a mile (though I have to say that Candyman is also in the running). Based on his 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart, and directed by Barker himself, Hellraiser is filled to the brim with sadomasochism, buckets of gore, that genius puzzle box conceit, and one of the most recognizable horror baddies of all time. While the sequels couldn’t begin to approach the original classic, it’s easy to see how the detailed world Barker created in his short work demanded much more screen time. Jesus wept, indeed.

GhostStory

8. Ghost Story (1981)
As much as I adored the spooky, low-key adaptation of Peter Straub’s 1975 novel Julia (known as The Haunting of Julia in the US and Full Circle in the UK; you can find my analysis here), I find that Ghost Story, based on his 1979 book of the same name, just barely edges it out. The novel is so rich, complex, and over the top that the film couldn’t help but streamline the thing and leave several plot tendrils out, but I love it anyway, and I think director John Irvin was wise to focus solely on the central conflict of the book, that of the men of the Chowder Society battling the shapeshifting she-demon known by different names through the years. Some fantastically eerie scenes, and it was nice to see a band of dignified old codgers playing the heroes.

StirOfEchoes

7. Stir of Echoes (1999)
I’ve talked about this criminally underrated film before, but I try to pimp it at every opportunity, because it’s so great and I’m still pretty bummed that it sorta got lost in the shuffle due to its simultaneous release with The Sixth Sense. Somewhat based on Richard Matheson’s short 1958 novel A Stir of Echoes, the film takes the basic plot of the book and builds an intensely frightening tale of hypnosis, psychic visions, and murder upon it. I’m not scared easily, but seeing this film in theaters gave me the heebie-jeebies big time, and it holds up remarkably well. Props also for the very Lynchian sound design, which ramps up the scare factor considerably.

TheInnocents

6. The Innocents (1961)
Directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr as governess Miss Giddens, The Innocents is one of those rare films that wrings the scares from subtle atmosphere. Based on Henry James’s classic 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, with a screenplay co-written by Truman Capote, the movie is chock full of spooky children, secrets, ghosts, and eerie goings-on, amplified into skin-crawling terror by the use of music, lighting, and ambiguity.

TheOther

5. The Other (1972)
Based on former actor Thomas Tryon’s 1971 debut novel (and if you’d like to read a rundown of the lackluster adaptation of another of his fabulous novels, Harvest Home, I’ve got you covered), this Robert Mulligan-directed film is one of the best examples of the good/evil twin trope. Set in 1935 and starring Chris and Martin Udvarnoky as the conflicted Holland twins, the movie is a golden-drenched slab of uncanny mystery and horror, painted in hues of perverse nostalgia. Tryon, who wrote the screenplay, was reportedly not happy with the adaptation, but for my money the film more than did the novel justice.

HellHouse

4. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Another Richard Matheson adaptation (this time of his 1971 novel Hell House), this one takes obvious cues from The Haunting, but goes in a splashier direction with much effectiveness. Directed by John Hough and featuring great performances from Roddy McDowall and the impossibly adorable Pamela Franklin, the story takes the standard horror-movie plot of a group of ghostbusters investigating a scary house and does all kinds of weird shit with it. Baroque, overwrought, and lots of creepy fun.

RosemarysBaby

3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Capturing the sly, blackly comic edge of Ira Levin’s 1967 book while maintaining a sense of slowly building tension and paranoia, there’s a reason this Roman Polanski-directed classic ends up on so many “best horror films” lists. I absolutely love Ruth Gordon as the lovably terrifying Minnie Castavet, and Mia Farrow is perfect as the fragile, waifish Rosemary, a protagonist you can’t help but sympathize with and be afraid for as everyone in her life seems to turn against her. If you’re a fan of Polanski’s films, check out my previous writeup on his deliciously creepy 1976 movie The Tenant.

TheShining

2. The Shining (1981)
What can I say about this masterpiece that hasn’t already been said? (Well, I said this and this, but y’know.) Taking what is arguably Stephen King’s best novel and using it as a springboard to explore universal themes, myths, and existential terror, Stanley Kubrick created a timeless, iconic piece of art that still has the capacity to enthrall and horrify, more than three decades later. Easily one of the five best horror films ever made.

TheHaunting

1. The Haunting (1963)
You just knew this was gonna be my number one, didn’t you? I admit I talk about this book and film a lot (such as here and here, for example), but that’s only because I am in awe of the subtle dread and psychological depths this story plumbs in both mediums. Based, of course, on the hands-down best haunted house novel ever penned, 1959’s The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the casting in Robert Wise’s masterful adaptation is spot-on, and he deftly drenches the film in chills and atmosphere while essentially showing nothing, an astounding feat and one that is right in line with the source material. I really can’t recommend book or film enough, in case you hadn’t noticed. Oh, and I mentioned this before, but skip the lame-ass remake.

And just because I can, here are twenty more that were eliminated for the sake of brevity:

The Exorcist (1973, based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty)
The Hunger (1983, based on the 1981 novel by Whitley Strieber)
The Birds (1963, based on the 1952 short story by Daphne du Maurier)
Nosferatu (1922, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1897)
Frankenstein (1931, based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925, based on the 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945, based on Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel)
House of Usher (1960, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” 1839)
Duel (1971, based on Richard Matheson’s 1971 short story)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, based on Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel)
The Entity (1981, based on the 1978 novel by Frank De Felitta)
Village of the Damned (1960, based on John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, 1957)
Masque of the Red Death (1964, loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, 1842)
Re-Animator (1985, based on the H.P. Lovecraft novella Herbert West—Reanimator, 1922)
Cemetery Man (1994, based on the 1991 novel Dellamorte Dellamore by Tiziano Sclavi)
Misery (1990, based on Stephen King’s 1987 novel)
Carrie (1976, based on Stephen King’s 1974 novel)
The Prestige (2006, based on the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest)
The Lair of the White Worm (1988, loosely based on Bram Stoker’s 1911 novel)
Horns (2014, based on Joe Hill’s 2010 novel)

Keep it creepy, my friends, and until next time, Goddess out.