The Serpent's Tale (1993) The Serpent’s Tale/Karanlık Sular* (1993) **½

     In the West at least, Turkish exploitation cinema is renowned primarily for its purveyors’ awe-inspiring disregard for the dictates of intellectual property law. There are scene-by-scene re-creations (“remake” is too mild a term) of famous foreign blockbusters— like Şeytan, which is exactly the same movie as The Exorcist, only with an all-Turkish cast and no money spent on anything. There are “original” films that make no effort whatsoever to disguise vast amounts of footage and music stolen from highly regarded American or European pictures— like The Man Who Saved the World, which sets space battles raided from Star Wars to the action themes from Flash Gordon and Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are uncredited (and surely unpaid-for) adaptations of sleazy Italian comic books— like Kilink in Istanbul and its who knows how many sequels, which detail the Middle Eastern adventures of Killing, an Italian supervillain blatantly ripped off from Kriminal, who was slightly less blatantly ripped off from Diabolik (who was pretty much just Fantomas with a different accent and a sexier girlfriend, anyway). And then there are unclassifiable oddities like 3 Mighty Men, in which Marvel Comics mainstay Captain America teams up with luchador extraordinaire El Santo to save the Turkish Republic from the evil machinations of Spider-Man— yes, that Spider-Man. (Mind you, that’s nowhere near as weird as what happened to Spider-Man when the Japanese got their mitts on him in 1978, but I digress…) Not all of Turkey’s horror, sci-fi, action, and fantasy movies are the products of piracy, however, especially now that the Turkish government wants in on the European Union. E. Kutlug Ataman’s The Serpent’s Tale, for example, is so totally its own thing that I can’t think of a single other movie that bears it more than the faintest resemblance.

     How the fuck am I going to explain this flick? I suppose I could start by quoting the opening narration, which purports to detail the film’s origin:

Toward the end of 1873, in her ancestral village of Lonely Orchard, located near the mountain city of Erzincan, Mehveş, the author of the film you are about to see and granddaughter of Turk Ottoman Pasha [I suspect that’s supposed to be “Osman Pasha”], closed her eyes and ephemeral life, and in a blink’s time exchanged it for an eternal one. An egotist, Mehveş left the weeping fools circling her bed a corpse to be washed and a thankless face devoid of expression. The first woman Islamic calligrapher of the Empire, Mehveş also left behind a vast collection of scriptures, which was entirely destroyed during the great Erzincan earthquake of 1939. Perhaps the most important thing Mehveş left behind was a futuristic story set in the Istanbul of the 1990’s, originally titled Lamentable and Tragic Events of the Future, as Seen by the Eyes of a Snake that Has Fallen into Dark Waters. It is the story on which this film is based. In crafting this narrative, Mehveş attempted to apply the rules of the aruz metric system of Ottoman divan poetry and the esthetics of the Islamic art of calligraphy. As a result, the events in her story are not necessarily governed by the logic of cause and effect, but instead are arranged together in a rhythmic, decorative fashion. When the Istanbul editors, mostly Republicans [either this is a mistranslation for “Constitutionalists,” or it’s evidence that Ataman is jerking our chains], refused to publish a story that was clearly at odds with their tastes and thinking, Mehveş, realizing her writing career would never surpass that of calligraphy, locked herself in her bedroom, drinking only the finest of wines when thirsty, and reading only the finest of books when hungry. She soon died of despair and malnutrition. The original manuscript was stolen by a servant who was later found dead. Ink marks on his mouth suggested that he may have eaten the manuscript, but no autopsy was performed to confirm this. Only a small piece of a page was saved from the servant’s insatiable appetite. On it was a line that read, “…two kinds of liars, one bad, the other an artist.” The servant’s death and the mystery surrounding it became referred to as the “Mehveş Incident,” which fed rumors that the story was malefic and poisonous. The film you are about to see is an attempted reconstruction of this story, as told by family members who had read it, but couldn’t recall it in its entirety, mainly because of the strange metric method Mehveş applied. Although I personally do not believe in superstitions, still I feel obliged to warn the viewers that what you are about to see is in fact widely whispered to bring death and despair to those who come in contact with it.

     Maybe that’s all true, too. And even if it isn’t, you sort of have to applaud any filmmaker who has the balls to stand up right at the beginning and tell you that his movie isn’t going to make any sense.

     We start off in a movie theater, where the extremely homely women who comprise the bulk of the audience are all weeping quietly over what we may take to be an unhappy ending. American expatriate Richie Hunter (Daniel Chace) is in the audience as well, and he happens to notice a portly, gray-haired man accosting a little girl (Beste Cinarci) in the lobby on his way out. Something about the man’s demeanor strikes Hunter as strange, but his spying is interrupted by a young man who doesn’t bother to introduce himself as Haldun Köprülü (Metin Uygun); a moment later, the old man is dead and the little girl is passing through the front door. Haldun cautions Richie not to mess with her, as she is an 800-year-old Byzantine princess. The two men get to talking (quite cryptically, I must say), and Haldun gives Richie a scrap of parchment in little wooden box, which he is to pass along to Köprülü’s mother at 222 Köfez Avenue. Then he disappears without a trace, and Hunter has little choice but to swing by the house if he has any desire to figure out what in the hell is going on. The next day, he goes to 222 Köfez, and is rather startled to learn from Lamia Köprülü (Gönen Bozbey) that Haldun is supposed to have died two years ago. Interestingly enough, however, Lamia whispers to Richie that she has long believed that he was still alive somewhere, and that some unspecified “they” are determined to keep her from learning the truth.

     The following morning, Lamia begins actively searching for her son. She goes first to a hideous old crone (Semiha Berksoy) to have her tea leaves read, in the hope of learning something about Haldun’s fate. What she gets instead is a ostensibly true story about a Greek woman who accidentally wished her murdered son back to life as a vampire. Whether this has anything to do with the vampire-attack scene we see immediately thereafter is far from clear. Meanwhile, it becomes apparent that the mystery surrounding Haldun’s supposed drowning (evidently the body was not identifiable, and was merely assumed to be his) is not the only one hanging over the Köprülü house. Lamia’s boyfriend, Haşmet (Haluk Kurtoğlu), has some shady business venture cooking, and he wants to use insurance fraud to finance it— by which he means burning down Lamia’s ancestral chateau! And the Köprülü chauffeur (Numan Pakner) is up to something at least equally underhanded, involving a pair of curious semicircular scrolls from which he’s been surreptitiously copying indecipherable symbols at the behest of some bearded weirdo (Gamze Platin, I think— with the credits in Turkish, it’s a little hard to tell).

     Lamia knows about the scrolls, and she notices a similarity between the script used on them and that of the parchment scrap that Richie says he got from Haldun. Luckily, one of her friends, a Frenchman called Stefan (Eric Pio), is a professor of ancient languages at the University of Istanbul, and he recognizes the language on Haldun’s parchment as Assyrian. The text sounds rather like a love letter. Lamia also shows Stefan the scrolls, but he says that the writing on them, despite its outward resemblance to Assyrian, is something else— a language he does not know. Nevertheless, he agrees to try translating the scrolls. Taking her leave of Stefan, Lamia meets Richie Hunter for lunch, where it comes out that he works as a researcher for a multinational corporation that plans to restore certain historic buildings in the city— most notably a sprawling 19th-century edifice that bears a certain architectural kinship to the Köprülü mansion. She convinces Hunter to help her look for Haldun, and they get to work that very night. For no particular reason beyond that this is a horror movie, Hunter insists on going it alone once they reach the neighborhood where he last saw Köprülü, and the Westerner does indeed find what he’s looking for. Haldun is, if anything, even more cryptic than he was the last time, accusing Richie of being a hired killer, and claiming not only that he really is dead, but that Richie himself killed him, and turned him into a vampire. I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean (Richie seems not to either), but since Haldun sneaks into a crypt the next morning and seals up the entryway behind him, I’m going to assume the part about him being undead is on the level, even if nothing else is.

     Speaking of tombs, Lamia goes to put flowers on Haldun’s grave the next day, and discovers that it isn’t where it’s supposed to be. The cemetery caretaker has a plot record for a Haldun Köprülü, but not only is it in the wrong spot, the notation in his ledger gives the date of death as 1968, rather than 1988. Lamia argues, but the caretaker tells her that if “they” want it to be 1968, then 1968 it is. Don’t ask me. And while that’s going on, Richie is investigating a nightclub called Alkazar; I have no idea what led him there, but the star attraction is a performer named Theodora, who claims to be an 800-year-old vampire. That’s right— it’s the little girl from the movie theater. She puts on an act with a ringer from the audience, who turns out to be another vampire by the name of Konstantin (Cüneyt Çalışkur). Both of them are friends of Haldun’s, and after the show, Theodora gives us the closest thing to an explanation that we’re ever going to get out of this movie. Those scrolls Stefan is puzzling over? Their encrypted text contains all the secrets of life, death, and immortality, and the beardy guy who’s been pulling the Köprülü chauffeur’s strings is a self-proclaimed prophet who hopes to use those secrets to establish a new religion more powerful than any yet seen on Earth. The scrolls have a built-in defense mechanism, however, in that the knowledge they contain destroys the soul of anyone who reads it. Read a little bit, and you become a vampire like Theodora and the others; read the whole text, and your body dies right along with your spirit, the symptomology rather resembling an advanced case of Ebola Zaire. (Stefan, in other words, is pretty well screwed.) What Theodora doesn’t realize is that the would-be prophet and his followers are not the only ones after the secrets of the scrolls. That company Hunter works for wants them, too, evidently with an eye toward putting the “profit” in “prophecy.” And this, by the way, is the same company Haşmet wants Lamia to burn down her mansion in order to finance.

     Imagine for a moment that Robert W. Chambers had written a vampire novel during his King in Yellow period. Imagine further that, 100 years later, that novel had been adapted for the screen by the writer and director of Revenge of the Dead. That might get you somewhere close to the effect of The Serpent’s Tale. Always baffling but occasionally compelling in spite of its opacity, The Serpent’s Tale is more a supernatural mystery than a horror film in the generally recognized sense. There are horrible things, to be sure— vampires, tears in the fabric of reality, curses that extinguish the soul and reduce the body to bloody jelly— but the main issue is Lamia Köprülü’s dogged quest to figure out what in the hell is going on. (Incidentally, it occurs to me to wonder if it means anything that the heroine shares her name with a blood-drinking, child-killing, monster-spawning snake-woman from ancient Greek mythology.) It is here that The Serpent’s Tale most strongly suggests Chambers at his best. As in “The Repairer of Reputations,” the horror in this film springs from the sense that mad and terrible things are going on all around you, but it is impossible to understand what they really are. There are hazards inherent in that technique, however, and The Serpent’s Tale is only intermittently successful in avoiding them. Most seriously, the Chambers style of horror simply isn’t very cinematic, and long stretches of the film can seem pointless and self-indulgent unless you are willing to extend to it the benefit of a lot of doubts. Furthermore, The Serpent’s Tale begins requiring that forgiving attitude at a time when it has done very little to deserve it; indeed, the movie is well into its second act before it offers any serious indication of what it’s going to be about. The frequent language shifts can be rather jarring, too. Only about two thirds of the film features the expected Turkish-language dialogue. All of the scenes in which Richie or Stefan figure are conducted in English, and it requires a fair amount of mental dexterity for non-Turcophone viewers to switch between listening to the spoken dialogue and reading the subtitles. Finally, I must single out Daniel Chace for special opprobrium. The sole American in the cast, his English-language acting is nevertheless drastically worse than that of the Turks and Europeans with whom he shares the screen— all of whom are acting in their second (or, more likely, third) language. He’s a disgrace, and it was a major misstep on the filmmakers’ parts to give him such an important role. The result in aggregate is a movie that is significantly more interesting than it is entertaining. Its merits lie more in its uniqueness than in the extent to which it achieves its curious aims.



We B-Masters came to the conclusion a while ago that not enough people had yet been exposed to the lunatic quirkiness of Turkish cult cinema, and we've decided to do something about it. Click the link below for a more or less representative sampling of the films that gave new meaning to the phrase, "the Sick Man of Europe."




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*The Turkish version of the Latin alphabet includes a few letters that ours doesn't, and it assigns very different values to some of the letters that English-speakers will recognize. That being the case, I thought it wise to include a rough pronunciation guide:

c is the letter that really throws most English-speakers. It's pronounced like the "j" in "jockstrap." Seriously.ç is like the "ch" in "chew." Pay attention to what your mouth does to make that sound; now subject our "j"/their "c" to the same level of scrutiny. You see what they did there?ğ is silent, but it elongates the vowel immediately preceeding it.i is pronounced like the "i" in the name "Tina."ı, on the other hand, is an almost colorless vowel sound, akin to the "e" in "the."j has the same value as it does in French or Portuguese, like in "Rio de Janero."ö and ü sound just the way they do in German.ş is pronounced like the "sh" in "shark."