Historically, Turkey has had a difficult relationship with genre. Many westerners, if familiar at all with Turkish genre films, may think of the flamboyant knock-offs of American movies from the 70s and 80s that have resurfaced on YouTube; “Turkish Star Wars”, “Turkish Rambo” etc. These films come across almost as a parody of how a western audience may envision a Turkish film and, especially outside of any cultural context, seem absurd. As if embarrassed by this style, the bigger films of Turkish cinema’s new wave from the 90s onwards were defiantly non-genre with minimalistic, neo-realist drama being the order of the day for some of the country’s bigger exports.
Shockingly, there were almost no Turkish horror films in existence at all – and even fewer that could be deemed significant works – until 2005 when young filmmaker Hasan Karacadag released his low-budget debut feature D@bbe. Although inspired by Japanese and American horror, D@bbe had a strong Turco-Islamic identity. Its dark subject matter – an internet suicide cult linked to djinn demons from the Koran and leading to the apocalypse – was unprecedented in Turkish cinema and it struck an instant chord with audiences. The floodgates opened and Turkish horror, much of which was rooted in Islamic demonology, exploded.
Karacadag himself proved a prolific force, releasing a further four Dabbe films as well as two other horror titles (Semum (2008) and El-Cin (2013)) all of which shot straight to #1 in the Turkish box office, creating a bonafide phenomena. In an increasingly globalised era, it’s perhaps unique to be able to watch a country birthing its own take on a genre but that’s exactly what’s happening right now in Turkey with this first wave boom of serious horror filmmaking.
Karacadag’s films are slow-burning eerie stories, full of horrifying demons, often set in creepy, desolate Turkish villages that feel like they’re the very edge of the world. While there are some touchpoints with better-known American films (Dabbe: Bin Cin Vakasi, for example, takes its cue from Paranormal Activity), these have a unique style and identity, and their unusual metaphysical themes are both fascinating and unsettling.
This year will see the release of Magi, Karacadag’s first English language feature, which pits Michael Madsen and Stephen Baldwin against the djinn and may see his work finally cross over to a wider western audience. Den of Geek was very excited to talk in-depth with Hasan Karacadag about his career and the genre, in a rare English language interview:
What first attracted you to horror? Was it something that interested you from an early age?
I had a great interest in mysticism since my childhood. The world created in the 1001 Nights always drew my attention. Let me tell you a memory from when I was 5. We visited a village in the very east of Turkey. I remember hearing screams coming from a house there. My elder sister told me that there was a sick woman living in that house who was possessed by djinns. I was forbidden to get close to that house but I managed to sneak in and make eye contact with the woman. She was a young pretty girl but her face was covered with scars and she was crying in the corner of the room. She smiled to me as she saw me and said, “Don’t come in, the djinns will catch you too” I asked, “Where are they?” “They’re keeping me here in this room, you can’t see them,” she said and then she asked for a glass of water.The moment I tried to reach the water I slipped and fell. Even though I was hurt, I managed to reach and pour her some water but then a dog got inside the room, barking furiously. I poured the water on it and ran out. My sister told me later that the djinns kept the girl from drinking water. There’s no doubt that what we experience in our childhood definitely shapes our conception of the world…
What kind of horror films did you watch while growing up and was it easy to find/watch horror films in Turkey?
Kubrick’s The Shining and Stephen King’s IT were the first two that had an influence on me. I used to watch VHS tapes of Italian horror films but those didn’t really have an impact on me. It was pretty difficult to find Turkish horror movies. There weren’t many horror films produced in Turkey.
I see both American and Japanese influences in your films.
Would you say these are your main inspiration?
I lived in Japan for 8 years. I like the fuzzy, calm and sneaky expression of the Japanese horror films. I also like old American and British horror literature; Cthulhu mythos stories, H.P Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce, Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, Sheridan le Fanu, Arthur Machen… Algernon Blackwood is particularly spectacular. I wrote an adaptation of Willows, one of his short stories. I definitely want to shoot that one day. I believe British horror films haven’t taken advantage of their rich literary history. It’s impossible for me to give a similar example from the Turkish horror world but again, the 1001 Nights is a rich source for inspiration.
Well, Metin Erksan’s Seytan (1974) is maybe the only film that I could consider “Turco-Islamic horror” before yours – do you have any feelings about that film? Is it something you would class as an influence? (Especially on Semum?)
Metin Erksan shot that movie at a time when only melodramas were being produced in Turkish cinema. He looked at the success of The Exorcist, took it, adapted it and experimented; something that turned into a great success for those times. The Exorcist influenced me for my film, Semum but I interpreted Dark Spell, Djinn and Devil terms in my own understanding and probably made the first example of Islamic exorcism in cinema. Semum had great fans especially in the Arab world because of the information I provided there. Subjects that are considered as taboo in the Arab world were bravely spoken in Semum.
I could imagine it would be difficult to raise the money for D@bbe given that Turkish horror didn’t really exist at the time and the subject was so dark. How did you get it made/funded?
When I first wrote the script of D@bbe, all the producers that I had meetings with rejected me, telling that these kind of stories didn’t have a chance of success. But I followed my instincts, sold everything and gave every penny I had to shoot it.
It wasn’t important if anybody else watched it or not because I wanted to watch a good story about djinns on the screen! I shot it with a budget of $150,000 and made $2,000,000. It changed the overall logic of Turkish filmmaking, inspired and encouraged young filmmakers and fired up the Turkish horror genre.
Yes! It must be exciting to be at the forefront of this new wave of horror in Turkey – nine years on, how do you feel you can keep pushing the genre forward and finding new ways to scare people?
I’ve shot nine films but still haven’t accomplished everything I want to. I have a lot of dreams and stories and I’m in a battle with myself to adapt these into cinema. I think horror and fantastic films are the strongest of all genres and the most exciting as well. Being a person who hardly gets scared, one night I had a terrifying nightmare and it made my heart beat like crazy when I woke up. I immediately got a paper and a pen and started writing about it. I remembered every scene, every sound, color and character with the atmosphere. I thought it would be perfect if I could narrate it the way I saw it but it wasn’t that simple. The human brain has a complicated relationship with the dark world of dreams and its so hard to tell this in cinema via camera and actors but in my opinion, horror films should reach the atmosphere of nightmares. If I can accomplish this one day, that will be the time I’ll say, “I did it!”
Are there any other Turkish directors working in horror at the moment whose work you admire/recommend?
A lot of Turkish horror films have been produced after me and some of them were copies of Dabbe. Generally they are following my path, which is good… I can recommend Ömer Kavur whom I knew in person. He taught me a lot about script writing. He was one of the geniuses of Turkish cinema. He wasn’t making horror movies but he had his own ways of capturing the mystic atmosphere of Anatolia. His 1997 film Akrebin Yolculugu is one of his films that I would recommend.
Thank you. Why do you think horror has become so popular in Turkey in recent years? Has this audience always been there or do you think there is a reason why now is the right time for horror?
In the past, only Western horror tales were told to Turkish people. The tales they heard from their grandparents weren’t adapted to cinema. while I was shooting my first film, I knew they were going to show interest in their own horror tales and yes. They were always there waiting for people who were going to tell them their own dark stories.
Your films are full of fascinating opposites – science and religion; modern technology and ancient folklore; even the Western cinematic style versus the eastern cultural aspects. Often – as in Dabbe 2 and 4 – when these things come together they create something more powerful. Do you think perhaps Turkey’s cultural and geographical position – somewhere between east and west – is key to what inspires these themes?
That’s a great observation. Actually, what we call metaphysics was the reason for the battle between science and religion since the existence of humankind. Anatolia has been the base of many civilizations throughout history from Babel to Hellenistic civilizations and all these have interesting and rich details, both science and religion-wise. What we call science is, in my words, a new religion for me and whatever is new is always in a fight with the old. In ancient times, religion judged science without mercy in inquisitions and now science is taking revenge by sentencing religion in its own inquisitions. This battle is perfect material for horror cinema and it influences me as well.
In both D@bbe and Dabbe : Cin Çarpmasi, you explore the idea of the internet in relation to magic and religion. Do you feel the rise of the internet in people’s lives has affected them?
In Koran, it is written that right before the apocalypse “a creature will wrap the world like a spider web (World Wide Web) and this creature will enter every house and every brain” – a perfect description of the internet from thousands of years ago!
As well as being an incredible source of information, the internet can also be a source of evil. Today, people have both their real identities and a secret secondary internet identity. I personally think that the internet is going to be an important factor in the annihilation of humankind. Can you even imagine how and where the internet, that’s developed enormously in the last 10 years of 100,000 years of mankind’s history, will get? And what its impacts will be?
You often find lead actors who don’t have many other film credits and put them through intense physical challenges (for example, Nihan Aypolat in Dabbe: Bir cin vakasi). How do find these actors and is there anything you do as a director to get such fierce performances out of them?
Working with well known actors in horror films weakens the documentary aspect of horror stories, which is why I tend to work with no-name actors who have great talent. Acting in horror films is difficult. In order to get their best performances, I pull them into the story by showing them real footage and telling them details of real stories. I break and deform their perception and way of thinking, thus they contribute their own fears to the story. Belief and doubt feeds fear. This method was very effective in Dabbe 4.
Magi is your first English language film. Can you tell me about it? How did it come to exist, what is it about, and how does it differ from your Turkish-language films?
Magi is a word that combines east and west in a mystical way. Half-human/half-djinn wizards were called Magi in Babylon and this term turned and changed into “Magic” in Europe over its journey from Egypt through Hellenistic civilizations. I thought of making an English language film about djinns but I had to do it in a way that the west would understand. I think this film is the first step in introducing the western audience to the richness of eastern horror mythology. Hence, I didn’t tell everything. There is a slow story that proceeds with ongoing doubt and in an extremely aggressive atmosphere, moreso than my other films. I wanted to narrate a Babylonian horror that takes place in today’s Istanbul.
What was it like working with established Western stars like Michael Madsen and Stephen Baldwin?
It was extremely fun. They both agreed to be a part of the film because they liked the story and we worked together professionally with their contributions. Michael Madsen has an unbelievable aura. After getting to know him better I believed I had to make another movie with him. Stephen Baldwin is an intelligent person and I can say he is curious. He wanted to understand and perceive every scene he was in and every line he had to say. Because Stephen is a religious person, we had moments of religious discussions on the set that really worked for the good of the film. In the end you’ll have a chance to see both of the talents in different characters.
Finally what’s next, after Magi?
After Dabbe 5 broke box office records for Turkish horror, there is a big expectation for Dabbe 6 now. I’m going to try something totally different in Dabbe 6 which will be a surprise. I also have another film about vampires that I’ll shoot in my own style. I’ve been thinking of making a film about vampires for years but couldn’t manage to take a step forward for some reason. Now I think its the right time so I’ve started the pre-production. There is a chance that we might produce it either in the States, Britain or Spain.
Sounds great. Here’s hoping for Britain! Thank you so much for your time, Hasan Karacadag. It’s been a pleasure.
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