One of the great pleasures of international horror films is uncovering what is considered scary in other countries. Even a quick glance at some of the most memorable titles of recent years highlights how diverse these offerings can be: Sweden’s sublime vampire tale Let The Right One In; South Korea’s psychological chiller A Tale of Two Sisters; France’s visceral Martyrs; and Serbia’s controversial A Serbian Film. But if we dig a little deeper, we find the same threads woven into the entire horror landscape. We fear the unknown, the dark, the grotesque, but most of all we fear pain and death. Our fears are primal and universal; horror regularly serves as the great unifier in a way most genres can’t match.
It should come as no surprise then, that much of what we see in Baskin (2015), the first feature length offering from Turkish director Can Evrenol, feels familiar. Even the plot is an old one: a group of unsuspecting police officers stumble onto a Black Mass in an abandoned building and all hell breaks loose. But despite this, Baskin, which translates to “The Raid” in Turkish, works on multiple levels, starting out as a buddy cop film and building up tension through character exposition, before plunging into all out surrealistic horror.
We first meet the squad in an isolated countryside restaurant, where they are gathered around a table clustered with dirty dishes, squabbling over football bets. Evrenol has spoken openly in interviews about censorship in Turkey and the rise of religious conservatism, and he certainly uses dialogue as a challenge to this. Our full immersion into the conversation, and into the group dynamic, comes when one of the officers, Yavuz (Muharrem Bayrak) relay his experience of sex with a transgendered prostitute. This not only sparks friendly banter between the officers but also capitulates in a fight with their waiter. The scuffle is abruptly interrupted by the off-screen screams of another officer, Sayfi (Sabahattin Yakut), who is suffering from a migraine. Instantly, we’re jolted back into the present. It’s the first of several scenes where Evrenol eases the viewer into a state of relaxation, before switching gears abruptly, leaving us unsettled and off-balance.
What follows is arguably one of the best scenes in the film. The squad, grumpy and tired, with tempers still flaring from the scene in the restaurant, pile into their grubby police van and hit the road. Sayfi scans the radio, settling on an upbeat pop beat that he immediately turns up. Instantly the mood in the van brightens and everyone begins singing along to “Dere Boyu Kavalklar,” a song by popular Turkish rock star Bar?? Manço. The magic of the scene is interrupted by a radio transmission requesting backup for another police squad in the nearby town of Inceagac. The music instantly disappears; the fun is over and once again we become aware of the peril that awaits.
Baskin’s greatest strength lies in the scenes examining the relationship between young police officer, Arda (Gorkem Kasal) and his mentor, Remzi (Ergun Kuyucu), the first of which occurs after a mishap on the road to Inceagac. These flashbacks are a series Tarantino-eque conversations set inside of the desolate restaurant from earlier. In the first and arguably strongest flashback, Arda tells Remzi about a recurring dream of his, one we see played out in the pre-titles sequence. As Arda details the trauma he experienced after the death of a childhood friend, Remzi explains that he too has a secret to reveal. Behind him a dark figure steps forward from the shadows. As our sense of dread heightens, dark water begins trickling down from the ceiling. It pools under Arda’s hand and, in a beautiful shot, starts pouring down the sides of the table. Instantly, we are brought back to the present: the police van had crashed into a river and Arda is being pulled out.
When the squad finally arrive in Inceagac, they discover their destination to be a desolate, abandoned police station. Without spoiling too much, the horrors inside are indeed gruesome. It’s worth noting that horror films are rarely produced in Turkey, and what Baskin offers us is an impressive mix of Evrenol’s imagination and the horror heavyweights that have influenced him. Inside, glimpsed in alternating snatches of shadow and shaky flashlight, we find nightmares that rival those found in Lucio Fulci’s films or in H.R. Giger’s artwork. The Black Mass rites are dark, bloody and ugly, reminiscent of the Hellraiser films (complete with hooks and chains in one scene) and Rob Zombie’s grimy aesthetic, culminating in the reveal of the tattooed, pint-sized leader of the Black Mass, a figure known as The Father (Mehmet Cerrahoglu). As he intones in a gravely voice to the frightened officers, “Hell is not a place you go. You carry Hell with you at all times,” we know we’re in for a dark, terrifying journey. And indeed, the film soon descends into graphic gore and delivers on its promise of a trip to Hell.
Evrenol’s influences are also apparent in the film’s stunning use of color, lighting and beautifully framed shots, which come courtesy of cinematographer, Alp Korfali. The police van bathed in blue and shadowed on either side by tall, dark pines feels like a scene straight out of The X-Files. The use of blue and red lighting is also prominent throughout the film – in swirling sirens atop the police van, in the restaurant as a thick hunk of meat is sliced up and sizzling on the grill, in exterior shots of the abandoned police station – and feel like an homage to Dario Argento’s use of the colors in Inferno. Finally, the film’s soundtrack (available on iTunes and Spotify) masters the use of dreamy and dreadful synth, and calls to mind Disasterpeace’s phenomenal contribution to It Follows (2014).
Despite this, Baskin isn’t perfect. For some, there is a concern that much of the wonderful character development in the first half of the film is squandered as the characters find themselves trapped in the building and, ostensibly, Hell. For others, the horrors faced during the Black Mass feels too familiar or overly visceral, done for shock value alone. Overall, many feel that the film leaves too many unanswered questions. But if this police squad had truly wandered into Hell, what would be logical about anything that proceeded? It absolutely would be shocking and visceral and uncomfortable and wouldn’t care about any existing relationships or sentimentalities; that’s not the point of Hell.
These critiques aside, Baskin is a must-see for fans of surreal horror, as it holds great promise for the future of horror films in Turkey and for the career of director Can Evrenol.
Review courtesy of Daily Grindhouse