[REVIEW] A TIME BEFORE QUARANTINES: HIDE OUT WITH THE SURREAL, CAMPY FILMS OF CAN EVRENOL

The ’90s are back. And by that, I mean surreal horror with enough camp to be fun, but still serious and bloody enough to be scary. Take the movies of Turkish newcomer Can Evrenol. From his debut, Baskin (2015), to his most recent effort, Girl With No Mouth (2019), Evrenol revels in atmospheric riffs on dreams, childhood, and belonging. His movies are the stilted, bizarre diversion we need right now. So, log on to Shudder or Netflix and hide out in films that remind you of a time before pandemics.

Evil Lives in the World

Because there’s nothing more distracting than a police squadron on a nightmarish journey into Hell. The Turkish-language Baskin introduced us to Evrenol’s dreamlike style and interest in themes of family and loss of innocence. Available on Netflix, the film’s opening act is a sharp, haunting play on the worn cliché of a child stumbling upon his parents having sex. A boy wakes in the middle of the night to a woman moaning. He approaches her door. The noise suddenly stops. What happens next is unforgettable.

That boy, grown up, frames the trials of five Turkish cops who fall into a Hell portal after stumbling upon a Black Mass. The middle act cuts an eerie path of phantasmagoria, gore, and torture porn that feels like a cross between Twin Peaks (1990-91) with Dead Alive (1992). There isn’t much narrative here. And, but for a rookie cop (Sabahattin Yakut) haunted by his childhood, there’s little character development. But Evrenol’s direction holds us anyway. His camera builds the tension by languishing over all the weirdness and the blood. The message is simple and unsettling: the evil and the gruesome live in the world without explanation.

Men Do Damage to Women

 Housewife (2017), for viewing on Shudder, elaborates on these themes from a female vantage. Evrenol secures his reputation for opening sequences here: a mother murders her daughter after learning she’s had her period. Her other daughter, Holly (Clèmentine Poidatz), eventually enters the dreamlike world of a cult leader (David Sakurai). There’s weird sex and a weirder childbirth. Then Evrenol changes tempo with frenetic cuts that lead to a still weirder Lovecraftian ending. We’re a bit confused, but, like Baskin, a clear and somber message gets through: men do damage to women.

This director is not too serious, however, as he does occasionally go the tongue-in-cheek route. There’s an affected quality to his art that leads to overacting (exacerbated in Housewife by a Turkish cast clearly struggling with English). But that’s on purpose, I suspect. Sometimes stuff is not supposed to be realistic. Tactical exaggeration allows for an air of mystery and menace. Combine that staged, unsettled feeling with lots of gore and a meandering score, and you have horror akin to In the Mouth of Madness (1994).

Of course, the high-brow enthusiast might push Evrenol’s influences back further. We can draw a line through this work from the campy ’90s to the Italian thriller-horror auteurs of the ’60s and ’70s, such as Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci. Include Housewife among recent films like Elizabeth Harvest (2018) that seek to revive giallo filmmaking. The psycho-sexual elements of these foreign mystery-thrillers are clear in Holly’s marriage. And, cinematographer Cem Özuduru’s use of bright colors joins Antoni Maiovvi’s dreamy score to evoke the suspense of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977).

Loneliness and the Apocalypse

His short “Al-Karisi” in the anthology film The Field Guide to Evil (2018) demonstrates an evolving style — assuring viewers that Evrenol won’t continue to make the same type of movie. Available on Prime, this version of the Turkish childbirth djinn folktale lacks the stilted atmosphere of prior movies. A purposeful, narrative-driven camera also replaces the floating shots. But the themes and surreal style remain. “Al-Karisi” is a family trauma. A djinn haunts a pregnant woman who cares for an aging woman. Sure, a bizarre goat-thing and a creepy silhouette scare us. But beneath the strangeness is a sad tale of the life cycle and loneliness.

The filmmaker changes genres but sticks with themes of childhood and innocence lost in Girl With No Mouth. The post-apocalyptic thriller-drama debuted at the 2019 Keysari film festival and was released in Turkey in February. A group of children who suffer various deformities after a toxic explosion go on an adventure that blurs the line between the real and the imaginary. It’s a familiar line for those who seek comfort in the dreamlike worlds of Can Evrenol.

His surreal films are strong on gore and weirdness, lack character and narrative, but are perfect for the moment we’re in. The atmosphere, camp, and stilted style evoke a prior time before the stress and boredom of social distancing and stay at home orders.