Originally ran on on 03/25/08

Turkey: what is the country best known for? For the post-pub army, the rich and proud Muslim heritage of Turkey is encapsulated in five words: yes; boss; doner; chilli; sauce. On seeing Alan Parker’s “Midnight Express” (1978), advice would be to avoid their correctional facilities unless sodomy is your kind of thing. And there’s Turkey’s national drink, Raki (a strong grape brandy flavoured with anise), which is ludicrous and quite silly in alcoholic super power: so much so, that I am told that I had a run-in with the police after a heavy Raki session one night, but to this day remember nothing. The Marquis de Sade would have bottled out of drinking it. One can only wonder what the Turkish Ministry of Tourism think of the Brits.

Turkey is entrenched in history, from the First Crusades and the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign in 1915, to a land gilded in diverse culture, poetry, music, cuisine, literature and classic architecture such as the Suleiman Mosque; a land that consists of different customs from its many regions. Cinema has played an important focus on Turkish values and society, mostly traditional stories and internal conflicts with the social environment of individuals sinking into their own problems. From 1887, Turkey was to become involved in local films and during World War 1, the country had produced its own feature films. The post-war years saw a number of documentaries and a handful of credible and unique movies, admittedly technically inferior to French, Swedish and US competition. The late 1940s onwards saw productions that moved away from theatrical pretensions and dealt with social commentary, the late 1950s and early 1960s witnessing a variation of the Italian neo-realism movement.

The Fifties also marked the start of Turkey’s foray into the exploitation racket where filmmakers shot low-budget movies in primitive facilities. At first, the films were genuine, individual works with their own voice and agenda till they became wild and psychedelic rip-offs of international blockbusters – the yeşilçam; colourful and extreme partisan flicks that knew no law in terms of copyright and accepted filmmaking. Wildcards of delirious and salacious cinema, Turkey released over a thousand exploitation pictures, mostly shot without care, edited with a hatchet, processed in a s**t house with the imaginations of madmen fuelled on Raki – indeed, during the early 1970s, over 300-550 movies were made per year. But what remains is a time capsule of films that belong to an age when independent cinema was key and anything could be made… however bad.

One of the first Turkish genre pictures was Mehmet Muhtar’s “Dracula in Istanbul/Drakula Istanbul’da.” The film is the one of the first to show Bram Stoker’s vampire character exhibit long canine teeth – arguably thick strands of pasta – and Turkey being an Islamic country, no crucifixes are shown and holy water is replaced by copies of the Koran which repel this Muslim Dracula. The location was altered from London to Istanbul and the story is set to the time of the film’s production: 1953. Shot on a creakily cheap production on rough black and white stock, the movie is also cheapened by altering the Mina Hawker character to that of a stage dancer – a move that Italian director Renato Polselli also championed for “The Vampire and the Ballerina/ L’Amante del vampire” (1960). The screenplay is based upon Stoker’s book as well as Ali Riza Seyfi’s 1928 novel “Vlad the Impaler/Kazikli Voyvoda,” a Turkish adaptation on vampirism. The screenplay takes considerable chunks of inspiration from both sources so that its true identity remains somewhat indistinguishable. Shot on the fly (Dracula’s castle is a poverty-row painting), it’s a light and comical effort but is atmospheric in the tradition of the 1930s Universal monster features. An extreme rarity, the King of Vampires is played by the late Atif Kaptan who is more of a distinguished gentleman than an evil bloodsucker, but you can’t have everything.

Turkey’s love of Hollywood blockbusters gets its due in Part Two of YEŞILÇAM! Turkish Exploitation Cinema>>>

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