Friday, 18 January 2013

Panic Over Istanbul:
A Two-Fisted Turkish Triple Bill!

Polite Notice: I’m afraid this is going to be a fairly huge post. As it’s a continuous piece of writing covering three films I watched in a single sitting, I didn’t want to split it up. So you might want to get comfortable, pour a drink.. whatever gets you through the day whilst reading rubbish about old movies on shiny computer screens. It’s gonna be a lot of fun though, honest. You’ll get through it in no time. Pour another drink, that should help.

A phenomenon that flew under the radar of even the most adventurous international film fans until recently, the strange world of Turkish pulp/pop cinema has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence over the past few years, as the remaining artefacts of this apparently wildly prolific popular film industry have finally found their way to the eyes & ears of Western viewers. This is partly down to the pioneering efforts of DVD companies such as Onar Films (now sadly defunct following the death of founder Bill Barounis), and partly due to the slightly more shady means of bootlegging, file-sharing and internet streaming, which has allowed curious layabouts and bored teenagers all over the world to share a laugh and a WTF over such Youtube perennials as ‘Turkish Star Wars’ and ‘Turkish ET’.

There’s more to this tradition than just inept rip-offs of Hollywood hits however, and whilst an admirably carefree approach to the plunder of copyrighted characters, music and sometimes even actual footage seems to have defined Turkey’s b-movie output right from its origins in the early ‘60s, these films are in other respects rather inspired – a form of impoverished, audience-pleasing popular cinema that is funny, fast-moving and hugely entertaining… for those of us who can still appreciate the simple joys of a bunch of guys in outlandish costumes punching each other, at any rate.

To all intents and purposes, these are exactly the kind of films that ten year old boys would make if given the chance, expressing a sense of comic book naivety that makes your average Mexican lucha libre movie look like the lost musings of Pasolini by comparison. Simplistic plotlines, cartoonish violence, thinly veiled imitations of popular characters running around in home-sewn costumes, beautiful ladies in their underclothes, weird Bond-style villains and their assorted low-rent schemes and, most importantly, non-stop action – these are the things that make these movies tick, and tick they do, like the clock on a primitive time-bomb, thrown from the window of an out of control Skoda.

In Turkey, costumed heroes seem to be afflicted neither by the surrealist identity confusion of the French pulp tradition, nor by the angst of post-Stan Lee American superheroes. In a Turkish movie, if a guy wears the mask, then that’s who he is, and you’d better duck cos he’s coming to kick your ass! This is brutishly utilitarian film-making, but it’s also precisely the kind of undemanding, unpretentious entertainment I feel we need more of in these days of tediously contrived, middle-brow ‘cleverness’. Also, these flicks are only about sixty or seventy minutes long, so as long as you can find ‘em*, you can really binge on them – the cinematic equivalent of crunchy, sugar-coated sweets. That’s exactly what I did over Christmas, and I was taking notes too, so without further ado, let’s relocate to some unimaginably dingy flea-pit auditorium in the heart of Istanbul and enjoy three surviving examples of this proud tradition, spread evenly across the decades.

  Based on a now fairly obscure character pilfered from 1940s American comic books and an accompanying Republic Pictures serial**, Casus Kiran [aka Spy Smasher] (Yilman Atadeniz, 1968) concerns the exploits of the titular costumed hero, who, in this Turkish reiteration at least, loves his country and makes sure everybody knows his name. “That damned Spy Smasher,” his opponents are want to exclaim, “he messes up everything!”

And perhaps their umbrage is to some extent justified, as, despite our hero’s well-advertised disdain for espionage, the villains he faces in ‘Casus Kiran’ at no point seem to do anything that really identifies them as spies. On the contrary, they’re the gangsterest bunch of gangsters you ever laid eyes on, right down to their propensity for sporting wide-brimmed hats, pencil moustaches and tommy guns, in addition to the more central business of running crooked nightclubs, overseeing illegal poker games and stockpiling prodigious quantities of cash and gold. Led by a guy called Black Glove (he doesn’t wear a black glove) and an uber-boss known only as The Mask (you better believe he wears a mask), there is admittedly some stuff about them holding a stolen tape recording naming prominent individuals involved in a spy ring, but this particular plot point seems to be forgotten almost immediately, furthering the impression that spying is strictly a sideline for these fellows.

As things rolled on and no evidence of spying emerged, it occurred to me that perhaps Interpol and the Turkish authorities are merely taking advantage of Spy Smasher’s indefatigable enthusiasm for smashing spies, unleashing him instead against some particularly troublesome common criminals, whilst the real business of cold war subterfuge goes on unhindered. Makes sense really. But, with the presumed sequel in which Spy Smasher turns against his masters to uncover corruption and intrigue within the Turkish state sadly lost to history, let’s concentrate instead on the adventure at hand.

Spy Smasher is cool! Decked out in a somewhat Batman-ish costume, he rides around on a motorbike as warped fragments of Davie Allan & The Arrows’ immortal Blue’s Theme plays on the soundtrack. With him is his girlfriend Sevda, and Sevda is even cooler! She carries a Lugar, has nifty flip-up sunglasses and wears go-go boots and a kinda one piece black khaki mini-skirt type ensemble (sexy and practical!).

As they roar off to an abandoned building to have it out with baddies, Sevda and Spy Smasher seem to be really enjoying themselves. Evidently sharing the same passion for unthinking two-fisted justice, they seem to have a real nice, healthy relationship going on, especially considering that one partner never removes his face mask and insists on being addressed by his superhero name.

After an exciting introductory section with shoot-outs, explosions and frantic chases, there’s a bit of a lull as the plot gets underway, but after that the rest of the movie is basically just one extended fight scene, strung together with brief bits of expositive connecting tissue and shots of Spy Smasher cruising around on his bike.

As the man behind all of the legendary Kilink films***, director Yilman Atadeniz certainly knows his onions re: this kind of thing, and the sheer amount of fisticuffs he manages to cram into seventy-something minutes is fairly remarkable. Lacking the ‘drop three henchmen in single blow’ powers of his American counterparts, poor old Spy Smasher is forced to give each goon a thorough going over before moving on to the next one, and often he seems exhausted by the time he finally manages to get near the ‘proper’ villains, just as more goons descend, and another bout of knuckle sandwiches and body-slams begins. It’s hard not to share our hero’s frustration here, as The Mask and Black Glove repeatedly make their cowardly escape, leaving him pounding against a solid wall of thugs.

I’m sure I won’t be spoiling things much by revealing that Sevda and Spy Smasher do eventually catch up with the villains and their sinister operation, following them to their island hideaway via a moderately awesome speed-boat chase across Istanbul harbour. In a brilliant touch, The Mask is apparently so perturbed by Spy Smasher’s activities that he’s decided to cut his losses and leave town entirely, arranging for the gang’s reserves of gold to be melted down and shaped into what looks like the rear seat of a family car, the upholstery apparently stuffed with their remaining stock of cash! Surely this would seem to be setting things up for a wild car chase once the seat is installed in a vehicle, but sadly that never transpires. Maybe they were planning an additional closing chase or something, but as it is, seventy five minutes was in the can, whatever miniscule resources a film like this could command were presumably running low, and so Spy Smasher instead wraps things up using his tried & tested formula – painstakingly beating the shit out of everyone.

Sometimes erroneously known as ‘Turkish Spiderman’, T. Fikret Uçak’s 3 Dev Adam [3 Mighty Men] (1973) begins with a scene that fans of that character certainly won’t forget in a hurry.

On a deserted beach, a woman is buried up to her neck in the sand. Spiderman looks on as his goons lift up a small motorboat and start manoeuvring the churning propeller of the outboard motor toward the woman’s face. The woman screams as the propeller gets closer. Spiderman give the order, and blood is seen splattering across the bare legs of his female consort, as he waves his fists in the air and silently cheers.

Clearly this kind of madness cannot be allowed to continue. But fear not, the combined forces of El Santo and Captain America are on the case. Arriving – sans costumes, surprisingly – at Istanbul airport, the duo and their female companion (Julia, apparently) are greeted by the Turkish police, and head straight for a briefing on the antics of ‘Spider’ and his gang, who are embroiled in some kind of weird racket involving smuggling stolen antiques to the USA and crooked Mexican currency transactions, or something. With flawless attention to detail, Santo here takes the form of a lanky long-haired guy, whilst Captain America looks rather more dandyish than you might have anticipated in his snakeskin jacket, loud yellow shirt and spotted neckerchief.

If ‘Casus Kiran’ only reached the 21st century via a sun-damaged print that could have been rescued from the bottom of an ashtray in an abandoned porno theatre, my copy of ‘3 Dev Adam’ somehow manages to look even worse, adding about ten generations of VHS fuzz to the mix. But we’ve got it, and that’s the main thing. Quality is so poor that it’s often difficult to tell who’s who outside of close-ups, and as such I certainly appreciated it when our heroes finally donned their brightly coloured costumes for the duration of the innumerable fight scenes.

And, despite the increased level of violence compared the equivalent ‘60s movies, the action here still has a wonderfully cartoonish quality to it (as you might reasonably expect, I suppose). Just dig the bit where Captain America repeatedly bangs a goons head into a wall-mounted frying pan, complete with CLANG CLANG CLANG sound effect – this seconds after he’s announced his presence by jumping through a paper wall. Great stuff.

And whilst Spider is escaping from his initial confrontation with Captain America, roaring away through the sand dunes in his Cadillac no less, Santo initially finds himself reduced to a slightly uncharacteristic ‘sneaking around’ type role, breaking into the office of a bad guy-affiliated gym at night, where he stuffs some secret documents into the crotch of his pants before swiftly returning to his natural comfort zone as he tangles with the heavily moustached manager, and, naturally, a posse of nocturnal karate dudes who (as they helpfully explain) sneak in to train after dark. So you can probably guess how all that pans out. You’ll forgive the ignorance of a wrestling novice, but what’s the name of that move where he picks up a guy on his shoulders and spins him round, knocking over all the other guys..? You know the one I mean. I always love that one. Happy times.

As will be clear from the opening scene onwards, ‘Spider’ is, to all intents and purposes, Kilink [see earlier footnote for more on him], returning with a new red and blue body-suit, but a similarly nefarious set of priorities. Obviously fully cogent with his responsibilities in maintaining the noble traditions of masked Turkish villains, he likes to hang out on his yacht with a small harem of mini-dressed girls and a modestly stocked bar, there to cackle and rant to his heart’s content. Aficionados of these kinda movies probably won’t need told that our arch-fiend is just a little too paunchy to really pull off the skin-tight one-piece bodysuit, and has an absolutely tremendous evil laugh.

Naturally he runs a crooked nightclub too, and his resume of evil is soon ramped up even further when he casually steps out to strangle a naked woman to death in the shower for… reasons that rather elude me, plot-wise.. oh, hang on, yeah – he stole a statue from her apartment, that’s right. So clearly the lengthy naked strangulation scene was a simple matter of narrative necessity.

In another wonderfully indefensible shock scene, Spider further demonstrates his badness (like it needed any more demonstrating!) in a sequence that sees Turkish b-cinema achieving new heights and/or depths by ripping off the Room 101 scene from Orwell’s ‘1984’, as a poor disobedient flunky has his face eaten by hungry rats, a process aided by a purpose built rat delivery mechanism. In the unlikely event that Spider is ever brought to trial for his various outrages (rather than merely being blown up, crushed or punched to death), I’d like to imagine there’d be an anguished social worker sitting there thinking, “I knew giving that guy a library card was a bad idea”.

As you might well have guessed, Spider and his psychotic tomfoolery does rather tend to steal the show in ‘3 Dev Adam’, but there’s certainly no shortage of other fun stuff to enjoy, all aided by the film’s wildly over-saturated comic book colour scheme, which achieves near radioactive brightness in its current degraded form. More period-appropriate awesomeness can be found when some great psychedelic rock (no doubt requisitioned from elsewhere) blares during a fashion show that looks like it’s being staged in the producer’s living room, and, back at Spider’s club, we get to enjoy a Jess Franco-worthy op-art striptease act featuring a silhouetted drummer, and a concealed dancer who dramatically breaks through a coloured paper circle to emerge into view at the act’s conclusion. I think that happens shortly before Santo, Julia and Captain America arrive incognito and totally trash the joint, but I might be getting confused.

You wouldn’t think confusion would really figure much in a story this basic, but as events pile atop events and endless brightly-hued goons are hurled hither and yon, soon the whole thing blends into an endless dream of running around and punching, and before you know it things have reached an unparalleled level of dementia when a love scene between Spider and his chief lady is briefly interrupted by footage of some cackling, punch & judy style puppets. (Actually, thinking about it, I’m not sure if that bit was even supposed to be there – it could have just been the result of someone accidentally flipping the channel at some point in the film’s trek through the VHS duping wilderness, but at the same time I wouldn’t put it past a movie like this to throw it in deliberately just for the sheer hell of it.)

Anyway, you get the idea. If ‘3 Dev Adam’ perhaps doesn’t *quite* achieve the same level of non-stop action as ‘Casus Kiran’, the addition of sleaze, graphic violence and flat-out lunacy to the formula serves to make it an even more remarkable effort overall – a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Within their limited field of operation, both of these films are simply tons of fun, with cast and crew evidently putting their all into trying to equal the more expensive action spectaculars seen in ‘professional’ film & TV, and, by vestige of their sheer giddy enthusiasm, pretty much succeeding, emerging with a product that’s still guaranteed to keep aggressive children, simple-minded adults and random weirdoes glued to their seats in a state of stupefied happiness, all these years later.

Of course by the latter half of the ‘70s, things were pretty tough for low budget commercial cinema the world over as blockbuster-era Hollywood tightened its grip on the market, and no doubt the returns from this kind of ultra-marginal, localised fare would have been particularly badly hit. So what choice did it have but to get tough in return? Apparently safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t even register on the radar of big studio lawyers, Turkish b-filmmakers seemed to have decided by this stage that direct, unashamed rip-offs of Hollywood properties were the way to go, resulting in such oddities as former international film festival award-winner Metin Erksan directing ‘Seytan’ (“The Turkish Exorcist”) in 1974, and the final film we’re looking at today, Çetin İnanc’s Vahsi Kan [Wild Blood] (1983), commonly known – with somewhat more justification this time round – as “Turkish Rambo”.

By the time he made this one, İnanc was pulp / action movie veteran, having served time as assistant and screenwriter to the aforementioned Yilman Atadeniz (man, imagine what the SCRIPT for one of those films must look like..) before beginning his own directorial career the terrific sounding ‘Iron Claw The Pirate’ in 1969, and, with ubiquitous Turkish action star Cuneyt Arkin heading up its cast, 'Vahsi Kan' features notably better production values that the earlier films we’ve looked at today, making it the only one that a hapless square might be liable to mistake for a ‘proper’ movie. If they’d had a few drinks. And if they were watching it from a distance. I mean, let’s not go nuts here, but the editing and pacing are pretty decent, and there are some shots that are stylishly done here and there, some great stunt-work, some performers who are allowed to attempt a bit of ‘acting’ rather than just running around punching stuff, and, well, y'know - that sort of thing.

Alongside a slightly upgraded level of technical competency though, the dawn of the VHS era also seems to have ushered in a dramatic increase in the level of gritty, exploitative nastiness, and WHOA THERE, you’ll be tempted to exclaim as the film opens with a montage of crazed thugs delivering savage beatings, living room-trashings and sexual assaults, things sure have gotten NASTY since the costumed hi-jinks that predominated just a few years earlier (and, given the gory highlights of ‘3 Dev Adam’, that’s no mean boast).

After this furious if rather incoherent opening (featuring a mixture of salty looking tough guys, dodgy interior décor and cheesecake dollybirds that rather puts me in mind of Pete Walker’s early crime films), things proceed to get even more furious and incoherent, as we cut to an elderly man who is apparently being driven into town so that he can testify in some sort of unspecified trial, with his teenage daughter at the wheel (the gratuitous upskirt camerawork from the floor of the driver’s seat is an audacious bit of sleazoid cinematic ingenuity), and his young son in the back seat.

Encountering what appears to be a pile of shirtless male corpses in the middle of the road as they pass through a remote forest clearing, the family are understandably astonished when the men appear to return to life sporting gory zombie make-up, and advance upon the car.

As their faux-undead assailants get ahold of them, the car’s occupants are swiftly shot, strangled, burned alive and – in the daughter’s case - raped, the camera leering relentlessly at her legs and red-pantied ass as her attackers manhandle her. Yes, I’m afraid it is all quite horribly distasteful, but thankfully for our sensitive Western eyes, this girl seems to be made of sterner stuff than your average nameless victim, and she dispatches her primary attacker with a sharpened tree branch before making a getaway on foot before things get *too* hard to stomach.

What happens next initially seems entirely nonsensical (and never really becomes wholly sensical, to be honest), but can perhaps best be summarised via the notes I scribbled down whilst viewing;

"White-haired prisoner being escorted on foot by two soldiers turns the corner and wanders into the apparently remote scene of the aforementioned outrage; an exploding car is represented by a shot of a small ground charge going off in an entirely different location and the soldiers go flying; despite the white-haired guy being a handcuffed prisoner, he seems to be giving orders to everyone and is left to roam around unaccompanied as an ambulance takes his captors to the hospital… what the hell is going on!?"

Well he’s a bad-ass, that’s what’s going on. Casually striding through the wilderness like some Turkish version of 80s era Johnny Cash, toothpick between his lips, handcuffs now lost, this silver fox is none other than Cuneyt Arkin – our Turkish Rambo himself. And thus far I think I like him a lot better than the American Rambo. I mean, admittedly Arkin looks to be about twenty years older than Stallone was when he played the equivalent role, but he’s got screen presence to die for, and he’s got the moves too. None of the performers in the earlier movies discussed above really had a chance to make much of an individual impact, but this guy is a *star*, and İnanc’s camera and script treat him accordingly.

Just watch as he stares down and single-handedly beats the shit out of a whole battalion of tooled up biker-thugs - don't mess with this guy! Look, he even jumps off a hundred foot cliff and survives, no bother at all, before making haste into the jungle.

With our central character established, I’m assuming that hereafter things proceed to follow the storyline of ‘First Blood’ pretty closely, as Riza (for that is his name) gets his obligatory bandana sorted out and goes into full throttle mentalist survivalist mode pretty much immediately, lurking under piles of leaves, crawling around in the mud and catching wild crabs for food (warning: nasty crab-slicing shot), glaring around madly, brandishing his Rambo-knife and… hang on, why does he have a bloody great knife? Didn’t he just escape from police custody or something?

Well, whatever. Here things get kinda interesting vis-à-vis this review, because you see, I’ve never actually seen the original ‘First Blood’. I mean, maybe I saw some of it on TV when I was a teenager and it blurred into some of the other Rambo movies, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never actually sat down and watched it all the way through. Try not to judge me too harshly here - by the time I was old enough to watch violent movies like that I was already a long-haired, Philip K Dick-reading layabout, and wasn’t really into the idea of cheering on this dumb Reaganite muscleman as he went around giving people a hard time, y’know? A proper appreciation of the art of lunkheaded action films would have to wait until, well, now apparently, and I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. So in short, I’m not really sure how much of what unfolds in ‘Vahsi Kan’ is ripped directly from ‘First Blood’, and how much is original. But I’m sure YOU’VE probably seen the proper ‘First Blood’, so let’s give this a try shall we?

Does ‘First Blood’ have a sub-plot about a psychotic quadriplegic guy who blows people up by leaning back on a detonator built into the back of his wheelchair? If not, chalk one up for the Turks!

How about a Vincent Price lookalike villain who spends most of the movie sitting in his hideout ranting insanely about loyalty and vengeance as he slugs Johnny Walker and ignores his bored & dissolute bikinied girlfriend? (“Most entertaining” according to my notes, and who are you to argue?)

One thing I’m fairly certain ‘First Blood’ doesn’t have is a sexy jungle girl, so three cheers for ‘Vahsi Kan’. Because, yeah, you remember that poor rape victim who fled into the woods about half an hour back? Well inevitably Ram – sorry, Riza – bumps into her fairly sharpish as he’s doing his rounds of the jungle, and, one quickly whipped up jungle girl outfit later (Cuneyt Arkin is so cool, I believe that his skills would actually stretch to such feats of improvised combat zone tailoring), the apparently universal rule that every Turkish movie hero must have a feisty female sidekick remains intact.

Not that the girl is terribly feisty, disappointingly. This is quickly established when the pair bond during a cringingly stupid moment that sees her trying to clamber over what is clearly an easily navigable slope (it’s, like, maybe three feet high), only to fail and call upon Riza’s assistance. Oh, and as was made abundantly clear earlier on, Çetin İnanc’s camera just cannot get enough of this actress, regardless of the dramatic context, so naturally a lengthy topless bathing scene ensues almost immediately. Well if you’re gonna make a thoughtlessly misogynistic macho movie, you might as well go all out, right?

Happily, ‘Vahsi Kan’ carries over all of the relentless energy and non-stop violence of the earlier films, and is just as entertaining and moderately unhinged, in spite of the far grimier exploitational tone. There are occasional outbursts of the kind of goofery that inevitably accompanies such super-quick, super-cheap film making (fatal knife blows that clearly miss their target, carved stone steps suddenly appearing in remote, inaccessible caves etc), but in general the film’s action scenes are vigorous and brutal and fast-moving and hopefully impressive enough to cause anyone watching this movie purely for the sake of mockery to think again.

As with all of these films, there’s certainly a lot to laugh at, but there’s a lot that’s worthy of genuine appreciation too, and a spirit of wild, unpretentious fun that should be cherished and applauded. It’s a shame that resourceful directors like İnanc felt they had to spend their time imitating Hollywood epics rather than filming their own crazy stories, but needless to say, I’d definitely take the kind of mayhem that ensues when guys like this go to work on a property like Rambo over any of the tepid ‘reimagined’ garbage that’s been clogging up ‘proper’ cinemas in recent years. How to conclude, other than just to note that I've got aching eyes and an aching belly, and that the past four hours passed in a blur of more unadulterated FUN than any similar stretch of time in recent memory. Recommended viewing..? You bet.

*‘Casus Kiran’ is available to download with English sub-titles from The Internet Archive. As to the other films featured here, seek and ye shall find.

**Thanks to Todd Stadtman’s review of Casus Kiran at Teleport City for filling me in on the character’s pre-Turkish history.

***Well I think they’re legendary anyway. I saw one screened in public last year, so they must be doing ok. See here and here for the lowdown on Kilink and his convoluted origins.

The posters used in this post are taken from the awesome & informative gallery at

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