Practically everybody hates Büyü. As of early 2008, the IMDb user rating for Büyü is a staggeringly low 1.9. That seems a bit harsh, especially when you consider that even Claudio Fragasso's Troll 2... hell, even Orgy of the Dead and Invasion of the Neptune Men... have higher ratings than that. Reviewers have a habit of comparing the film unfavorably to the work of Cüneyt Arkın... and if you've ever seen the so-called "Turkish Star Wars", you'll understand just how much of a put-down that is.

It's the Turks themselves who are responsible for a great deal of the negative press the movie has received, and if I don't quite understand the depth of their hostility, at least I can guess its source. Büyü, as I understand it, was the film that was supposed to launch the rebirth of Turkish fantastic cinema: this was the film that was expected to wipe out memories of movies like Şeytan (the "Turkish Exorcist"), for which Turkey was known and ridiculed all over the world. If South Korea could emerge as a major producer of horror films in the early 21st century, and even Thailand could launch a modestly successful industry, then why not Turkey? So domestic expectations were high for a serious Turkish horror film, shot in one of Anatolia's historic ruins and featuring what was presumed to be a distinctively Turkish story line.

But when the film opened, audiences saw in Büyü only a derivative American-style horror movie. True, 2004 was a lousy time for American-style anything in that part of the world; but the main problem audiences seemed to have with the film was its mediocrity. They had a point. There's very little to distinguish Büyü from dozens of other movies just like it — in fact, you might say Büyü is the movie Lucio Fulci's disappointing Demonia (1988) could have been if it had been given a decent budget. Still, lack of originality alone doesn't seem enough to justify the venom with which the film has been attacked. After all, the woefully inept Turkish J-Horror ripoff Araf is currently leading over Büyü by a few points on the IMDb Bottom 100; and having seen both, I can't think of any reason why this would be the case... except for the fact that Büyü came first.

In its deeply unoriginal way, Büyü does manage to do one or two things very well. I'm willing to agree that the movie has some significant problems, but — unless, of course, the actors aren't really saying what the subtitles say they're saying, which I guess is possible — I still think the movie is better than its horrible reputation suggests.

I was going to call the beginning of the film a "pre-credit sequence", since it feels like a pre-credit sequence, looks like a pre-credit sequence, and ends with somebody screaming over a bloody corpse like a pre-credit sequence. The only thing preventing it from actually being a pre-credit sequence is the fact it runs after the opening credits. Which is fine, as long as you don't mind the story jumping forward the better part of a millennium with no transition at all.

The sequence takes place in an Anatolian town called Dengizhan, back in the 13th or 14th century. According to the back-story we learn later, an old witch had taken up residence in the town, and had convinced the population that their female children were the cause of all evil. At her command, every girl child in Dengizhan was buried alive.

However, there was a woodworker and his wife who rebelled, and hid their daughter from the townspeople. Several years went by; when the little girl was about ten years old, the man's wife died, and he took a new wife from a different village. Unfortunately, the second wife became jealous of the woodworker's relationship with his daughter, and fell under the influence of the local witch cult.

Büyü opens in this family's house late one night, as the second wife steals her new husband's Qur'an from its leather bag and hides it outside the house. Then she goes off to see the old witch; the witch's door opens by itself, so the old woman is evidently expecting her. The young wife takes off her dress, giving us a rare glimpse of flesh in a film from a majority-Muslim country — mind you, the old witch gets topless as well, and this seems to have ruined the thrill for young male audiences. Anyway, the witch takes a nasty-looking thorn-studded branch and begins whipping the woman with it, both across her back and her naked breasts. Then she takes the branch to her own body. Gathering her own blood and the blood of the young woman on the blade of a knife, she begins preparing a terrible spell...

Back in the house, the unsuspecting father starts to sweat with anxiety. He goes to fetch his Qur'an for comfort, but is horrified to find it has been taken away. Without the protection of the holy book, he is helpless to resist the spell that's being cast on him: a spell that will allow the murderous witch to take possession of his body. All at once a grim look settles on the father's face. As though he'd been taken over by the spirit of a slightly better actor the witch, he picks up his woodcarving knife and stalks toward his daughter's bedroom.

The little girl awakens from bad dreams to find her father standing in the doorway. Before the man can enter, though, he catches sight of a wall-hanging over the child's bed: it is a kid-skin with a verse from the second book of the Qur'an written on it in Arabic script. The door to the girl's room swings shut and bolts itself — for in the words of the Prophet related in the Kitab Al-Salat: "Do not make your houses as graveyards; Satan flees from the house in which Surah of the Cow is recited." It's a pity nobody told the girl, though; certainly most twelfth-century girls weren't reading the ahadith for themselves. Frightened by the commotion, she unbolts the door ("Oy, veh!" cries her guardian angel) and throws her arms around her father for comfort.

Bad idea. We see the father readying the knife; and then, from the witch's house, we hear a sharp cry... but the cry stops short as the knife does its work (at last, we have a horror film that knows victims can't scream when their throats have been cut!). The second wife smiles; while down in the village the father comes to his senses and finds himself covered in blood. And on the floor beside him...

... well...

... points added for the choked-off scream; points subtracted for not telling the little girl to hold her breath while pretending to be dead. Still, taken as a whole, it's an effectively gruesome prologue.

Suddenly (very suddenly) we're back in the present day, in an upscale suburban house in İstanbul. It's the house of a couple named Tarık and Ayşe; Ayşe, though young, is one of Turkey's best philologists, and she's hosting a party for her mentor, the archaeologist Ekrem Bey. Also at the party are hoca Ekrem's daughter Sedef and three of his graduate students: Cemil, Aydan and Ceren. And then there's Ayşe's childhood friend Zeynep, who's more than a little lost amid all the highbrow talk about lost civilizations and ancient books.

Ekrem Bey is about to lead his young protégés on a brief expedition to — wait for it — the ruins of Dengizhan. It's only going to be a preliminary dig: eventually, they'll come back with more people and better resources to look for the lost Kitab Al-McGuffin of Salih Sultan.

By some strange coincidence, the kid-skin scroll we saw in the prologue has made its way into Ayşe's possession. She explains her father found it in London, and realizing its antiquity, he'd sent it to her as a present. Ayşe never finds out exactly where the scroll came from, so she never discovers its significance; but she does know what it is and what it says, and she translates for Cemil and Sedef. It's from the 102nd verse of the Cow Surah, she explains: "And they knew that the buyers of Magic would have no share in the happiness of the Hereafter."

Now, I'm not exactly sure of the meaning of the Turkish word büyü, but from its use in the movie I get the idea that it means not only a black magic curse, a malevolent spell, but also the kind of magic that is itself cursed by Allah. It's also interesting to take a closer look at the 102nd verse of the Cow Surah, to see the kind of evil spell it goes out of its way to mention: "They learned... the means to sow discord between man and wife."

And that brings us to Zeynep.

Zeynep has had too much to drink. She not only feels left out amid Ayşe's intellectual friends, she's also insanely jealous of Ayşe. Ever since they were children, Zeynep fumes later, Ayşe was always the Good Girl, the one even Zeynep's own parents looked on with pride and approval. Now she's more successful than Zeynep; she's prettier than Zeynep; she's richer than Zeynep; and she's married to a handsome and successful man (it's a little difficult to tell from the translation, but there's a suggestion that Tarık may have been the man Zeynep set her sights on, unsuccessfully, in college). A good deal of this bitterness starts to seep out of Zeynep as the party draws to a close, leaving everybody else in awkward silence.

Naturally, Zeynep is also the last guest to leave. Ayşe takes the opportunity to tell her that her behavior has finally crossed the line. She stalks off, upset, leaving Zeynep alone with Tarık. Now we discover that Zeynep's been working on seducing Tarık... but it seems Zeynep can't even succeed as a seductress: when she tries to make her advances plain, Tarık snaps and orders her out of the house for good.

You know the old Congreve quote about Hell having no fury like a woman scorned? Well, apparently it's true of the Islamic Hell as well. Humiliated, Zeynep turns to drastic measures: she goes to see a modern witch to get a curse placed on Ayşe. And it's not any ordinary curse she asks for: no mere boils or ill fortune will do. She wants her childhood friend to suffer and die.

The city witch may be a comfortable bourgeoise in a fancy apartment rather than a topless old crone in a stone hut, but she still knows her stuff... she informs Zeynep that she must be absolutely sure of what she wants, because there is no turning back. The kind of spell she's looking for comes at a hefty price — and not just in money. Zeynep is adamant. And when she mentions to the witch that Ayşe is on her way to Dengizhan, of all places, the witch knows exactly which evil spirit to call upon.

Hoca Ekrem and his team head off to Eastern Turkey to begin their expedition. As they ride out to the Anatolian highlands, we start to get some idea of the stereotypical horror movie characters we're dealing with: Ayşe is obviously the Nice Girl who stands the best chance of making it most of the way through the movie; Cemil is the lone young male of the group, so we're pretty confident he'll end up as şaşlik before too long. Sedef is the young, innocent girl, so we look on her with the deepest suspicion. Aydan is perpetually cranky; she's also the Hot Blonde One, so her hours are probably numbered. As for Ceren, she seems to be the nonentity of the group, the "Paris-Hilton-in-House of Wax" type who displays little character... except that she's always, always on her cellphone with her boyfriend Şafak back in İstanbul.

Sedef gets her father talking about how he got interested in archaeology, through his father's work in the field. "Life is under the ground," his father had told him, and Ekrem Bey has come to believe the same thing... in spite of his parents urgent wish that he become a doctor. "If only you had become a doctor," grumbles their driver; "Then you'd be able to help the living above ground." The city Turks think he's making a joke, but we get the feeling he's very serious. The rural folk are people for whom one Book is sufficient, and they tend to look on the archaeologists with suspicion. Digging up the past is seen as intellectual vanity, and an unwelcome intrusion.

There is one local man who welcomes Ekrem Bey and his friends, and that's the aged miller Amca, who has known Ekrem for many years. Even Amca is concerned about their destination, because (as he tells them) Dengizhan is cursed by Allah. He begins to tell them the story of the evil sorcery that brought down the wrath of God and destroyed the town.

The old miller's story is obviously very important to the plot. Unfortunately, the movie tries a little too hard to underscore its importance: the camera swoops in on Amca and seems to develop a jittery fascination with the old man's nose. He starts by telling them about the witch's decree, and in a flashback we see a group of 12th-century townspeople burying an infant alive. Praise once again for the sound engineers, who convey to us the sound of a baby being covered with dirt without making us watch in gruesome detail.

Amca then starts to explain the scene we saw in the post-credits "pre-credit sequence", and because we've seen this already, his narration continues over a montage of the archaeologists starting their trek through the mountains. I understand the reason for continuing the story as voice-over, since we've seen this part of the story already. Still, you can't escape the impression that miles behind them, old Amca is going to come out of his reverie and discover that his audience is long gone.

The montage is interrupted when the packs containing all the party's tents, which Ceren swears she tied securely to the pack-mules, come untied and plunge down a ravine (If this is the curse starting to work, it seems a little premature, since Zeynep and the witch haven't got down to business yet. Still, I suppose, once Zeynep had made up her mind, the curse was as good as cast; either that, or [as hinted by the coincidental reappearance of the kid-skin scroll] larger forces are at work, drawing Ayşe into the mountains to her doom).

The old man's story has left everyone in a somber mood, and the loss of their supplies hasn't helped their mood any. Hoca Ekrem makes light of the tale, pointing out that the countryside is full of stories like that; but the guides overhear him and interrupt, insisting the tale is true.

Ayşe then shows the others a curious amulet that Amca gave her before they left, a charm that is supposed to protect her from the evil spirits of Dengizhan. Strangely, though, as they are crossing a stream a little later, the necklace falls off Ayşe's neck and is lost in the waters. Though Ayşe and Cemil get soaking wet trying to find it, the amulet is gone. They have no choice but to abandon it and continue their trek.

Dengizhan is located in a particularly remote valley. The only way to get to the ruin is to go under the mountains through a series of caves... and the only way to get through the labyrinth of caves in reasonable safety is to trust the local guides. This means trusting people who obviously don't trust them: as the archaeologists get closer to the cursed city, the guides wander off on their own, arguing in their local dialect — this is never a good sign. In the meantime Ayşe, who is still wet from her plunge in the stream, is ill-prepared to handle the sudden cold of the caves, so she goes to hide behind a boulder and change. I was about to call this a naked ploy to get the actress out of her clothes. Unfortunately, it is only a semi-naked ploy. Hey, we'll take what we can get.

While Ayşe is occupied with the critical task of removing her shirt, she catches a glimpse of something sinister deep in the cave ahead... something vast and shadowy and accompanied by some sort of electrical flash. Whatever it is, it panics the pack animals and sends the whole party into deeper unease. They'd be even more disturbed if they knew that at the same time, back in İstanbul, Zeynep is sitting with the witch and completing the curse. The sound of the witch's chanting seems to reach even to the distant cave; and although the weather was clear when they entered, flashes of lightning are reflected on the cave walls.

The strange voices and flashes are too much for the local guides, who tell Ekrem and his friends that they're going home. The archaeologists are on their own from this point on. Cemil and Ceren protest that they can't handle the animals alone; but Ekrem realizes there will be no bargaining with the guides, and leads the others on in spite of their protests.

Full night has fallen by the time the archaeologists get out of the cave. The full moon hangs over the mountain, casting an eerie glow over the ruins of Dengizhan.

PATSY: It's only a model.

They arrive in Dengizhan just as the witch's spell reaches its peak. A crack opens in the earth, revealing some sort of leather object; above, a long-dry well begins to pour out a stream of blood, which flows through the freshly-opened crack and spatters the leather. Unaware of all this, the archaeologists go about setting up their camp. Since they no longer have their tents, they must settle into the actual buildings of Dengizhan, some of which seem safe enough to sleep in.

Ayşe comments on the peculiar beauty of the full moon, and remarks also about the curious appearance of one of the houses at the far side of the town, just under the moon's current position. Hoca Ekrem insists that his map identifies that location as the town cemetery, but is more concerned with opening a bottle of wine than in resolving the issue. Cemil has a moment of disorientation when he looks at the horizon and seems to see two full moons in the sky: one over the peculiar house, and one higher in the sky. Perhaps the wine is stronger than it seems...? Ceren, for her part, notes with disappointment that her CDs seem to have been left too close to the fire, and are ruined. Neither of these events is enough to spoil their triumph at having arrived in spite of all their troubles. The party celebrates their arrival with some freshly-grilled meat skewers, glasses of good wine, and a spirited song around the campfire...

And all the while, from the window of the house under the lower moon, something is watching them.

I have to admit I know almost nothing about the Turkish cultural situation, and I'd be a fool to insist I saw some deeper meanings in this movie that the Turks themselves overlooked. Ignorance and foolishness have never stopped me before, so I thought I'd mention what occurred to me at this point in the film.

There has been a great deal of tension in Turkey over the role of religion in public life, a tension that has been made even greater by Turkey's desire to join the predominately-Christian European Union. Turkey is predominately Islamic, but it is constitutionally mandated to be a secular state — the only such secular state in the Islamic world. The founders of the modern Turkish republic were very insistent that mosque and state be divided; expressions of religion such as the wearing of headscarves was prohibited in official life, often on pain of arrest and imprisonment. In recent years, there has been wide popular support for a relaxing of these rules. In 2002, the pro-Islamic politician Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected Prime Minister of Turkey. At first he was unable to take up the position: he had been arrested in 1998 for reading an incendiary pro-Islamist poem at a political rally, and the arrest theoretically prevented him from serving. Erdoğan eventually assumed the title, but has remained a divisive figure both at home and abroad. Some insist his reforms, however moderate, have been undermining Turkey's secular foundations; others insist he has been bridging the chasm between secular Turkey and the country's more traditional, conservative segment.

It's possible, I thought, that Büyü reflects something of the unease of Westernized or secular-leaning Turks at the popular re-emergence of political Islam, especially considering the forms that Islamic governments have taken in neighboring countries (particularly Iran). Please don't misunderstand: "secular" doesn't necessarily mean "irreligious"; and in spite of the surprising amount of female skin on display, Büyü is as rooted in Islam as any traditional Western vampire movie is in at least the outward trappings of Christianity. But the Islam represented in the movie, however trivially, is a moderate religion, in which such things as immodesty or the consumption of alcohol are taken in stride. Like the Christianity of the vampire films, it doesn't represent a specific set of beliefs as much as a sort of generalized idea of Essential Goodness. The evil that lurks in Dengizhan, though, seems very much like a caricature of militant extremism: it is powerful; it arises in the rural east, with — if not the support of — at least the acquiescence of those who mistrust the intrusion of the urbanized intellectuals; it is inhumanly brutal to women, even when practiced by women themselves; and when it sets out to destroy its enemies, in this case the archaeologists, it does so with a surprising cunning, and a deep understanding of their weaknesses.

On the other hand, we could take a closer look at that 102nd verse of the Cow Surah: there's a line which states that black magic will only be effective if Allah permits it to work. So perhaps the curse that falls on the archaeologists is their own fault. They are, after all, looking for "life under the soil", pursuing their own intellectual vanity instead of doing something for the welfare of living people. Also, the majority of them are not only women scholars, but women scholars with uncovered heads, shorts, tank tops and/or belly-shirts. They're sitting together amicably with the men, drinking alcohol, and singing a song about how good it is to be alive. In other words, it's no wonder that the evil of Dengizhan is allowed to work against these people, since they're behaving in such an ungodly fashion. They reap the consequences of their unbelief... at least until the very end, when a minor miracle is needed to prevent the triumph of evil from being absolute.

Or maybe I'm just full of crap. Certainly the frequent nudity and sexual situations in Büyü make that second explanation a little unlikely. In any event, no English language review I've seen bothers to bring up either possibility, so I'm going to guess that neither reading is particularly appropriate. Oh well; at least I tried.

Bogus theorizing notwithstanding, the evil presence in Dengizhan wastes little time in making its displeasure known. It puts a stop to their singing by sending a thing — whether bird or bat, insect or injectopod, nobody can tell — which attacks Cemil. It fastens itself to his face and scratches (bites?) the hell out of him, until he is able to throw it to the ground for Ekrem to stamp on. Once it's been reduced to mush by Ekrem's shoe, it's impossible to tell exactly what it could have been. In any case, the attack stops the celebration cold.

The first night in the ruin is an uneasy one. The professor's laptop suddenly stops working. Sedef sits down to read tarot cards (surely not standard-issue scientific equipment for an expedition like this), and draws the Tower, Satan and Death in succession. Ayşe seems to hear a strong wind blowing through the stones, when there is no wind. Most unsettling of all, the actresses start removing their clothing... but some supernatural force prevents us from getting more than a glimpse of side-boob from Aydan. Curse you, supernatural force!

Late that night, after everyone sinks into troubled sleep, something invisible attacks Aydan. In the film's least tasteful sequence, it drags the scantily-clad girl out of her blanket and... well... there's little doubt from the camera movements what it's supposed to be doing. To be fair to the movie, there is a reason why it does this, other than sheer exploitation. It's important for the the rest of the Evil Presence's plan that Aydan be off-balance and upset; and it's also important for the movie to suggest that the attack may have left Aydan vulnerable to the Evil's influence. This isn't enough to excuse the scene, though, especially because of the amateurish way the scene is shot.

Cemil awakens the next morning to discover that the pack animals have all disappeared. Ekrem sees that the ropes have been cut, and suspects that the guides may have come back to rob them. Strangely enough, though, nothing else in the camp has been stolen. There seems to be nothing to do about the situation, except perhaps to wake up Aydan, who has overslept. Poor Aydan, in spite of her bruises and torn clothing, seems unable to tell if what happened to her in the night was anything more than a nightmare.

As the dig starts, the movie does something unexpectedly well: it shows us movie archaeologist behaving at least a little bit like real archaeologists. Instead of hacking up priceless artifacts with picks, the way movie archaeologists usually work, these people mark off small sections of ground and proceed with care — one thin shovelful at a time, and as often working with needles and brushes as with two-handed tools. When they find something, they take it to Ayşe for mapping and cataloging, and then (when possible) they seal the artifacts in plastic bags for safekeeping. It may seem like a small concession to reality, but it's better than we get from most movies of this type.

When the team breaks for lunch — Ceren complaining that her cellphone has stopped working — Ayşe decides to go investigate the strange house she saw the previous night. When she gets close, she is terrified by the sound of small children that fills the air all around her; whether the ghost-children are laughing or crying, she can't tell. Above her, the window shutters of the sinister house slide open, and a child's toy hoop launches itself at Ayşe;. When Ayşe runs back to the others, something considerably larger than a hoop — a boulder, in fact — comes crashing down on them. Lunch is completely destroyed by the falling rock, and Aydan and Ayşe are barely able to escape being crushed. While they're all trying to catch their breath, Ayşe tells them about the sinister experience she had. Baffled, Ekrem insists on going to investigate.

Ekrem and Cemil find nothing in the old house, but outside Sedef finds a curious strip of deerskin buried in a crevice. In fact, it's the same bit of leather we saw revealed by the earth tremor, the one that caught the drops of fresh blood. Sedef brushes the dirt from it with her hand, never noticing that she'd cut that hand during the dig. Each brush of her bloodstained hand is greted with an ominous surge on the soundtrack.

Ayşe translates what she can of the writing on the deerskin. Apparently it has something to do with evil spirits. Evidently the miller's story was right: Dengizhan was the site of a witch cult. Ekrem is fascinated, and orders the others to re-start the excavations in front of the witch's house. It's here they find an ancient knife, in remarkably (even dangerously) good condition, and a gravestone that suggests the house was indeed built on top of the cemetery.

So here we are, two thirds of the way through the movie, and we've had enough spooky premonitions for four horror films. It's about time for something to actually happen. We know that the eventual horror, when it breaks loose, is going to involve possession of some sort... but who will the evil possess? Will it be Cemil, who was bit on the face by that strange creature the night before? Or Aydan, who was molested by something she couldn't see? Or Ceren, who... uhh... naah, it's probably not Ceren. Could it be Sedef, whose blood soaked into the deerskin spell-scroll? Or even Ekrem, the skeptic and least likely suspect? Or might it not be Ayşe herself, since she's the one who's actually been cursed?

Here's how the carnage begins: that night, the team's generator suddenly fails. All the electric lights go out, and Ekrem sends Cemil off to do what he can. Something about the darkness terrifies Cemil, and when Ceren surprises him he insists she grab a spare flashlight and come with him. As Ceren holds the light on the generator, and Cemil fiddles with the starter, neither of them notices the beam of white light that envelops them from behind. No sooner does the light hit them, when strange and hungry looks come into their eyes: Ceren and Cemil begin tearing their clothes off, and Ceren practically launches herself at Cemil and wraps her legs around his hips...

Up until this point, we've been led to believe that the evil loose in Dengizhan needed certain personal effects of its target in order to take over a human body. Here we discover this is not necessarily true. Either the script is being particularly sloppy with its supernatural powers, or (to take the more charitable view) it really doesn't need that much effort to get two attractive college kids to do something hasty and regrettable. The evil certainly seems to be enjoying the show, since streams of blood begin to leak from the walls and splatter all over Ceren's cast-off clothing.

Just at this moment, Ayden comes by to see what's going on with the generator. The unearthly light is enough for Aydan to see what's going on in the generator room, and she runs away nauseated. As if on cue, the light fades away, and the two young people come to their senses. They don't even like each other — and yet here they are, inexplicably, playing hide-the-sucuk. Cemil is shocked and humiliated, naturally; but poor Ceren is devastated. She grabs up her clothes (never noticing the peculiar stains) and runs off weeping into the darkness. Cemil barely has a chance to catch his breath when something stalks out of the darkness and takes it away for good. Whoever or whatever it is, it slashes open Cemil's throat with the 14th-century dagger.

And now that the blood has started to flow, Büyü actually starts to differentiate itself from its models. Again the film manages to be both gruesome and restrained: instead of turning into a red fire hose à la Ruggero Deodato, the dying Cemil falls onto his back... instead of spraying out, the blood from his ruined throat leaks back into his body, leaving him to gurgle away his last moments.

Our next surprise is the film's treatment of Ceren. Up to this point, she's been a cipher with a cellphone, the least-defined character of the batch. After she is violated, the movie suddenly reminds us that however little we may have seen of her, and no matter how poorly her character has been drawn until now, she is still a human being. Instead of running screaming, poor Ceren goes into shock. She walks slowly off by herself, and draws herself into a tight little ball; then she pulls her boyfriend's ring off her finger, clutches it tightly in her fist, and then begins to sob quietly.

Disposable characters like Ceren are never given small, humanizing moments like this in horror films. But from this point on, Büyü is going to challenge the notion that there is any such thing as a "disposable" character.

Ceren tries to keep her shame and distress hidden from the others. She has no way of knowing that Aydan is glaring at her with a haggard expression. Eventually hoca Ekrem asks her to go fetch his notebook, and when she stands and faces them in the lantern-light, Ekrem sees that she is stained with blood. At first, everyone (except Ceren herself, who is numb) assumes Ceren has hurt herself, but it soon becomes clear that the blood is not her own. Then has something happened to Cemil? Ceren's eyes widen. "Cemil!" she cries, and runs back to the generator room with the others close behind.

What they find is not quite what we'd been expecting. It's much worse. Cemil's body has been hacked to bits. There is blood everywhere, and his head has been hung from a gate.

The reaction of the others is not what we'd been expecting, either. They react exactly as you'd expect real people to act, if they were suddenly confronted with the bloody remains of their friend and colleague: Ceren faints, while the others are practically incapacitated with shock and grief. Hoca Ekrem forces himself to regain his self-control and orders the others out of the building. We then see him attend to the body, stifling his revulsion as he gathers all the bloody pieces and stows them respectfully out of sight in a sleeping bag. It takes an enormous toll on him; and later, when his daughter goes to wrap her arms around him to comfort him, he is so overcome by grief that he is unable even to raise his arms to return the gesture.

That's right: the young people go to pieces, and the adult takes responsibility. They don't all suddenly become martial arts experts. They don't find a cache of weapons and go on the offensive. They don't react to the death of a friend as though they'd just broken a fingernail. I'll say it again, because I've waited a long time for this to happen in a horror film: the kids go to pieces, and the adult takes responsibility. From my description, you might be inclined to think this was just latent sexism: one late-middle-aged man keeps his head, while four young women revert to Helpless Screaming Female mode... but that's not how it plays on-screen. Ekrem is no better able to deal with the catastrophe than anybody else; but he knows his position, and he knows that it's up to him to prevent the others from panicking.

And preventing panic is a very difficult job. Aydan has jumped to the obvious conclusion that Ceren killed Cemil, and is on the verge of killing Ceren herself. It seems that Cemil was Aydan's ex-boyfriend: she had been an art student, but switched her major to be near him. Then he'd slept with a friend of hers and ruined their relationship. Seeing Cemil with Ceren brought back all the old emotions, and now that Cemil is dead, Aydan is unable to control herself. Ekrem orders the two of them to stop fighting, but not before the two women manage to injure each other (injuries, by the way, which don't just disappear a few scenes later, when the screenplay has forgotten about them). Ekrem begs Ceren to tell him what could have happened when she was with Cemil, but Ceren is unable to say anything. Later, she unburdens herself to Ayşe, who has begun to suspect the deerskin scroll may have something to do with their situation.

It's Ekrem, though he's twice as old as his protégés as equally exhausted, who quietly stands guard while the others get a few hours' sleep. There's something terribly poignant about him — this white-haired old man, sitting covered with blood and holding a probably-useless pickaxe in his lap, as he tries to make sure the others are kept safe.

Unfortunately, he botches the job: in the morning, Ceren has disappeared.

The maps and compass are gone, too, and this makes Aydan perversely triumphant. Ceren must have been the murderer, Aydan announces, and now she's escaped. Neither Sedef nor Ayşe are particularly convinced, and Ekrem, whose patience has run out long before, tells her to piss off.

Ekrem then foolishly tells the others to split up and look for Ceren in the ruins — this is not only the worst thing to do in a horror film, it's also terrible advice for anybody being stalked by a nameless killer. Ekrem clearly isn't at his best, though; shock and fatigue are catching up with him. Aydan insists that if she has to look for Ceren, it would be better if she didn't find her. Ignoring the fact that if Ceren is Cemil's killer, she overpowered him and tore his head off — things that might inspire a little caution in a less-determined woman — Aydan promises that she'll kill Ceren on sight.

And since Aydan is the only one who thinks Ceren's tried to escape rather than hide, she's the one who ends up in the system of caves that leads back to the outside world. And something particularly nasty is waiting for her there...

So who is the possessed killer? What happens to the others, in particular the doomed Ay&&351;e? I'm afraid you'llhave to find out for yourself, in the unlikely event that this movie is ever released in the West. I'll just point out that the remaining horror in Dengizhan takes place in an atmosphere of anguish, exhaustion, bewilderment, pain (both physical and mental) and terror — natural underpinnings for a horror movie, you might think, until you begin to realize how little part these feelings usually play in your average genre entry. It's all the more remarkable because up until the killing starts, Büyü itself hasn't seemed to be anything other than a disappointingly average genre entry.

The movie's actual climax has a bit of an Allah-ex-machina feel to it, though it's a far cry from a neat, happy ending. The conclusion does manage to wrap up most of the story elements — remember Zeynep, for instance? Remember Tarık? Remember the lost amulet, and the murder of the little girl in the prologue? Everything is brought back together and is dealt with, if not necessarily resolved. It's not really a bad ending... I'm just not completely convinced it's the right ending for this film.

So, then, if Büyü is a fair-to-middling movie, what is it that convinced critics to go after it with such gusto? Why did Büyü get the works? It's nobody's business but the Tur... ahem... I can think of at least one reason. The movie takes two-thirds of its length to get to the actual horror, a slow build that takes us through territory that's already been gone over many, many times by other films. Even the two distasteful demon-rape sequences are painfully familiar. But once the killing begins, Büyü starts treating its characters with a great deal more respect — it refuses to let us sit back and enjoy the bloodbath. And that, I suspect, is what many horror fans find unforgiveable.

The result is exactly what Mark A. Altman predicted in his commentary for House of the Dead (You remember Mark Altman, don't you? He's the once-promising screenwriter who wrote House of the Dead for Uwe Boll; and then, with his Boll-less House of the Dead 2, went on to show that Uwe may not have been the real problem with the original). Altman said horror audiences didn't want their characters to react naturally to bloodshed, death and chaos; they find it laughable. They want their horror movie heroes to just make a frowny-face and get on with the show. He must have been right: even the god-awful House of the Dead currently ranks higher on the IMDb's Bottom 100 than Büyü.

I disagree with this assessment, and I disagree with the critical reaction to Büyü. There's no way this film belongs among the worst films of all time. You'd think that after years of outright plagiarism, a film that was merely derivative would seem like a step up for the Turkish horror movie. It's certainly a step in the right direction for director Orhan Oğuz, who is best-known among Western genre fans (if he's known at all) as the cinematographer for Badi, the justly-ignored "Turkish E.T." (come to think of it, where's that on the Bottom 100?). If Oğuz has a tendency to suggest tension by swinging his camera around a little too much, he makes up for it in some of the film's quieter passages. Oğuz manages to get some decent performances out of his cast, particularly Nihat İleri as the long-suffering hoca Ekrem.

Nevertheless, I have to admit I've never been less sure of myself than in endorsing this movie. When I say that practically everybody hates Büyü, I mean everybody: watch the special features for Onar Films' magnificent DVD of Ölüler Konuşmaz Ki / The Dead Don't Talk, and you'll see that even Turkish genre specialists consider Büyü to be a terrible, terrible movie. Were they watching the same film I was? How could either of us be so far off base in our opinions?

The only other time I can recall being so completely at odds with such a wide audience was over Jaume Balagueró's Darkness. I won't back down from my opinion of Darkness; there, too, a lot of people took exception to the apparent mediocrity of the first part of the film; but I continue to think this was a deliberate (if risky) move by Balagueró, to set up a false set of assumptions that he demolishes in the last half. I can't say the same about Büyü. I guess the best I can do is offer a bleat of faint praise: it's not the worst film in the world. Really. It's not even the twenty-second worst. In fact, it's very nearly adequate.

IMDb Bottom 100 for February 2008. I just don't get it.

Back to Main Page ]