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October 07, 2011

Semum (2008)

According to Islamic theology, the Jinns are mystic creatures made from smokeless fire by Allah, just like humans were made of clay. Like angels, they were ordered to bow to Adam, but Jinn were created with free will, and not every Jinn obeyed. Iblis was the first to disobey, and became expelled from Paradise, becoming Shaytan (Satan), the name for the beings who rebelled against Allah. Being frequently mentioned in the Qur'an, Jinns have an important place in Islamic folklore, with many stories being told about them. Turkish filmmaker Hasan Karacadag, disappointed by the horror cinema of his country, decided to create Turkish horror films that could reflect his Turco-Islamic vision and used the stories of Jinns as inspiration for his work. His low budget horror film "D@bbe" showed Jinns entering the modern media, in a story reminiscent of Asian modern horror. For its follow-up, 2008's "Semum", director Karacadag decided to tackle a classic theme in religious horror films: the exorcism.

In "Semum", Volkan (Burak Hakki) and Canan Karaca (Ayça Inci) are a young couple looking for a new house to start a family. The Karacas find a large new house in Istanbul that fascinates them, and decide to move. Everything seems normal and the Karacas begin their new life without problem; however, Canan begins to sense weird things happening in the house. Strange noises are the first sign, but soon she also experiences hallucinations and the terrible feeling that something else is in the house with them. Volkan is worried, but unsure about what to do to help Canan. Things deteriorate to the point that it's more than clear that Canan is not herself anymore, but the victim of Semum, a powerful servant of Shaytan decided to torment and destroy Canan's mind, body and soul. The initially doubting Volkan will now have to discover a way to help his wife before its too late, as Semum will destroy her without mercy. An exorcism will have to be done, in order to expel Semum from Canan's body, but the battle will not be an easy one.

Written by director Hasan Karacadag himself (and supposedly based on a real case), "Semum" follows the usual pattern for demonic possession films, but with the added element of being firmly based on Islamic mythology. Naturally, comparisons to William Friedkin's classic "The Exorcist" are inevitable, and yes, "Semum"'s plot indeed borrows several elements from Friedkin's film (in fact, Karacadag takes the comparisons as pretty valid), perhaps not to the point of being a carbon copy of it (like Turkish seventies film "Seytan"), but enough to make it feel derivative. Nevertheless, the Islamic elements give a quite different flavor to this tale of an exorcism, and Karacadag includes enough details to give his movie a distinctive personality of its own. Also, it is commendable Karacadag's effort to show a more realist vision of modern life in Turkey, away from any traditionalist view on Muslims. The characters are actually well defined, though the story tends to drag at times, which perhaps is the film's biggest problem.

Despite having to work with a low budget, director Hasan Karacadag manages to create a very good atmosphere of dread in "Semum", particularly during the first half of the film, which chronicles Canan becoming aware of the demon and her subsequent possession. Certainly, Karacadag employs clichés, but the use he gives them is more than appropriate and the result is quite satisfying. The work of cinematographer Seyhan Bilir is effective, nothing spectacular but does a fine job in creating a distinctive atmosphere for the film. Director Karacadag puts this to good use, and makes the most of it in some interesting set pieces, though it must be said that his visual narrative is perhaps too slow for its own sake, and while it never reaches the point of getting tedious, it does drag a bit. Unfortunately, this subtle style gets progressively abandoned for a more shocking one, a change that wouldn't be that bad if it wasn't for the fact that the digital effects in "Semum" are pretty poor, and its overuse in the climax cheapen the film enormously.

The acting is for the most part good, nothing spectacular but not too bad either. As Canan, actress Ayça Inci is perhaps the film's highlight, as her performance is pretty good, even when her character is possessed by Semum. With great talent and remarkable intensity, Inci creates two very different personas: the calm and sensitive Canan and the wild and hateful Semum. Easily the best actress in the film. Her counterpart, Burak Hakki playing her husband, is sadly less fortunate in his role, as his Volkan feels at times wooden and emotionless. Hakki certainly adds a strong presence to the role, and has pretty good moments, but for the most part he feels unsure. Certainly, his character is much less developed than Inci's, but his work is still unimpressive. Sefa Zengin is particularly effective in his role as a creepy and mysterious gardener, and achieves a lot with his strong screen presence. As Canan's friend Banu, Nazli Ceren Argon is also pretty good, though her character is a tad underdeveloped.

Perhaps the most biggest problem of "Semum" is that it's impossible not to see it as derivative and unoriginal in its structure. Certainly, the Islamic angle is a quite interesting one and gives the film an identity of its own, but Karacadag stays to close to the formula to avoid his film ends up being seen as unoriginal. It's clear that in "Semum" director Hasan Karacadag not only tried to make an Islam-based horror film, but an Islam-based horror film that would appeal to a global audience. Unfortunately, in doing so he may had abused a bit too much of clichés. This also explains the degeneration the film has from subtle horror to an over-the-top display of special effects, which as written above, wouldn't really be bad if the compute generated special effects were good, since their low quality downgrade the value of the film. And this is a shame, since director Karacadag's vision shows a different face of Islam. one that's rarely seen, as it's often overshadowed by the ardent fanaticism of terrorists.

Like most films about demonic possession, the comparison to "The Exorcist" is a heavy burden for Hasan Karacadag's "Semum", as it's hard not to see it as a rip-off of Friedkin's film, with Islam instead of Catholicism. Nevertheless, despite its problems "Semum" manages to be interesting and entertaining during most of its runtime. Certainly, it's slow pace drags a bit, and the special effects are poor, but it's still manages to be a watchable horror film. Karacadag's "Semum" may not had been resulted the new model of Islam-inspired horror its director intended, but it's an interesting film that shows a promising future for Turkish horror. It certainly erases the memory of "Seytan" when talking about Turkish horror films about demonic possession.

6/10

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