Written by: Ogulcan Eren Akaym, Can Evrenol, Ercin Sadikoglu, Cem Özüduru
Directed by: Can Evrenol
Starring: Mehmet Cerrahoglu, Görkem Kasal, and Ergun Kuyucu
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Hell is not a destination—it’s something you carry inside."
The above quote is more or less the guiding force behind Baskin, a Turkish horror film that’s heavy with the weight of memories, trauma, and torment. Can Evrenol’s feature debut is an otherworldly, unsettling descent into hell. Whether it’s actually a place or a state of mind seems irrelevant, to be honest: what’s more certain is that hell most certainly exists and looms over every frame of Baskin. Doom hangs thick in the air before Evrenol ever makes it gut-churningly explicit that his characters will suffer eternal torments at the hands of a twisted Satanic figure. It’s one of the more potently sinister films in recent memory: Baskin is one of those films that lands in your gut, even if you’re not completely sure what it’s up to.
At first, it seems simple enough: a group of Turkish cops have gathered in a diner, where they’re bullshitting around about gambling and sex escapades. One of them almost gets into a brawl with a waiter who seems too eager to laugh at one of the more risqué stories before his buddies settle him down and decide to bail. Before they can, though, another officer has a freak-out in the bathroom: what started as a seemingly normal headache escalates into an episode involving nausea and hallucinations—or are they hallucinations? Once the man gathers himself, the troopers head off to patrol the roads and almost immediately receive a distress call from Inceagac, a region just north of their location. Upon hearing the call, the men look at each other uneasily; one of them insists he’s heard unsettling rumors about the place since he was a boy. This is a place no one wants to go, and the spooked looks on the faces of these men—who just moments ago were posturing as gruff badasses—says it all.
It’s one of the many tactics Evrenol deploys to signal just how bleak Baskin will be. I’m an unabashed sucker for horror films involving creepy local lore, and this film boasts it in spades. Without even needing to elaborate on why Inceagac is such a forbidden place, Evrenol effortlessly establishes just how unspeakably is horrors must be. He begins to reveal them incrementally, with glimpses at the bizarre (and very naked) citizens that flash through the road and eventually cause the cops to crash. An impossibly huge mass of frogs also appears, carrying connotations of a Biblical plague, while a couple of skittish locals offer to escort the cops through the deep, dark forest that shrouds Inceagac.
Baskin is at its best during a creepy build-up that extends as far back as a prologue that captures one of the officer’s childhood memories. It only seems to be a recollection of innocuous trauma: a young boy hears moaning sounds coming from his parents’ bed room but is ultimately visited by a strange hooded figure that winds up weaving through the rest of the film. We see it arrive at the diner where the cops are eating, and he drops off a mysterious hunk of meat that the camera continues to linger on—there’s perhaps an implication that this is what makes one of the officers sick, but Evrenol and his screenwriters aren’t in a hurry to connect all the dots. Baskin feels purposely elliptical in an effort to keep viewers perpetually off-kilter—there’s always just something off about it that puts it on a deeply unsettling, otherworldly plane.
While the inevitable outbursts of gore rightfully earn Baskin a comparison to the works of Lucio Fulci, it actually does so before any blood is shed. Everyone remembers the Maestro’s outrageous bursts of violence, but less heralded was his ability to often couch the gore in a legitimately strange atmosphere. Fulci’s best films—especially the Gates of Hell trilogy Baskin is riffing on—transport viewers to nefarious, surreal twilight zones that blur the lines between dreams and reality, the living and the dead, earth and hell. Baskin is similarly purgatorial: while it appears to be unfolding in some semblance of reality, unreal, sinister forces are always encroaching at the corners.
The recurring frogs, the weird locals, and the mysterious hooded figure all flit around the edges, threatening to plunge Baskin headlong into unrelenting bleakness. Like much of Fulci’s work, Baskin is a dark film in the most literal sense: an inky, black texture envelops the film at all times, almost as if it were perched on the threshold of an endless midnight. The entire film unfolds at night, a nice touch that only accentuates the surreal ambiance. In Baskin, hell isn’t necessarily a descent into hellfire and brimstone as much as it’s a trip into a bleak void, not unlike the hellscapes glimpsed in Jigoku and The Beyond.
Evrenol isn’t simply out to exploit this premise for all its gory—or even its uncanny—potential. The throughline started with the prologue eventually picks up with intermittent conversations between the now grown-up kid (he’s the rookie cop amongst the officers) and his superior. Occasionally, the film will cut back to these two at the diner, where they engage in discussions about dreams and traumatic childhood incidents (like the one glimpsed in the prologue)—they’re not exactly flashbacks, nor do they seem to be dreams since the final one intersects with the actual events unfolding around them. Whatever these sequences are—I suppose it’s best to call them spiritual interludes—they add an emotional and philosophical dimension to Baskin. Rookie cop Arda (Gorkem Kasal) emerges as the main character, and, at its most basic level, Baskin seems to insist death and hell have been circling him for years, waiting to claim his soul. There’s a chilling inevitability and arbitrariness to it: at any given time, your repressed memories can come back to haunt you and drag you to hell—quite literally, it turns out.
Despite what the opening quote of this review insists, there is a physical component to the hell endured in Baskin. When the officers arrive to Incaegac, they stumble onto a grisly crime scene in a dilapidated building, where the walls are lined with all the hallmarks of an occult ritual: human remains, blood stains, and other assorted weirdness abound, giving viewers the first glimpse of Evrenol grimy, gruny vision of hell. This sequence—which comprises about half the film, actually—is surely the most indelible, which is not to say it’s the exactly most effective. It’s essentially a riff on the “torments of hell” stuff from Jigoku, complete with writhing, tortured bodies and inexplicable imagery, like a woman giving birth to something that resembles a rock more than it does a fetus. There’s a carnival atmosphere to it all, right down to the presence of Baba (Mehmet Cerrahoglu), the huckster from hell overseeing this grand guignol display.
Resembling a dwarfish Michael Berryman, Cerrahoglu is easily the best part of this climactic stretch. Otherwise, the turn to torture-based violence here almost feels too base considering how ethereal the rest of Baskin is. While it isn’t a completely disastrous tonal clash, the film deflates a bit here when it’s reduced to having guys be stabbed and gouged. On its face, it makes sense (this is hell, after all), but the rote execution puts it at odds with an otherwise inspired film. I wish there were just something a little more atmospheric about this little stretch, though I will say it proves to be a bit of a mind-fuck by the time it reaches its twisted, mind-bending climax.
Thankfully, this also involves a last-second course correction that allows Baskin to end on a sinister, existential note. Ultimately, its deranged, visceral vision of hell doesn’t linger as much as its final insistence that hell is an inescapable feedback loop that we’re forced to live over and over again. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate any effort that’s as willing to be as outlandishly grotesque as Baskin’s climax, and I almost find it amusing that something this fucked up is only a few clicks away in millions of homes across America. However, I’m more impressed by the way Baskin has seared its way into my subconscious—there’s an overwhelming dread to what it eventually suggests about hell that’s far more unnerving than any of its gore-soaked moments. I suspect this ability will continue to serve Evrenol well in what I hope will be a long, fruitful filmmaking career.
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