Authoritarian ooze in a nightmare building

Orçun Behram has made a film set in a Turkey even worse, perhaps, than the one dominated by the dictatorial President Recep Tayyip Erdoğann, which it metaphorically alludes to. He uses styles drawn from Ben Wheatley (High-Rise especially), David Lynch, and David Cronenberg, too clearly drawn, perhaps, though the Turkish grimness of this dystopian, sci-fi horror Turkey is at least unique and not quite like the milieux of those stylistic masters. He also evokes Dario Argento-style lurid giallo, or its refinement in the work of the Belgian couple Hélène Cattet and Bruno Rorzani. And yet it's original, and though The Antenna may not be a unqualified success, it clearly signals the arrival of a bright new talent.

We focus on Mehmet (Ihsan Önal), the bug-eyed everyman superintendent of an ugly, depressing high-rise. A new "antenna" system is being installed on the roof, part of a country-wide network for communication and obviously Orwellian indoctrination, and spying too, since the wires probably zap both ways. This is the very day of the regime’s first integrated broadcast from its single, totalitarian TV channel run through the installed antennas. The employee doing the installation falls off the roof and dies, by the bye; but worse than the event is the summary fashion in which he is swept away ad forgotten afterwards. Meanwhile, Mehmet has met with a girlfriend, Yasemin (Gul Arici), whom he offers a train ticket to escape from confinement in this world and with her authoritarian parents.

On top of that, in the first big horror reveal, a woman in a beauty-enhancement facial mask who consequently can't quite see two feet in front of her dives into a bathtub filled with hot water mixed with the black slime that's also seeping into apartment plumbing. Her nails are instantly ringed with black. Her beauty mask is black now. She screams, jerks upward, then dives back - and apparently (it's not totally clear), succumbs. It's a good but not great sequence, but so far, its inadequacy may enhance its surreal "realism," and add a touch of Turkish charm. The soon pervasive images of scary liquid ooze may inevitably remind one of certain key moments of Kubrick's Shining. Behram and his tech staff have a lot of fun with the black ooze. On and on it comes, out of every hole, or electric socket, behind pictures hanging on the wall, sometimes, God forgive us, from human orifices, more and more an expanding Sorcerer's Apprentice-style invasion. Residents slip and fall in the slime, or are driven mad by accidentally ingesting it like Yasemin's abusive father Firat (Enis Yildiz), who turns into an assassin bent on killing his family.

It's all going kaputt - the man falling to his death, the oozing black goo, the woman in the bath, voices; then the boiler blows up, and, inspecting the flooded cellar, Mehmet freaks out. His off-the-rails state is highlighted by the disapproval of Cihan (Levent Ünsal), Mehmet's boss in the building, who disapproves of everything he does. The building is fine, says Cihan - and the Turkish title of this film is "Building," by the way. The building is no longer a building; it's a collapsing organism, eaten away from inside - while the voice of dictatorial authority over the new universal broadcast system (more and ore Orwellian, but vaguer than Orwell) drones on celebrating its victory over everything.

The (lately for some reason anonymous) Variety review says of this film that it "prioritizes visual concept over story," as an obvious criticism, though sometimes I'd be happy with that in a movie. But maybe sometimes the visual concept is the story, isn't it? And then you have an art film. Some of the horror moments are routine in nature and appearance, but others are beautiful, and evocative of the great expressionist German silents; in general this film evokes classics. Take the moment when Mehmet goes up on the roof, for example. It's almost black and white, more indigo and white. It's not one antenna up there, rather a helter-skelter forest of round antennae on stalks, like crazy metal mushrooms. There are color-filtered moments throughout too, gorgeous moments when the screen is soaked in amber, blue, or red. From up on the roof on, Mehmet encounters nothing but hell, invasive corridors like scenes from Cocteau, dwarf-like faceless specters, scattered cadavers, and banks of sputtering TV screen while the score grows more and more shrill and metallic.

Toward the end, the overheard messages from the broadcast voice of authoritarianism grows more frequent and strident and the content moves from Orwell into mad William Burroughs territory, without removing a sense that this is a very overt, if Kafkaesque and metaphorical, reference to its country of origin; Stephen Dalton's Hollywood Reporter review provides Turkish political specifics. The strident score by Can Demirci, increasingly clangorous, adds another touch that transcends genre influence.

The Antenna is a fresh and artistic horror movie, with its own look and flavor despite its derivative stylistic flourishes. Don't expect a grand design; and, given its limited budget, don't expect grand effects. The secondary characters aren't very fully developed and as Dalton points out, there are other "first feature fumbles" including poorly arranged final sequences and overlong run-time. Even Mehmet has no world beyond the booth he works in and his anxiety. But there is much to delight the eye and mind here.

The Antenna/Binya ("Building"), 115 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2019 and played also at Fantastic, London, Sitges, Torino and Göteborg into Jan. 2020. It is scheduled to open in Turkey Oct. 9, 2020 and in Japan Oct. 31. Screened for this review in anticipation of its US online release from Dark Star Pictures on virtual (NYC, LA, other cities) Oct. 2, 2020 and on-demand on multiple platforms Oct. 20.Metascore: 58.