Jump scares, creepy noises and the tease of hidden-from-view dangers are all fine. But a truly frightening horror film unsettles with more than its crafts, but instead through the vulnerability of defenseless people stuck with bad options only. First-time writer-director Orçun Behram’s highly stylized and mildly disturbing “The Antenna,” a metaphor on Turkey’s current ruling under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is what happens when a filmmaker prioritizes visual concept over story, and falls short of crafting well-defined characters whose hurt we can care about. With such crucial facets undercooked, Behram’s genre exercise yields a handsomely designed but perishable dystopian horror-thriller that impresses through imagery and audio cues — Ismail Hakki Hafiz’s sound design and Can Demirci’s high-wired score are especially noteworthy — but doesn’t scar the soul like it should.
That’s too bad, considering that Behram clearly possesses a vision and has inspirations, although they feel a bit too closely shaped by the eerie otherworldliness of David Lynch, the body horror of David Cronenberg and the distinct psyche of Park Chan-wook — to the extent that watching “The Antenna” doesn’t quite feel like discovering something new. So erect a Ben Wheatley-style “High-Rise” around the creepy hallways of “Old Boy,” and you will find yourself in the approximate vicinity of the film, which should find a healthy audience in genre film festivals and midnight sections alike, following its 2019 Toronto Film Festival debut.
Set in an undefined time in a nameless Turkish city, the story concerns Mehmet (a hypnotic Ihsan Önal), the heavy-eyed superintendent of a lifeless, grimy high-rise, in charge of overseeing the installation of a government-mandated antenna. It’s the day of the regime’s first integrated broadcast from a single, totalitarian TV channel and Mehmet’s immediate boss, the micro-managing Cihan (Levent Ünsal), would like to see the inauguration go without a hitch. Except, the appointed installer suddenly falls to his death (the first jolt Behram’s got up his sleeve) to the shocking apathy of bystanders, who might as well be related to the “Eloi.” With the incident, the killer antenna starts seeping an evil, thick black goo, disseminating it to the building through its pipes and vents, transforming everyone who comes in close contact with it to a faceless, monstrous post-human.
Still with me? It should be noted, the very suggestion of a “Turkish dystopia” is inherently ironic. The democratic country (where this critic was raised) has long been enduring its own real-life dystopia under the increasingly tyrannical command of Erdoğan: Just over a year ago, he increased his legislative and judicial powers as the country’s first Executive President after a referendum. This demoralizing reality, combined with the continued threat the regime poses upon the country’s independent media, makes Turkey both a perfect stage for Behram’s partly 1984-esque (and somewhat shallow) scenario, and a severely on-the-nose one. Still, and especially considering the rise of right-wing politics on a global scale, you go along with the story, following the hauntingly devised goo as it infects the grubby living rooms and bathrooms of various residents, erasing their free-thinking individuality one by one. Inside each unit, Behram and his production design team introduce distinct colors and wallpaper patterns as a backsplash to various tenants: soulless families, desensitized couples and lethargic singles alike.
As a character, Mehmet proves to be fairly forgettable, even as he mostly continues to drive the action forward, tending to the demands of the occupants, pursuing the completion of the installation and so on. More interesting is the young Yasemin (an imposingly spooked Gül Arici), representing pretty much the only tenant who looks to still have traces of a caring spirit. Being raised in a traditional, explicitly right-leaning family, the strong-willed Yasemin briefly strives to fight against her controlling parents and the marriage arrangement they had made for their daughter with a well-appointed government official. Sadly, this potentially ripe storyline about the severely patriarchal Turkey and its oppressed female youth remains an on-the-surface commentary (like several of the film’s other cultural critiques). What we are left with is the escalating madness of the loud, albeit dexterously choreographed final act that follows a helpless Yasemin run for her life.
More a collection of cool social and graphic ideas than a full-fledged, character-driven horror, “The Antenna” never gets on the same wavelength as some of the antecedents by which Behram was clearly influenced, though it still signals the welcome arrival of a promising visual artist in search of his own clear picture.