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Plot: trauma transforms demure small-town girl into gun-toting angel of death.

Karateci Kiz (Karate Girl in most of the English territories, Golden Girl in certain European markets, and Golden Karate Girl in most of Scandinavia) is a peculiar regional variant on an established (and often imitated) formula. At heart it’s a convergence of at least two, possibly three, cinematic trends popular at the international box office of the day. It combines the first half of The Last House on the Left (1972) (Italy in particular took to imitating it with zest around this time) with the damaged vigilante subplot straight out of Thriller – En Grym Film (1973). If that weren’t enough of a volatile combination in and of itself director Orhan Aksoy spices the entire thing up with some pretty decent kung fu as Hong Kong martial arts imports were all the rage around this time. It’s not exactly TNT Jackson (1974) or Cleopatra Wong (1978) nor was that ever the intention. What makes it different from other rank exploitation from this period is that it does so on a basis of filial piety and traditional values of warm relationships, friendship, family, and the stoic belief in all things ending well.

Every country has its superstars. For Turkey that was Filiz Akin. Along with Türkan Şoray, Hülya Koçyiğit and Fatma Girik, she was one of the four queens of the Yeşilçam (Green Pine) era or the Golden Age of Turkish cinema. A bright young talent of a generation out to innovate domestic cinema and beloved at home for her "noble, modern, urban and elegant face".

Thanks to her academic background Filiz worked at the Ankara branch of American Export-Isbrandtsen Lines. In her two years there she rose to head of the marine branch. It’s here that she became fluent in English, French, and even a bit of Italian. During said employment she attended Ankara University, Faculty of Language, History and Geography for a semester studying archeology. After winning an Artist magazine contest she debuted in Akasyalar Açarken (1962), one of six movies she appeared in that year. IMDB meanwhile insists that her debut was Sahte nikah (1962). Filiz was wed to screenwriter, producer, and director Türker İnanoğlu in 1964 but the two separated somewhere in 1974. After another marriage that lasted from 1982 to 1993 Akin married Turkish diplomat Sönmez Köksal with president Süleyman Demirel and Speaker of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey Hüsamettin Cindoruk in attendance. The two have been together ever since.

Filiz appeared in a staggering 122 films (mostly dramas, comedies, and romances) in the thirteen years between 1962 and 1975. Among many others she could be seen in Çitkirildim (1966) with Cüneyt Arkin, as well as Fadime (1970) with Cihangir Gaffari. Gaffari would make appearances in Shaft's Big Score! (1972), The Demons (1973), Hundra (1983), and Bloodsport (1988). One of Akin’s more remembered roles was that in Istanbul Tatili (1968), a domestic remake of the Hollywood blockbuster Roman Holiday (1953). She won the Golden Orange Award Best Actress for Ankara Ekspresi (1971) on the International Antalya Film Festival that year. As near as we can tell Karate Girl was the only exploitationer Filiz ever partook in, but it’s one worth remembering.

While not many names in the rest of the cast stand out, two among the credited karatekas went on to have long careers in Turkish politics. Little is known about Hazır Lamistir or what has become of him but the same cannot be said of Orhan and Ahmet Doğan, if the two men two men appearing here are indeed the very same. Given their association with Akin and Ankara University being their alma mater it’s all a bit much to write off as mere coincidence. Orhan Doğan would be elected to the Turkish Parliament in 1991 and later join the centre-left Democracy Party (DEP). He would proliferate himself as an ardent defender of Kurdish rights and serve as a member of the Grand National Assembly from 1991-1994. In 1994 he was sentenced to a 15-year prison term for his association with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partîya Karkerên Kurdistanê or PKK). As a political prisoner he was the subject of the Hasan Kiraç television documentary Demokrasi Yokusu in 1997. After his release in 2004 he helped found the Democratic Society Party (DTP). Ahmet Dogan served as the chairman of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) from 1990 to 2013. It's also entirely possible that Orhan Doganer was just one of the production's martial arts instructors.

Zeynep (Filiz Akin) is a simple countrygirl making an honest living as a florist in Istanbul selling the flowers that her old father (Nubar Terziyan) grows on his farm on the outskirts of town. Since losing her mother at an early age Zeynep has been rendered mute. Together with her father she has been duly saving money for an expensive surgery that her doctor (Yilmaz Gruda) believes will restore her speech. Meanwhile on the other end of town a vicious and assorted gang of thieves, extortionists, rapists, and murderers - Ferruh Durak (Bülent Kayabaş), Riza Çakoz (Kudret Karadag), Kasim Arpaci (Oktay Yavuz), and Cafer Durak (Necati Er) – led by Bekir Bulut (Hayati Hamzaoglu) escape trial and confinement by murdering on-duty cop Hasan Çetin (Ahmet Kostarika) and disappearing into the thick blackness of the night. Insinuating themselves into the homestead Zeynep’s father makes nothing of the fast-talking band of vagrants naively imparting their present situation with them. Bulut and his bandits ransack the place, steal the savings, and callously murder the old man for his trouble when he offers up token but futile resistance. When Zeynep returns home after a hard day’s work she not only finds her father’s lifeless body but to make matters worse she’s violated by Bulut and left for dead. The trauma is so profound that Zeynep regains her speech. She vows to avenge her dear father and those that robbed her of her innocence.

One day menial laborer Murat Akdogan (Ediz Hun) comes looking for work on the farm only to find Zeynep practice target shooting. Law enforcement and the authorities have been powerless to apprehend the extremely dangerous and fugitive convicts. Bulut in the meantime has reconnected with his former paramour (Sema Yaprak) unaware that Murat is a cop working deeply undercover to locate and arrest him and his gang of bovine brutes. Zeynep on her part becomes gradually aware of Murat’s true motives as he instructs her in target shooting, mortal combat, and enrolls her in the local karate dojo. Zeynep and Murat fall in love and eventually are wed. On her wedding day Bekir and his bandits crash the ceremony leaving Murat among the victims. Torn by trauma and grief Zeynep enrolls in police academy and continues training in karate. Upon successfully graduating from both she systematically hunts down each of the perpetrators. Trapping Bekir in his studio apartment she unleashes her righteous vengeance upon him for taking the lives of not only her old father but her husband as well.

Produced by İnanoğlu’s own Erler Film and made with participation of the Istanbul police force Karate Girl was a vehicle for Filiz Akin to undergo a sort of Soledad Miranda or Edwige Fenech-like reinvention. Apparently rushed into production to coast off the notoriety of Thriller – A Grim Film (1973) Orhan Aksoy, a celebrated specialist of melodramas in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was just about the last person you’d expect to be directing something like this. Aksoy was one of the forefathers of 'muhalle' cinema, or the Turkish equivalent of the German Heimatfilme, and as such he was a reliable provider in wholesome family entertainment. Twice had he been given the Best Film Award on the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival. Once in 1970 for Kinali Yapincak (1969) and then again in 1973 for Hayat mi Bu? (1973). To say that Karate Girl was something not in his usual wheelhouse would be putting it mildly. Whether the same rung true for writers Fuat Özlüer and Erdogan Tünas we honestly can’t say but given the company they kept it’s entirely plausible. Most of the music was lifted from another production, although various blogs over the years have failed to mention which. Assistant director Samim Utku would become a prolific writer in Turkish television and build a respectable career as a director. Was this a last-ditch effort on İnanoğlu’s part to save his failing marriage to Akin? Not many contemporary reviews seem interested to delve into the history of Karate Girl and the people behind it.

The similarities between the two are startlingly distinct, but so are the differences. Both feature protagonists rendered mute by trauma and Madeleine/Frigga as well as Zeynep both come from the countryside. Both are triggered into a homicidal frenzy by the loss of a loved one (Madeleine/Frigga loses her best friend, Zeynep her father) and both undergo weapons, martial arts, and close quarter combat training by a police officer friendly to their plight. Also not unimportant is that both women experience sexual trauma at the hand of their wrongdoers. Whereas Thriller – A Grim Film (1973) relished in showing just that in explicit detail it is implied rather than shown here. Where Karate Girl differs most significantly is during its second half. Here it suddenly changes into a procedural once Zeynep completes her police training. She starts tracking down and apprehending the perpetrators one by one. That being different the conclusion is mostly the same, only does Zeynep bloodily dispose herself of the main culprit in what looks like an exact re-enactment of Thriller’s legendary finale. In 2012 Karate Girl for a brief spell was popular on social media as the final shoot-out was bombarded to “worst death scene ever” exposing an entire new generation to it. In an interesting duality Aksoy was able to fuse muhalle values with rank exploitation. How this fared with Turkish audiences at the time is near impossible to gauge. What is certain is that it didn’t tarnish Akin nor her cleanly image or reputation. Likewise did Orhan Aksoy find incredible success with romantic comedies in the next decade.

In retrospect and with the benefit of nearly five decades of hindsight it’s puzzling that Karate Girl remains ever as obscure. This undoubtedly had a profound influence in shaping Cirio H. Santiago's Naked Vengeance (1985). At home its closest cousin was perhaps something like Cellat (1975) which gave Michael Winner’s vigilante thriller Death Wish (1974) (with Charles Bronson) a Turkish make-over. Once divorced from İnanoğlu Akin continued with wholesome dramatic and comedic roles. Never again would she lower herself to rank exploitation like this. Just how much of an anomaly Karate Girl is for most of the principal players in front and behind the cameras is mystifying and interesting enough all by itself. It makes you pine for a tell-all confessional on what was happening behind the scenes while it was being conceptualized. Turkey has a long and storied history in playing fast and loose with international licensing and distribution rights, and the country had a prolific exploitation industry that was even more shameless than that of the Philippines. Karate Girl is the exception and a curiosity as it was an exploitationer made by otherwise respectable people cashing in on what seemed like a lucrative trend. Is this the greatest that Turkish exploitation has ever wrought? Probably not but it’s damn entertaining.

Plot: eclectic group of urbanites is locked into a bar during a pandemic.

When we were initially exposed to The Bar in 2018 there was excitement and electricity in the air as we were anxious to see Álex de la Iglesia return to the genre that made him famous, horror. But who wanted to see him tackle an old school terror film? One about a pandemic, no less? Hollywood had tried that 22 years earlier with Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak (1995) – wasn’t that subgenre considered dead, and relegated a thing of the past? On the other hand, there was the cast. An assembly of talent, old and new. Bright-eyed television stars and old hands who had been with de la Iglesia since the dawn of the new millennium. Why would anyone try to breath life into a subgenre that had been dead for well over two decades? Hindsight is a terrible thing. Who could possibly have foreseen that The Bar – far closer to Common Wealth (2000) than any of de la Iglesia’s full-blown horrors – would so eerily (and realistically) predict the reponse of the common man to the current (and ongoing) COVID-19 pandemic?

Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia has proven to be a master technician who understands each of the genres he tackles. He first manifested his potential with Mutant Action (1993), a dystopian science fiction epic on a modest budget. It wasn’t until The Day Of the Beast (1995) that de la Iglesia showed what he was really capable of. It isn’t for nothing that that movie has since been enshrined in the annals of Spanish cinematic history as the most important production of that particular decade. He followed his surprise horror hit up with the Javier Bardem-Rosie Perez crime caper Perdita Durango (1997) and the thriller-comedy Common Wealth (2000). De la Iglesia’s bid for mainstream success came with The Oxford Murders (2008), but he always worked better with domestic talent. The gothic throwback Witching and Bitching (2013) marked de la Iglesia’s return to horror, but that was virtually immediately followed by the lighthearted comedy My Big Night (2015). With The Bar Álex de la Iglesia and his trusty writing partner Jorge Guerricaechevarría pay tribute to George A. Romero's The Crazies (1973), Jean Rollin's atmospheric The Grapes Of Death (1978), and Jorge Grau's The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974) without ever actually having to revert to horror. The Bar is grippingly tense, masterfully suspenseful, and now frightingly realistic to boot.

On an average day commuters fill in and out of the businesses on Plaza Mostenses in Madrid. In a bar on the square a number of different people – socialite Elena (Blanca Suárez), PR man Nacho (Mario Casas), middle-aged gambling addict Trini (Carmen Machi), and homeless vagrant Israel (Jaime Ordóñez) - along with owner Amparo (Terele Pávez), bartender Sátur (Secun de la Rosa) as well as regulars Sergio (Alejandro Awada), and apparent government spook Andrés (Joaquín Climent) are all minding their own business, wrapped up in their own problems, when an office worker (Diego Braguinsky) and later a streetsweeper (Jordi Aguilar) are mysteriously shot and killed out on the boardwalk. When the group discovers that the square has been evacuated and that the government is attempting to contain the situation panic grips their hearts. When the media mysteriously refers to the incident as “a fire” tension starts to grow among the assorted patrons. As fear and paranoia mount suspicion falls on everybody for a number of completely different but understandable reasons, the bearded and Arab-looking Nacho being the first. Before they very well realize it a power struggle erupts in their midst as everybody has an agenda of their own. Not helping matters is Israel’s constant spouting of ominous and cryptic warnings, often Biblical and apocalyptical in nature. When a bloated, obviously very ill, man (Daniel Arribas) stumbles into the bar and collapses, fear and mistrust grows even bigger. As later one of their number comes into possession of a gun things take a turn for the ugly and later the fatal. Will anybody be able to survive and escape from the bar?

The premise is deceptively simple and Álex de la Iglesia handles it with all the panache and finesse you’d expect of dyed-in-the-wool veteran. What primarily sells The Bar as effectively as it does is the writing of de la Iglesia collaborator Jorge Guerricaechevarría. For starters, none of the initial victims are ever given a first name, and neither are any of the leads given a last name. Every main character is given just enough backstory and motivation to justify their actions, but nothing is overly explained making them just enough of a cipher. Blanca Suárez’ Elena initially comes across as a somewhat high maintenance socialite, but soon turns out to be one of the most sympathetic characters. Jaime Ordóñez’ beggar Israel is painted as a raving lunatic for most of the feature but he turns out to be the sole voice of reason. The screenplay touches on a variety of topical subjects including, but not limited to, the war on terrorism, the police state, racial profiling, mass media, and the rampant militarisation of the police force. It’s very much a The Crazies (1973) for this generation. Likewise does Guerricaechevarría’s screenplay leave the finer details of the pandemic wide open to interpretation. Is the situation really as worse as the fevered imaginations of the patrons makes it out to be? Is it not? Who knows… That the incident is never really explained is The Bar’s greatest forté. With Suárez in the cast a romantic subplot was expected and while it is briefly suggested (Elena and Nacho are briefly an item) it’s just as quickly discarded as tensions mount. To his credit Guerricaechevarría finds a a plot-convenient excuse for Elena to strip down to her white lingerie, but the aim is never to tantalize or seduce. In fact the sheer necessity of Elena stripping is to facilitate the survival of the group.

Similarities between The Bar and Common Wealth (2000) are fairly obvious. It is mainly a character-driven feature with only the most peripheral elements of other genres (in this case, horror). The set-up merely functions as a background for the various character interactions and conflicts. For the most part The Bar is a small-scale production, limiting itself merely to a handful of characters and few locations. It doesn’t aim to be some big special effects extravaganza and it never turns into one. The cast consists of both old and new faces. Terele Pávez and Carmen Machi have been with de la Iglesia for a long time. Blanca Suárez, Secun de la Rosa, and Jaime Ordóñez are fairly recent additions. All of the characters come from different walks of life and their clashing viewpoints in assessing the direness of their collective situation is a big part of why The Bar works as well as it does. When the thinning of the cast begins some kills are more predictable than others and it pays that The Bar has a strong female lead. Multi-award winning actress Blanca Suárez, famous for her turn in Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (2011) and the series Cable Girls (2017-2020), and Mario Casas are pleasant discoveries in their own right. Jaime Ordóñez’ performance as Israel, the apocalyptical Biblical passages spouting vagrant, is reminiscent of Alberto de Mendoza as the Rasputin-esque Father Pujardov in the Hammer Horror imitation Horror Express (1972), Paul Naschy as Alaric de Marnac in Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973), and Álex Angulo as the half-mad with terror Father Ángel Berriartúa in The Day Of the Beast (1995). The bloated infectee with bulging eyes is something straight out of Peter Jackson’s Braindead (1992) or Jesús Franco’s classic The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962).

Since The Bar de la Iglesia has made the considerably smaller Perfect Strangers (2017), apparently a remake of the 2016 Italian movie of the same name and Veneciafrenia (2021), which sounds like a Spanish take on Inbred (2011). As of right now he’s involved with post-production on the comedy The Fourth Passenger (2021) once again with Blanca Suárez and Jaime Ordóñez. The Bar is an old-fashioned thriller that throws a bunch of characters from different walks of life into an extra-ordinary situation and then lets them quarrel among each other as an external threat grows graver with each passing minute. The viewer is privy to just as much information about what’s going on as the characters. The beauty of the screenplay is that it acknowledges that any group of people is only as strong as the weakest link among them; and that any group put in a restricted environment will inevitably tear itself apart over the most trivial of matters.

All characters could have survived had they put aside their petty differences and worked together instead of devolving into incessant quarrelling and power games. However that would be rather boring as a movie. Álex de la Iglesia has proven plenty of times that he is a master filmmaker who understands any genre. The Bar sees him reaching back to his past in horror – and terror films. What makes The Bar so interesting is that it plays up its horror elements farther than most exercises in this genre, but never to the detriment of the whole. At heart it’s a thriller written as a horror movie but without ever having to abide by the restrictive conventions of that genre. Tension is what sells The Bar. Tension that builds from ordinary human interactions and misunderstandings. If The Bar teaches us anything it’s that the thing we should fear most is not some unseen, intangible contagion – but indeed our fellow man. Fear is the mindkiller and The Bar shows how fast things can go haywire when we let fear dictate our rationale.