Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Hisss DVD review: a neglected American/ Hindi horror gem

So sad that Jennifer Chambers Lynch's Hindi-speaking 2010 horror film Hisss (that's the official site; Wiki here) seems to have failed to find a wide audience. This would have a suburban sleeper hit in the heyday of the video rental industry - especially in areas with a large, youthful South Asian population! - but with limited distribution (there has been no Canadian DVD release as yet), a total of two reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (both negative), and not much positive buzz out there - even the Hindustan Times apparently describes it as "pornography for the hormonally demented teen" - it's probably going to go largely unseen. I found it entirely charming, though the content (it involves a snake goddess who shape-shifts between human and cobra form) predisposes me to want to like it, I confess. I tend to like films about people who become reptiles, and vice versa; maybe it has something to do with those cold autumn PE classes, back in elementary school, where we'd be forced to jog by our teacher, and, as the lone fat kid lagging behind, I would theorize that I must actually be cold-blooded, since the chill made it very hard for me to run... Of course, back in my childhood, before I knew about punk rock and avant garde music and horror movies and the like, I expressed my passion for the strange and unusual through playing with dinosaur toys and/or interacting with some of their living kin - catching snakes, frogs, salamanders, and the occasional lizard in the once-abundant, now mostly subdivided fields and ponds of Maple Ridge. I've retained a lifelong fondness for reptiles and amphibians, and consider myself pretty much obliged to see any horror film in which they play a major role.... unless, as with the Anaconda movies, the CGI snakes look and behave nothing like real snakes, which I find highly off-putting.
Anyhow, Hisss. It's maybe not quite as striking as Sssssss, the other human-snake transformation film with a sibilant-heavy title, but it's still a lot of fun, and, unlike that film, it does not appear that any snakes were harmed, or even employed, in the making of the movie, which is, actually, a good thing. It seems, based on the small sample I've been exposed to, that a high percentage of reptile-oriented horror films that use real reptiles are sadly willing to sacrifice them, treating them as disposable props, rather than living creatures; considering people who watch such films may well be reptile-lovers like myself, I really don't understand such practices. For example, I would have loved Stanley, generally described as "Willard with rattlesnakes," though set in the swamps of Florida with an antisocial Seminole protagonist, had the filmmakers not seen fit to kill a few rattlers onscreen; when that happened, I was ready for them to get bitten themselves, along with the film's bad guys.
By contrast, Hisss begins with a title that explains that all snakes are special effects, a combination of mechanical models, stop-motion (sometimes with a creature resembling the snake-man of Dreamscape!), and CGI. The special effects - including contributions from famed KNB co-founder Robert Kurtzman - alternate from strikingly great (especially during the transformations) to kinda terrible (especially when the creatures have to move quickly); generally, Lynch and company do a better job of making it look like a cobra is turning into a sexy naked girl than they do making us believe their animatronic snakes are real. Still, the filmmakers deserve credit for exploiting no animals, and for trying, even when they fail, to make their snakes look and move like real snakes. They clearly have a fondness for reptiles: they are, in more ways than one, on the side of the snakes, which is exactly where the film's ideal audience would want'em.
The story of Hisss goes like this: a rich white man with terminal brain cancer travels to India to find Nagin, a snake goddess (played by the very beautiful Mallika Sherawat) who possesses the secret to immortal life; behaving with the murderous arrogance of the colonizer, he abducts her mate (in snake form) and tortures him in an electrified cage in the hopes that, when she comes to rescue him, he'll be able to blackmail her into coughing up the goods. As the snake goddess approaches, a body count develops, as she is forced to defend herself against various rapists and thugs, and the trail of blood (and oddly venom-saturated corpses) attracts the attention of a virtuous cop (Irrfan Khan, most recently seen in The Life of Pi, as the adult Pi). Said cop's wife, it happens, is having problems conceiving a child and carrying it to term, which one gathers is part of the snake goddess' domain, as well (fertility and such). I don't want to say too much about the trajectory of the film, but obviously the paths of the main characters eventually cross, and there's a nice, satisfying, genre-appropriate ending: that's about all anyone really needs to know about the film to know if it's for them. Oh: and its 80% in Hindi, is very colourful and vibrant, and even features one brief Bollywood-style dance sequence; Lynch appears to have done her homework about South Asian life, language, cinema and culture, and obviously loves that she's shooting in India (though we gather it was a somewhat troubled production). I wonder if the simple fact that the film is mostly in Hindi accounts for its limited North American reception?
There are some real issues with the film, mind you. Some of the performances - like Jeff Doucette, who weirdly sounds like his voice has been dubbed by another actor - are on the broad side of broad; there are what I think are a couple of minor plot holes; and - well, if you don't like the idea of a giant cobra-girl plunging her fangs into the face of a would-be male attacker, the film simply isn't for you. On the other hand, if that image fills you with curiosity, Hisss is a pretty nifty little horror film - something genre fans should seek out, if they can find it. Feminists and post-colonial studies types will doubtlessly also find lots to sink their teeth into, as well, and fans of Jennifer Lynch will be pleased to see her continuing to make strange, surprising, creative genre films (I wrote about her earlier film Surveillance here; I wonder how one might go about seeing Chained, her newest film? Hmm...).  

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