Film: Hisss (2010)

October 6, 2012 | By

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Film: Poor / DVD Transfer: n/a / DVD Extras: n/a

Label: n/a/ Region: n/a / Released: n/a

Genre: Horror / Supernatural

Synopsis:  A greedy American snatches the slithery love of a snake goddess to lure the powerful deity to his lair, and facilitate a cure for his terminal disease. Yes, that’s really the storyline.

Special Features: n/a

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Review:

There’s an undeniable mystique surrounding Hisss, the Bollywood horror / comedy / drama / ‘rumoured’ musical that was taken away from writer & director Jennifer Chambers Lynch by the producers and edited without her consultation. Footage from the film was barely glimpsed in the making-of doc Despite the Gods [M] (2012), so there’s genuine curiosity in seeing whether the movie has any merit in any one of the genres Lynch tried to fuse into her exotic riff on the Far Eastern myth of a snake goddess. In the film story, she’s forced to take on human form when her slithering lover is taken from her by a murderous American (Jeff Doucette, who’s just horrible in every scene) dying of brain cancer, luring her to his basement lair where he plans to trap her and extract some MacGuffin that gives the bearer immortality.

Lynch’s cut reportedly ran longer, had less schizophrenic transitions and spastic editing, and devoted more time towards the romance between the snake goddess (Mallika Sherawat) and a detective (Irfan Khan) whose wife is unable to conceive. Despite the Gods showed the thickening tension between Lynch and co-producer / actor Govind Menon, with the latter becoming increasingly impatient with the former’s more measured directorial style.

In its current form, Hisss feels like the hybridized work of Ed Wood, Jr. and Uwe Boll – glossy, ineptly constructed, and occasionally comedic for all the wrong reasons – and exactly how much of the blame is shared between director, producers, and the wildly uneven cast is unknown, but Lynch should’ve fought to replace all of her billing with an Alan Smithee-like pseudonym, as father David Lynch chose to do when producer Dino DeLaurentiis recut Dune for TV, slapping on the name “Judas Booth.” (An appropriate, tongue-in-cheek variation for daughter Jennifer could’ve been ‘Julie’ Booth.)

Despite starring two of India’s top actors, Hiss offers nothing but embarrassment for everyone except cinematographer Madhu Ambat, whose classical widescreen compositions give the film the gloss and production strong values. Sometimes the music score works, and other times it’s jarring and wholly wrong (particularly cues with a wailing electric guitar, redolent of bad eighties B-movies), although the so-called Bollywood musical interlude is an exaggeration: it’s more of a Hindu street party than a song & dance routine that would otherwise stops the film dead. The producers nixed any musical numbers early into pre-production, but the surviving sequence is pivotal because it lures the goddess out from the forest into the city streets, and leads her to the first of several sexually brutal men.

Thematically, Hiss has little bits of gender commentary – Sherawat’s lithe body is given specific attention when she climbs, crawls, or simply wanders among mountain ruins – whereas the men tend to be sexually brutal, deserving the fanged carnage that ensures – but like the character scenes, they’re all spastic. Lynch tries to interweave shifting contrasts between the goddess’ sexual richness with domestic scenes involving the detective’s near-barren wife, and there’s the quirky stepmother whose delusional view of her son in-law as a daughter, but in the current edit they rarely click.

Although she’s generally onscreen in human form, the goddess also becomes a vengeful defender of abused women by transforming into a giant snake, killing rapists and wife-beaters, but these scenes also presume she’s either trolling the streets at night in search of suitable food, or the city’s filled with male violence. (In one comic book-styled street chase, the goddess wears a ninja-niqab, but the edits and coverage for her pursuit of a snake charmer are a little awkward.)

Only a few ideas translate well – the goddess’ scaling a street lamp at night, the literal usurping of whole men and expurgating undigested remains as fused glopnick – but they’re covered in perfunctory shots that never allow for any lingering impact. When all characters finally converge on the finale, it’s more a rhapsody of bathos than tragedy. The evil American is costumed in a ridiculous silver suit & nightvision goggles for a maneuver seemingly borrowed from Predator 2 (1990), and things reach an apex of silliness when Sherawat attempts to resuscitate the rubber snake that’s supposed to be her lover (and later screams in full agony as it dies), and Khan screams the obligatory, slo-motion “Nooo!!!! when his idealistic partner – a character spastically needle-dropped into the narrative – also expires from gunshot wounds.

The dialogue is an awful mash-up of Hindi and English, and there are major character relationships which are never clarified because the dialogue and hasty English subtitles drop references that presume prior information was already delivered (but perhaps lies in the Delete Bin on the producer’s hard drive).

Although the slimy, scaly snake transformation makeup by Robert Kurtzman of KNB is generally quite effective, as for the gore, one gets the sense the crew didn’t really have much experience in crafting the realistic images and props Lynch wanted. The blood looks like vintage stage blood from 1952, and the transformation CGI effects (supervised by the producers during the re-editing phase) are just a hair better than the blocky Atari-style animation Tobe Hooper had to settle for in Crocodile (2000) – which in no way was passable. In the doc Lynch clearly struggles to get more detail, more blood, more nuances from the practical effects as everyone looks on, suggesting there was more than straight Hollywood-Bollywood culture clashes affecting this $3 million production.

Although not bitter about the experience, Lynch has said she’ll never watch the producer’s cut (now available on DVD); she shouldn’t; as it stands, Hisss is awful. At best, Hisss is a peculiar footnote in cinema, if not a testimony to the incompatibilities that can arise when a project starts with the best of intentions.

A 50+ minute Rue Morgue podcast with writer / director Jennifer Lynch from provides further details on the film’s making, while an audience Q&A with Despite the Gods director Penny Vozniak during the 2012 Hot Docs Film Festival adds another angle on Hisss’ troublesome production.

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© 2012 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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