HISSS Review; AKA Mea Culpa

J Hurtado, Contributing Writer
[Last night I went out to see Hisss, starring Mallika Sherawat.  Despite what the local theater's website indicated, there were no English subtitles.  I did, however, sit through the whole film, and I know that I picked up on it enough to make some remarks, though this should in no way be considered a comprehensive review.]

First thing's first, I owe this to you:

I am sorry.  Mea Culpa.


I am sorry if my continuing and enthusiastic coverage of Hisss actually inspired anyone to make the trip out to the theater and spend their hard earned money.  I would offer to refund it myself, but I'm not financially able to do that right now.  First, a quick synopsis:

As the story goes, the movie is about the Vengeance of Naagin, the Snake Woman when the legend of the Naagin has been spreading for over 4000 years ago. Finally in 2009 George States (Jeff Douchette), a ruthless American travels to the jungles of India and captures her mate. She transforms into a stunningly attractive woman (Mallika Sherawat) with absolutely no clue about contemporary civilization or the ways of mankind, and ventures into the city in desperate search for her lover with vengeance on her mind and venom in her fangs.

What follows is a chase at breakneck speed, with horrifying deaths, narrow escapes and special effects never seen before in India, as Vikram Gupta's (Irrfan Khan) Clarice Starling chases down a beautiful sexy killer more dangerous, powerful and terrifying than Hannibal Lecter. This is India's Werewolf, Vampire, and Hannibal the Cannibal, who has an axe to grind with the villainous human race who has dared to desecrate her environment and capture her mate...  


The movie is bad.  It isn't bad in a way that can really even be enjoyed, either, it is just boring and bad.  The film manages to fail in nearly every single area I was expecting to enjoy.  They managed to cut a slick trailer by cobbling together a few of the acceptable moments into something that misrepresents the film as competent film making, which could not be less true.  In fact, I'm going to start out with the things I enjoyed about this film, because that won't take long, before I delve more in depth into this fiasco of a film.

Hisss features Irrfan Khan, who is probably one of the best Indian actors working today.  Not only is he good in Hindi films, but you can also find him in quality international productions like The Darjeeling Limited, The Namesake, The Warrior, Slumdog Millionaire, etc.  He puts in a low-key but convincing performance for about 80% of the movie.  You can almost see in his eyes the moment that he realizes what he's gotten himself into with this wreck of a film.  Khan plays a police detective who is assigned to homicide and following what he believes to be a serial killer with a particular taste for using cobra venom on his victims.  He is married to Maya, played, also somewhat convincingly, by Divya Dutta.  There is a subplot involving their home life, infertility, and a senile mother-in-law; this part of the film is probably the most worthwhile.  The actors, including, I shit you not, a real live princess, Laxmi Bal Nalapat, as the senile mom, create a realistic home and a situation that anyone dealing with aging and deteriorating parents can relate to if only a little.  Sure, Irrfan leaves his wife in the bathroom after she's had a miscarriage to go to work as she cries and bleeds all over the place, but he loves her and she immediately forgives him.  Sure Laxmi Bal Nalapat reminds us of a kindlier, less infantile version of Pink Flamingos' Egg Lady, but she's charming as all hell.  I couldn't understand the dialogue, but there appeared to be some genuinely funny and warm moments in their apartment, judging by the reactions of my fellow film-goers.

The other thing I liked about Hisss was something I was pretty excited for, the practical effects.  After watching Robert Kurtzman's video diaries of the process involved in creating Hisss' special effects, I was fairly confident that this would be a strength of the film, and for the most part, it is.  I think I can safely say that there have never been creature effects of this caliber in an Indian film.  The transformation sequences are American Werewolf-esque, and the gore, especially the aftermath money shots and sequences in the coroner's office, are very well executed.  Kurtzman's team does a great job with the practical effects most of the time, but when the effects falter on a film like this, it can drag the whole thing to a screeching halt.  At one point, a victim of Sherawat's naagin appears to have leftover udon noodles and ketchup dumped ON TOP of his shirt to indicate being disemboweled.  Terrible stuff.  There is one other really embarrassing practical effects piece, but I think it deserves a place of its own on the cons list.

Really, that's about all I have to say that is good about this film.  Yup.  That about does it.

Now, onto the failures.  I'll get to as many as I can, but I don't want to overwhelm you.

The film begins with a ridiculously terrible English voiceover explaining the legend of the naagin, a snake goddess who will do anything to protect her mate, including taking human form to reap her vengeance.  The voiceover is garish, crude, soulless, and crazy loud.  The loudness is something you kind of get used to when you go to see a lot of Indian films, but for some reason it was more grating because it was in English. 

Immediately following this simplistic bit of exposition, we are thrown in with the American, George, a crazed, brain-cancered, delirious, thuggish, cartoonish villain of the film who is apparently sticken by cancer and the inability to modulate his voice, because he shouts.  Everything.  Asian and South Asian films have a long history of cartoonish white villains, and Jeff Doucette's "George", ranks somewhere near the bottom as far as convincing ones go.  His speech is stilted, he looks dazed for most of the film, and yet we're supposed to believe that he is able to control a small band of thugs who, despite their own paralyzing fears of the naagin, will do his bidding pretty much blindly?  He's dying guys, you can run away.  Hell, you could probably walk away as he stumbles Frankensteinishly after you. [editorial note:  my spell check did NOT mark the word, "Frankensteinishly" as incorrect, it must be learning...]  His performance is awful, just terrible.  Think Grandpa in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but without the subtlety.

Then there is Mallika Sherawat.  Mallika, you had me, hook, line, and sinker.  All that enthusiastic chatter on Twitter, I bought it.  All of the publicity; visiting snake worshipers, bringing that big ass snake to Cannes, spending day and night promoting your movie...  You got me.  You have my $8 and I'll never get my two hours back, so you win.

Sherawat plays the snake goddess, naagin.  The naagin has been alive for at least 4,500 years, if the prologue to the film is accurate, but has never left her jungle.  When her mate is stolen, she transforms into a human, a very attractive and not very shy one, to find him and punish the man who took him away.  Mallika knows how to slither, I'll give her that, but that is about all.  Her character, after becoming human, walks up to EVERYTHING in the civilized world and inspects it like she is an infant, think Jodie Foster in Nell, but without the talent.  She wears the costumes and appliances well, and the does the shedding and transformation scenes fairly well, but any time she is called on to act, it is a disaster.   Her idea of acting is popping her eyes as wide as they'll go, arching her back, and whipping her head around like Stevie Wonder in a wind tunnel.  Luckily for us, she has not a word of dialogue for the entire duration of the film.  She grunts a few times, but that is about it. 

We were teased in the media by reports of her nude scenes, which, I'm sad to say, do not materialize in a way that a western audience would recognize, honestly, you could probably put those scenes on after 9PM on American TV and no one would bat an eyelash.  Something more racy might have been able to draw my attention away from the train wreck occurring on screen, but alas, it was not meant to be.  Less distractions unfortunately means more focus on the weaknesses of this terrible, terrible film.

Which brings us to the direction, or lack there of.  As Anupama Chopra of NDTV said in her review:

Hisss is strangely disjointed. It feels like an unfinished film. The credit says written and directed by Jennifer Lynch but I refuse to believe that this was directed by anyone.

I couldn't agree more.  I can't vouch for the script, but it feels as though they were rushed, every line reading sounds like a first take.  I might be able to understand this for the Indian actors, since Hindi is not Lynch's first language, but the American in the cast was the worst one of all.  I'm beginning to wonder if there was anyone on set at all giving the actors direction, surely no one in their right mind could have watched this travesty happening and still managed to shout, "Cut!  Print!  We got it, folks!",  because they most certainly didn't get it.  There are strangely disjointed scenes, random points of blackness for 10 seconds or more at a time, ridiculous editing, poor dubbing, you name it, where a director could have helped, there was none to be found.

Another area in which this film could have excelled was the effects.  I already mentioned the mostly fine job done by Robert Kurtzman's Precinct 13 studios, but there are a couple of things that just fall completely flat, and I'm not sure they are his work, but I have to assume so.  At one point near the end, Sherawat's naagin finds her mate on the brink of death; she carries him off to a dark spot and proceeds to "mate" with him to revive him.  First of all, when Sherawat picks up the snake, which was probably 12 feet long and should have been a couple hundred pounds, it is obviously a flimsy rubber snake.  The fake snake gave no sense of weight or realistic movement, it was truly amateurish.  My son could have made that snake. 

The mating scene was probably one of the more interesting ones just for the pure WTF?ness of it all.  Sherawat, in human form, writhes around on the dirt floor, naked, with a snake crawling all over her and slithering through her naughty bits, all the while she is cooing and moaning, and ultimately arriving at her destination, ifyouknowhatImean.  If the whole damned movie was shot with the care of this stupid scene, this review would be a lot shorter.

One final complaint: Computer Generated Imagery, CGI.  It is a given these days that any kind of creature feature, horror movie, or Sci-fi film will have at least a little bit of CGI.  The trailer for Hisss was filled with Kurtzman's wonderful practical effects, but there was one brief shot where a CG tongue burst from Sherawat's mouth and made the whole shot look cartoonish.  After seeing that I thought to myself, "Well, that CG is terrible, but it looks like they only used it the one time, and they are relying on practical effects, I can live with that."  Wrong.  CG is used extensively in this film, and it never looks good or even remotely convincing for even an instant.  It's like the team responsible for SyFy's creature features got drunk and worked for 20 minutes to makes these shots.  I would say it looks like a video game, but no video game would get released with graphics this bad.  If it were trying to be campy, maybe I'd understand, but Ray Harryhausen, this ain't. 

This movie might be worthwhile if you threw a couple of robots and an engineer in front of it in silhouette, but apart from that, I really can't see any value. 

Many of the Indian reviewers are comparing the film to past snake lady films like Nagin (1976) and Nagina (1986).  I haven't seen those films yet, but they are pure masala films. They feature song and dance, larger than life heroes and villains, and are apparently very popular and well respected entertainers.  I can't compare this film to those, they are from different times.   Hisss is trying to be a modern horror film, not a typical Bollywood masala film.  There are no song and dance numbers and the runtime is a little shy of two hours, rather than the customary three hours plus.  It would truly be comparing apples and oranges.  This is one bad apple, though, there are no two ways around it.

When I think on all of the time I spent compiling news, writing columns, finding images and trailers for this film, it makes me a bit dizzy.  I could have used that time more effectively.  Maybe I could've paid someone to come over to my house and paid them to poke me in the eyes with a pointy stick.  Most assuredly a more enjoyable pastime that this film.  What's done is done.  All I can do know is implore you not to waste your time or money on this film.  I wish I'd had someone to warn me.

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