Directed by: Jennifer Chambers Lynch
Written by: Jennifer Chambers Lynch
Starring: Mallika Sherawat, Irrfan Khan, Jeff Doucette, Divya Dutta
If Boxing Helena felt like a feminist parable conceived by a pretentious 19-year-old (which it actually was), Hisss feels like a 2nd attempt at a similar parable after the first one was laughed out of a creative writing class. Her confidence shaken, she opts not to attempt to bare her soul, but instead goes the safer route of updating a cultural fable to modern day, one which carries with it ripe material for ideas about gender dynamics and what not. After all, if you’re pretentious, you can’t just come out and tell a story about a snake lady eating people without at least the pretense that there is some subtext going on.
The basic plot is that an Indian snake woman (she can change from human form to snake woman form) is trying to find her cobra lover (that is, a regular snake that she can straddle), who has been kidnapped by a deranged white man (George) who apparently is trying to lure the snake goddess into a trap since he believes that she can grant the gift of immortality. He is dying of a brain tumor, so I initially thought that maybe the venom from the snake goddess cures brain cancer or something, but no. Why not just have some old guy trying to find the secret to immortality? Or some entrepreneur trying to find the secret to immortality so he can sell it? Would immortality automatically cure a brain tumor? Does it just make it so you no longer age? I have no idea.
While Lynch has appropriately picked a story that seems like ripe material for a feminist monster movie, she appears unable to transform her ideas into something that is cinematically logical. She seems to employ mostly vague notions to transfer the original myth to modern day. I’ve read a bit about the original Indian story and watched the movie and tried to connect the dots, but symbols and concepts slip through my fingers and crash onto the floor.
Take, for example, the scene where the snake woman (having just taken human form for the first time) happens upon several women bathing in the river and attempts to imitate them as if looking up to them, to where she suddenly starts worrying about her looks. However, just moments before, she was crawling around as if she thought she was a regular snake (yes, that is hot). This bathing scene would make sense if she had been living the life of a human for awhile and had found herself in a situation where she was being taken care of by several women (which does happen later) to where she looked up to them and wanted to imitate them. I mean, she seems to have no idea that she is even human yet (she hasn’t even looked in a mirror), but she sees some girls with pretty hair and immediately worries that her bangs aren’t up to snuff. Of course, in the next scene, not only is she clean of mud, she seems to have a luxurious new perm and caked on makeup. Ummm…okay. It becomes necessary to the plot to imbue her with feminine wiles of a sort, but you’d think she would have to acquire human characteristics first (apart from the body, of course).
Anyway, she heads to a nearby town, and all of the locals are dancing in a ceremony, and she joins them in a free-spirited erotic dance since, as luck would have it, there’s a snake charmer blowing his flute. She innocently flaunts her sexuality in the process, and two guys immediately drag her into a house and try to rape her. Although she is naïve and innocent in her slithering sexuality, to dumb males, she just looks like a slut, and to them, sluts don’t mind being raped. She turns into a snake lady while one of the rapists, a huge Baywatch fan (perhaps poking fun at crass American pop culture, or maybe implying that Baywatch turns men into rapists), stares at her without blinking for like 90 seconds straight. I know it would be pretty amazing to watch a woman turn into a snake lady, but if I was a potential rapist in that situation, I would cut my losses and get the balls out of dodge. I guess she’s supposed to be a femme fatale luring evil men to their doom, but she does so unconsciously rather than out of moral indignation. Either way, I guess rapists being killed is a step in the right direction.
The first two transformations are fairly impressive-looking (and done practically), but this attack and the subsequent attacks descend into laughable Syfy channel CGI territory. I don’t know why you would bother creating the transitional stages of a snake woman out of latex if you’re gonna marry that to CGI snake effects that look like they were done on an iMac. Either competently aim for suspension of disbelief or don’t bother. Also, there is occasionally a curious cutaway to a repeated shot of a moon with a cloud slicing through it. It is common in cheap movies to have a cutaway to a moon or a cat sitting there or whatever, so the editor can link two unmatched shots by cutting back and forth. However, the fact that this very specific moon shot is repeated makes me think it was supposed to be symbolic, perhaps a "homage" to the beginning of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s "Un Chien Andalou," which employs a similar shot. If I’m on the right track, this would have to be the cheapest way anybody has ever used to proclaim "hey, my movie is surreal!".
Later, she senses another rape happening (rape is how men entertain themselves in India, apparently), and she turns into snake girl again and bites the guy, and does so again when another dude repeatedly punches his wife in the face for no reason (not that there’s a good reason to punch your wife in the face). In both of these cases, she appears to have a natural impulse to kill scumbag males (which is every man in the movie except for the two detectives trying to figure out why rapists and wifebeaters are suddenly dying from venom bites). However, for her next attack, she inexplicably goes to a temple and prays before turning into a burka-wearing angel of death (reminding me of I Spit on Your Grave, minus the burka). She chases the snake charmer through the city, as he is also an assistant of George (although I’m not sure how she even figured that out). Amusingly, she runs like the T-1000 during the chase, and even does some roof jumping. It’s curious that the snake woman would suddenly turn into a killing machine with a specific agenda when she was previously a monster that would attack only when provoked. Maybe there’s supposed to be some subtext here, in that the snake charmer used his flute to "control" the snake woman and needs to be eliminated, but his music works equally on male snakes (like her snake "boyfriend"). I dunno.
I guess the George character (a ridiculously hammy performance by Jeff Doucette) is supposed to represent the evil white man exploiting Indian culture without understanding its myths. However, he believes that he needs to go through with this snake rigamorale in order to survive and his only real crime is that he is abusive to the male snake. He’s not simply a poacher looking to exploit a culture. One might think that his character is only a plot device, but with his evil mugging and extended camera time and the fact that he hires local Indians to do his dirty work, I gotta think Lynch was using his character to try and stick it to greedy westerners. I mostly see some dude yelling and grabbing his head in pain, which is exactly what I’m doing now, having just attempted to dissect the plot holes and thematic incongruities of Hisss. I’m just sane enough to be able to do so and insane enough to want to bother.
Now, I know what some of you are desperately curious about; is the snake chick hot? YES! Her name is Mallika Sherawat (I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly), and she’s ridiculously beautiful and has a pretty arresting screen presence (her nudity also has screen presence). She also respectably manages the "girl with the mind of an animal looking around and being confused" shtick without dialogue. There’s another inexplicable scene wherein she goes out at night naked and slithers up a lamppost while crying. I guess the scene is supposed to convey to the audience that she misses her life as a snake, but I can’t help think that what it actually says is that Sherawat is hot and looks great slithering up and around objects whilst in the nude.
While certainly watchable, Hisss makes me pine for the days of Boxing Helena, which was at least interesting as a unique one-off; a piece of ludicrous outsider art committed as an inside job (after all, it would’ve never been greenlit without the family name). Wait a second…am I waxing nostalgic for Boxing Helena ? God help me.
You know what? That’s actually pretty fucking amazing, in a moronic slapstick kinda way. Maybe it’s a homage to the black knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Let’s hope so. I don’t know what it says about male/female relationship exactly; maybe that men prefer limbless women so they can’t run away or slap them in the face. Regardless, stubby Sherilyn Fenn is pretty damn hot. Not as hot as limbed-Sherilyn Fenn, but I’ll take what I can get.
It was brought to my attention that Lynch disowned the film because it was re-edited without her input, so I credit her because she is listed as the sole writer and director, but it's possible that some the film's issues I mentioned weren't actually her fault. However, there are several inexplicable things that don't seem to be the result of editing or lost exposition.