Review: ‘Nneka the Pretty Serpent’ fails to bite

Nneka the Pretty Serpent

Zeb Ejiro’s majestic horror picture Nneka the Pretty Serpent knows what it is: an original film. Tosin Igho’s Nneka the Pretty Serpent which hit cinemas last Friday calls itself a remake when, actually, it’s a hard reboot. By disregarding the canon of the 1994 original and forging its own mythos, Igho’s shiny version wants to be judged on a whole different set of parameters. He blows out Ejiro’s established strictures of horror, shifting his vision towards a framing of fear that happens when we pay the price for horrible misdeeds.

Newcomer Idia Aisien plays the titular Nneka, embracing her legend as a femme fatale who as a child witnessed the murder of her parents by unknown intruders, haunted by nightmares until her world collides with an underwater being who shapeshifts between snake and human. It’s not a mere collision as Nneka’s corporeal existence transforms spectacularly.

Possessed by the entity, she is granted abilities – mind control, regenerative healing, strength, enhanced hearing, and a snake’s venomous bite. Using these powers to eliminate her parents’ killers, the murderous footprint of Aisien’s Nneka tumbles as a dull, weightless, feminist-baiting revenge thriller with each kill as forgettable as the last.

Horror films don’t necessarily have to be scary, and while the boundaries between horror and thriller can be blurred depending on how well they can cross-pollinate signature elements, the new Nneka the Pretty Serpent scuttles its many ideas and seems content prioritising style over infrastructure. The film orchestrates its own pitfalls when it recycles Ndidi Obi, whose luminous, terrifyingly operatic performance as the original Nneka help the film gain cult-favourite status.

Not only is Obi thrown into the gears of this underwhelming spectacle as Queen Mother, her reintroduction also compels older audiences to make comparisons between her still-unparalleled embodiment of Nneka and Aisien’s. Strikingly, Aisien meets the phenotypical requirements of the femme fatale archetype: cherubic prettiness, shapely body but the lack of seduction shows the gaps in her execution.

Aside Obi’s murderous propensity in Ejiro’s horror treatment – she fucking kills an innocent child – Obi had a presence, a magnetic orbit. Much distinctly, she had a mystique. As a film, it’s the apogee of the Nollywood horror blockbusterisation that assembles women designed to kill. It’s not a fancy park: it’s got claws, squishy fright hair, blood, and a surprisingly deft use of jump scares.

The wardrobe utility of the original saw Obi’s Nneka in a sartorial mix of vintage prints, colour-blocking, padded shoulders, cinched waist as she perpetuates havoc and destruction. Aisien’s Nneka does better in this department because her dressing is modernly braided together with malevolence. Red is deployed every so often. From the origins of gaining her powers in the underwater rendezvous with the Queen Mother, to wearing a lipstick-red, skin-tight dress as she leaves fatal bites marks on her first victim.

The casting choice of Aisien came with a frisson of skepticism but many believed her accrued media capital was needed to make the reboot marketable to her bloc of audiences. And, overall, the film’s marketing strategy which did feature snakes. With Aisien, audiences are either going to be drawn to her character or be noncommittal. Essentially, she doesn’t bungle the hallowed role of Nneka. But she doesn’t make it better either.

Because Igho departs quite starkly from the original in the context of tone and texture, his film produces different stakes and conflicts central to its world building. The inexorable path of revenge for Nneka becomes intertwined with her romantic interest in Tony (Kenneth Okolie). Feminine protagonists skewered with romantic desires and complications that may arise seems universally on-brand.

It makes Nneka weak though, in a way that is recognisably human but what is mildly annoying is the soft-edged predictability. Perhaps the most unforgivable sin committed by Igho’s film is disregarding
the use of an all-female soundtrack, and instead favouring Larry Gaaga’s brash commodification which will be released on Christmas day.

Gaaga provided the soundtrack for last year’s horror sequel Living in Bondage, Breaking Free, which is gleefully skewed towards the movie’s bleeding hedonism and misses important ideas like mortality and immortality, personal conflict, isolation, death.

It’s a ripple effect from the Play Network Studios echo chamber, and further shows that the Charles Okpaleke-helmed studio doesn’t have a deeper grasp of the films it’s intent on remaking. Nneka the Pretty Serpent as Igho’s third feature is a risk-taking piece of filmmaking since his 2018 debut with The Eve and Seven a year later. Rebooting or remaking one of Nollywood’s weighty source materials from the 90’s was always going to be a challenge for directors and studios, as they juggle with striking the right tonal balance for new and old audiences.

Nneka the Pretty Serpent doesn’t suggest that traditional horror is back in Nollywood; it’s only a tiny light blip from a since-discarded machine. Blink and miss. Horror, in Nollywood, is still lost in the dark.

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