Whatcha Craven?: The Serpent and The Rainbow (1988)

There are certain things that you could not pay me enough money to mess with. Gypsies, Ventriloquist Dummies, and Hairless Cats spring to mind, but there is one thing that looms larger above all of these, Voodoo. The rituals, the chanting, the trances, it all freaks me out. As a fervent non-believer of practically everything, it may seem kind of strange that a religion would freak me out so much, but it’s movies like tonight’s film (and the book it was based on) that convinced me that it was not to be trifled with.

The Serpent and The Rainbow (1988) recounts Dennis Alan’s (Bill Pullman) investigation into the secrets of Haitian voodoo. He has been sent there by a major American drug manufacturer who is interested in the process of zombification, and Dennis soon finds himself embroiled in a world that he can barely understand or explain. As he goes in pursuit of the powder used to make zombies, each layer he peels back finds him deeper and deeper until he finds himself six feet deep and still alive.

When Wes Craven set out to make this film, he was in the middle of a creative drought. The success of 1984’s Nightmare on Elm Street had translated to big box office, but not to better films. The 1985 made for TV film Chiller and the lackluster sequel to The Hills Have Eyes had failed to impress audiences. Wes then moved on to the film Deadly Friend which is about as divisive as they come. It’s been many years since I’ve seen it, but I remember the film fondly although it was not without a certain clunkyness.

Based on Wade Davis’ book about his experiences in Haiti, The Serpent and the Rainbow was the film that reinvigorated Craven and began a new era of his creativity. The film was perfectly suited for Craven’s voice. It contained elements of the supernatural invading everyday life. I think it is no coincidence that the Haitian revolution plays a part in the film. Putting this everyday struggle in the background of this heavily supernatural film gives the setting a very real feeling, and it makes the events that unfold before out eyes sparkle with veracity. One of Craven’s greatest strengths in his films has always been to bring the plausible into situations no one could believe. This is why the first Nightmare on Elm Street will always be the best, and why The Serpent and the Rainbow is such a chilling film.

While the story is plenty freaky enough on its own, the effects shots that Craven captured were what really sold the film. The evil voodoo priest Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae) can enter and affect the dream world, and being no stranger to baddies in your nightmares, Craven handles these sequences effortlessly. As Pullman’s investigator is drawn into the Voodoo priest’s world, he confronts actual zombies, skeletal brides, and being trapped in a coffin filling with blood. Each of these scenes unfolds expertly, and as they get progressively worse, the nightmarish visions intersect with the real world in the end sequences.

If there is a weakness to the film, it does come from lead actor Bill Pullman. Pullman, who is probably most known as the President in Independence Day, has never been one of my favorite actors (although I do make an exception for Spaceballs). I can’t quite put my finger on what I feel is wrong with his performance, but it often seems like he’s holding back when the film is not calling for him to summon terror to his visage. I will have to give it up for him in those scenes. Whether he’s about to be buried alive or have a nail put through his scrotum, Pullman can look plenty scared.

There are a couple very fine performances in the film. Paul Winfield (Trouble Man, Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, Damnation Alley) turns in a heck of a performance as the good voodoo priest Lucien Celine while Zakes Mokae (Dust Devil, Cry Freedom, Outbreak) is terrifying as Celine’s nemesis. However, if I were going to name one actor who really impressed me it would be Brent Jennings as Louis Mozart, the man with the zombie powder. Jennings made appearances in Witness (1985) and Alone in the Dark (1982) before going into a career of small roles in television. As Louis Mozart, he is Dennis Alan’s key to the secrets, and he gives an inspired wide-eyed performance that will stick in my memory long after the freaky effects are forgotten.

When Wade Davis, the author of the book The Serpent and The Rainbow, saw Wes Craven’s picture, he deemed it the “one of the worst Hollywood movies in history.” It sounds very much like sour grapes from a man whose work had been primarily discredited. I read the book some years back and found it very thrilling and interesting, but it did not contain some of the broader scenes that Craven envisioned. There’s nothing wrong with Hollywood taking a little license to make the film more exciting, but there is something wrong Davis taking the facts a little liberally to begin with. The “zombie powder” he brought back with him has been disputed among researchers for years, and many believe that Davis sensationalized the affair to move copies of his tome.

Whatever the truth may be, it holds little sway over the quality of film delivered by Wes Craven. I have known very few people I could mention this film to without them commenting on how it had scared them. I can’t say that I blame them. Very few things give me the creeps, but this convincing tale of actual zombies does the trick every time. If this one has passed you by, then by all means check it out, and I’ll see you back next week with the next Craven film, a personal favorite of mine that doesn’t get near the attention it deserves.

Bugg Rating

1 comment:

  1. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobJuly 10, 2009 at 5:31 AM

    Lightning bug, you shouldn`t let voodoo worry you, remember all it provides for richard dawkins is a great deal of laughter.


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