Wes Craven died last Sunday. I decided to refrain from writing a conventional obit, because there are more professional writers out there with better resources at their disposal and I am sure you can easily find a well-researched overview of Craven’s filmography and his private life on the web. That’s why I decided to rather revisit one of Craven’s less discussed movies and try to evaluate where it stands in Craven’s -somewhat uneven- filmography.
The Serpent and the Rainbow is an unusual horror movie. It is based on a hotly debated non-fiction book by ethnobotanist Wade Davis, which was published in 1985. In this work, Davis examined the famous case of a Haitian man who was “zombified” with the use of a mysterious powder and attempted to explain this state scientifically as an effect that particular mix of plant toxins in said substance had on the human body.
Expectedly, the depiction of Davis’ experiences in Haiti is heavily dramatized for the movie and finally turns, as the plot progresses, into a supernatural horror story with no relation to the real events.
Bill Pullman plays a surrogate version of Davis as ethnobotanist and anthropologist Dennis Alan who is approached by a pharmaceutical corporation that wants him to investigate a mysterious powder, used by Haitian Voodoo-practitioners to turn people into “Zombies”. After arriving in the Caribbean country, Alan gets assistance by the local doctor Marielle (Cathy Tyson), who knows a man who was buried for seven years and was mysteriously resurrected recently. Initially, the scientist is very sceptic, but a few unexplainable events and some disturbing nightmares make him soon doubt his own rational world view. While delving deeper into the secrets of Voodoo, they unfortunately attract the attention of a leader of the paramilitary force, Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), whom Alan, to his horror, recognizes from a vision he had when he tested a hallucinogenic plant potion during an earlier expedition into the rainforest. Now he has to face a very dangerous enemy, as Peytraud is a powerful Bokor (evil Voodoo-priest) himself, who is keeping the souls of his defeated opponents in jars among other nasty habits.
The Serpent… is picking up the old trope of “science vs. superstition”, this time with a Voodoo twist. I always found the topic Voodoo to be very interesting and rich in suggestive imagery, that’s why it is odd that there are not that many movies dealing with it, let alone good ones. The way it is, the top entries in the list of movies depicting the practices and mythology of this religion/cult are The Serpent and the Rainbow, Angel Heart (1987) and, if you are inclined to do so, you can also count Live and Let Die (1973) among them.
Another unique aspect about this Wes Craven effort is the way the political situation of Haiti is weaved into the story, turning the overthrowing of the dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier into an important plot point. Political and societal circumstances are not only used as a colourful backdrop, but actually affect the development of the story and the actions of the protagonists, which lends a touch of relevance to the film.
With this political-historical underpinning and the “scientific” angle The Serpent… feels more embedded in reality, which emphasizes the effect of the horror elements and prevents it from becoming an all too straightforward scare fest, although it also delivers in that regard.
Once again, Craven frequently relies on eerie dream imagery to create horror, as this was one of his main strengths as a director. I’d say he was almost too good at it, because in my eyes he used the “Boo! It was just a dream!”- technique probably one or two times too often during his career. That said, it works perfectly in this film. There is a recurring motive of a Zombie in a white wedding dress with a veil that sent chills down my spine. Another memorable moment is the scene of a rotten hand emerging from a plate of soup- there goes my appetite.
Like David Lynch, Craven understood that nightmares often have a ridiculous, primitivist element to them and succeeded at emulating that in his films. That’s why an actually highly silly scene like Freddy Krueger extending his arms like Mr. Fantastic (Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984), is still bafflingly effective. It’s like Craven had a hot wire to the subconscious and our primal fears, which made him destined for becoming a horror director. From what I learned with interviews with the master, he was someone who projected his own fears and anxieties into his works, in an almost semi-therapeutic fashion. Naming Freddy Krueger after a boy that bullied him at school and modelling the killer’s look on the appearance of a hobo that scared him when he was a kid, were actions that might be a proof for this assumption. Furthermore the plot of the messy but interesting Deadly Blessing (1981) includes the doings of a restrictive Christian sect, which could be a testament to Craven’s own upbringing in a strict Baptist family.
Coming back to The Serpent and the Rainbow, I think it deserves to be ranked among his classics. The film is not perfect, which is partly owed to a troubled shoot, which was ironically hampered by real-life uprisings in Haiti, not dissimilar to those shown in the film, which forced the crew to move the production to the Dominican Republic. As a result, the film is slightly choppy at times and one gets the feeling that some scenes from the script might be missing. One detail I personally could not stand was the kitschy pan flute sound that signified the appearance of Alan’s totem animal (long story). Come on, I know this was the 80s, but this is seriously entering Walker, Texas Ranger territory. Otherwise, this film holds up surprisingly well.
By the way, the most horrific scene of this film does not involve anything supernatural… at least the male part of the audience will guaranteedly cringe at that moment.