In memory of Wes Craven: A review of The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) In memory of Wes Craven: A review of The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
In memory of Wes Craven, I reviewed one of his less mentioned horror movies, the Voodoo-shocker "The Serpent and the Rainbow" (1988). In memory of Wes Craven: A review of The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

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.

serpent and the rainbow baron samedi

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.

serpent and rainbow bill pullman

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.

The Serpent and the Rainbow: Cathy Tyson

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.

rainbow and the serpent bride zombie

Serpent and the rainbow corpse

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.

Source: wikicommons

Source: wikicommons

Wes Craven, 1939-2015

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Detective Dee reviews movies and sometimes TV-series. He likes to indulge in the Asian cinema, exploitation flicks and the horror genre but is no stranger to Blockbuster culture either. He writes whatever he wants, but always aims to entertain.

  • Abe

    I agree with you totally Dee. This is such an interesting film. It’s so choppy, but somehow it still works.

  • Tarmac492.1

    many of his films seem choppy to me. This was a good one and props to him for doing something different.

  • Tarmac492.1

    Great write up, mang. Mokae was quite scary in this. Definitely deserved more of an audience. Maybe–with his passing–it will reach the proper audience. This is one hundred times better than his LHOTL. I hate to beat up on that film, but its classic status really perplexes me. Yet, so does the original Wicker Man. Fuck, maybe I have issues?

  • Tarmac492.1

    And yes, the scene you are referring to about a certain part of the male anatomy taking a hit is waaaay more disturbing than anything shown in the Hostel series, IMO.

  • Gonna refresh my memories of this film – I DO remember the Scene you mentioned, though – along with the other ones in Craven’s “Universal Pictures”-trilogy tonight…

  • Hostel – now there’s a P.O.S. “horror”-franchise if there ever was one…

  • Tarmac492.1

    My english drunk txts look like they were written in Finnish.

  • So do mine.

  • Tarmac492.1


  • This review was a good idea.

  • Tarmac492.1

    completely well made garbage which is an utter bore. 2nd one was “I am never getting that time back” bad.

  • Yeah. Haven’t even bothered to see the third one

  • Tarmac492.1

    You do the in english with subtitles thing or do you do just straight english

  • Tarmac492.1

    didnt know there was one. LOL!!!

  • DTV, I believe.

  • Tarmac492.1

    Maybe I will drunk txt you next time and you can let me know what it says in Finnish. Hopefully, it will be less embarrassing than what they usually say in English.

  • Either or. If there’s a more dialogue-heavy film, I’ll use the subs.

  • Tarmac492.1

    Really, your english seems so good, especially writing. Although, is the speed at what some people talk still an issue? That seems to be the toughest part. Although you are fine on podcasts.

  • Well, in podcasts the parts with struggling can be cut off

  • Tarmac492.1

    Most of us Americans dont speak proper English either lol!!! Part of the fun. Perfection–except in the female breast–is boring to me.

  • Tarmac492.1

    I hope Craven gets a mention at the Oscars(fuck you) In Memoriam. I am thinking Scream will have gotten him there. It was really a cultural phenom kind of. Especially for an R rated flick. Not easy to do.

  • “Fuck the Oscars”
    – John Ary

  • Tarmac492.1

    Craven achieved the mainstream success that, I think, eluded people like Romero and Carpenter. That is something. One can argue Carpenter and Romero reached it, with a few of their masterpieces, but i dont believe so. I would bet Halloween, DOTD or NOTLD were more rental successes than box office successes. I doubt Land of the Dead made anywhere near what the DOTD remake made. People may look back and say Carpenter and Romero were more influential and better filmmakers( I would say this) but Craven might be a bigger name to the masses.

  • That Shocker cover is totally made up.

  • Halloween was one of the biggest BO-success stories ever, comparing the BO with the budget.

  • No, I also prefer it over Last House.

  • Yup

  • Tarmac492.1

    so was Blair Witch but those dudes dont have name recognition. Your point is well taken though.

  • Btw, is “The Hills Have Eyes 2”:s “family dog having a flashback of the previous film” one of the weirdest things ever put on film?

  • I only remember that it was an incredibly lousy movie.

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    “many of his films seem choppy to me.”

    That’s true. If there’s a reason for Craven’s uneven filmography, it’s that a lot of his films were very unfocused and seemed to mesh together too many ideas (usually potentially good ones), resulting in a confusing narrative and a schizophrenic tone. Shocker is the worst example of that; it’s almost five movies in one. Deadly Friend is another.

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    Good point about Craven being very intuitive. The horror movie is the one genre that can get away with being purposefully irrational and also weather stories that don’t make complete sense. It works most effectively on a level of subconscious dream (or should that be nightmare?) logic, as you remarked.

    Craven’s horror movies were embedded in primal psychology, and since he had a degree in the subject, as well as literature, he knew exactly what made people tick. He was also a humanities professor before entering film, so he came from a very different, and more learned, background than some of the other directors in the field.

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    It was, but none of Carpenter’s subsequent films matched its box office success and most of his films, though good, were very singular.

    Craven launched two key, money-making franchises in the genre in subsequent decades. Even if he didn’t have anything to do with the majority of films in one of those franchises, that’s the kind of thing that gets you in the history books – at least as far as the mainstream media/audience is concerned.

  • KilliK

    I wonder how many realize that the psychotic villain in Shocker, is director Skinner from X-Files..

  • ErnestRister

    Carpenter seems to have an impatience or antipathy for resolutions. His career is marked by films where the central antagonism continues, or worse, certain doom is right around the corner and there is no escape.

    Audiences are conditioned from birth to expect resolutions, and happy ones at that. Shouldn’t shock anyone Carpenter has struggled at the box office.

  • ErnestRister

    Do not warp my fragile little mind!

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    But Carpenter’s also turned his hand toward more mainstream or lighthearted films on occasion, such as Big Trouble in Little China, Memoirs of an Invisible Man and Starman, and even those didn’t do that well (although I believe Starman was still his biggest hit outside of Halloween).

  • Tarmac492.1

    I enjoyed Memoirs….Nice performance by Chevy

  • ErnestRister

    I think most if not all of his films are mainstream. He just has an antipathy for happy enedings, and this has kicked him in the balls. It worked in Halloween, I think it might have pissed general audiences off throughout his career. Starman is bittersweet…Marion Allen loses her husband twice.

  • Stalkeye

    “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. “

    Agreed! That scene was some scary shit even if it was a bit campy.
    This was a great obit without being conventional as with many other sites.

  • “Deadly Friend” is like a Halloween schoolplay turned into a movie.

  • Yeah I originally wrote a little more about his intuitive approach and so on, but it was entering highly speculative territory and started sounding a little confused, so I scrapped it. I did not even take his Master in psychology in consideration, very good deduction.

  • Thank you!

  • Tarmac492.1

    I wouldnt say Halloween had a downer ending. The heroine survives, but the monster lives on. I am thinking horror fans were used to this, so he got away with it. Yes, Starman is definitely bittersweet. Spielberg got away with the similar ending in ET. Then there is the theory that some of Carpenter’s film’s have been derailed by similar work from Spileberg. I would be interested to see Carpenter direct Duel(I cant say Jaws as it is me fave of all time) or Poltergeist(yes, technically a Tobe Hooper film that strangely doesnt feel like any other Tobe Hooper film hmmmm) and Spielberg direct Halloween or EFNY.

  • ErnestRister

    Tobe was afraid of Spielberg…Spielberg would be on set and Spielberg’s enthusiasm would get going, and Spielberg would say, “Hey, why don’t we do this?” and look at Tobe, and Tobe would nod. Then go to his trailer and snort some more coke.

    Spielberg was very young, and very assured, and way too close to the material (he later said he would never again let someone else direct something he wrote).

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy


  • Tarmac492.1

    understandable for Hooper to be intimidated by Spielberg. Although, Hooper, IMO, had two horror masterpieces under his belt already. Also, Funhouse was good. Eaten Alive was also ok from what I remember. Anyway, he had more experience than Spielberg did at horror, I think. I am sure that is why Spielberg hired him. I believe the Berg is a fan of TCM. Hooper should have shown some self confidence. The coke should have helped with that.
    i still love Poltergeist, even if it is a bit family friendly. Great starter horror.


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  • Tarmac492.1

    i hope u get fingerblasted by a sadistic serial killer and then get ur hands and nose lopped off so you cant type this stuff any more. Scam artist!!

  • franks_television

    Watched this on Netflix last year. Some really cool scenes.