Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Serpent and the Rainbow is very creepy stuff, a serious horror film that mixes voodoo
terror with political terror to induce a number of nervous chills. Beginning with a premise more
logical than most movies of its kind, it slowly becomes a less unnerving experience. But along the
way it dishes out a number of very classy fright scenes.
Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) survives an ordeal in the Amazon rain forest, only to be
sent by a pharmaceutical company to Haiti to acquire some of the supposedly magic powder used by
Zombie masters to first kill people, and then raise them from the dead. With the help of local
clinic doctor Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson) he finds what might be a real zombie, Christophe
(Conrad Roberts) and a man named Mozart (Brent Jennings) willing to prepare the voodoo powder with
him. Unfortunately, Haiti is under the oppressive Duvalier regime, and the chief of the feared
Ton Ton Macoute Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae) dogs Alan and Duchamp with threats and finally
torture. Worse, Dennis thinks that he's been put under a voodoo spell, as he keeps having horrendous
nightmares and waking dreams.
Horror film enthusiasts didn't really want to think too much in 1988, and The Serpent and the Rainbow
probably had too much reality in it to become a runaway hit. It's a superior show, but in very
personal ways. It's the first movie about voodoo to get beyond the business of voodoo dolls with
pins stuck in them, and the first to go beyond the remarkable Val Lewton film of the 40s,
I Walked with a Zombie. Apparently Lewton's research was good, for words like houngan
repeat, along with possessed dances and little scarlet badges pinned to one's clothing as a safeguard
from magical danger.
The reality comes in the form of the real political terror in Haiti, which didn't need voodoo to
be scary. The Ton Ton Macoute are terror police let loose on the population to guarantee that everyone's
too busy trembling to form an opposition to the despotic government.
Also, Voodoo, or Vaudou is presented as a troubling but not necessarily evil religion, that modifies
itself to be compatible with Christianity - the madonna is also an important Voodoo god. The sorcerer
Lucien Celine, played by Paul Winfield, is a practitioner of good Voodoo who tries to help the
white hero. English actress Cathy Tyson grew up in the religion, and is made to dance while
possessed by a Voodoo spirit, without her consent or knowledge.
The Serpent and the Rainbow is a film by Wes Craven, and one of his best. It was filmed in
Haiti and The Dominican Republic, and has a look of genuine authenticity about it. After his smash hit
A Nightmare on Elm Street Craven was on a roll, and this serious look at zombiecraft was
an ambitious move.
Bill Pullman's hero is sort of a lowercase Indiana Jones, stepping into dangerous situations to
discover new drugs for use in the US. The pharmaceutical execs back in New York (represented well
by genre fixture Michael Gough, in an understated performance) think the magic is in the powder and
if Pullman can get it back, they'll instantly have a miracle anaesthetic. The film is uneasily
based on a book about the procurement of a real zombie dust. Titles indicate that the powder is
being studied, but since 16 years minimum have passed, it doesn't seem to have yielded any miracles
that I've heard of.
Probably due to Craven's deft juggling of fantastic imagery and constant hallucination sequences,
The Serpent and the Rainbow manages a good balance between the pragmatism of the U.S. and
the spiritual chaos in Haiti. Pullman already seems to be blessed with a guardian angel in the form
of a Brazilian leopard, but when the Hatians put the hex on him, his world becomes filled with rotting
corpses in wedding gowns, creeping serpents and scary spiders.
The weird screenplay mixes voodoo and politics. It's like Our Man in Havana, except the evil
leader of the secret police is a voodoo priest with supernatural powers. If Craven and his screenwriters
like the idea of equating the oppressive power of evil Latin American dictatorships with malevolent
black magic, fine. But eventually the story veers away from its initial credibility and becomes
just another adventure of white hunter vs the witch doctors. 1
Along the way, there are scenes worthy of a classic. A very impressive (to say the least) scene
has Pullman tortured
by the evil Peytraud via a ten-penny nail hammered through his scrotum. After that, most
attempts to shock pale in effect, and we wonder why Pullman doesn't either make himself scarce
from Haiti as the bad guys demand, or organize some better security.
The hallucination scenes are excellent, all using simple camera tricks and bizarre imagery to
put us in the mood for scares. Craven mastered this technique in the Elm Street movies and
here the effect is devastating. We worry about how much of Pullman's existence is being manipulated
by his zombie master back in Haiti, when the hostess of a dinner 2,000 miles away suddenly becomes
possessed and tries to kill him.
The key scene is Pullman's conversion into a zombie himself, and his burial alive, anaesthetized to
an apparent point of death and witnessing all that happens to him. It's definite concept lift from
Dreyer's Vampyr done with just enough originality to chill the bones.
From then on the story is downhill, moving through a convenient revolution to make the ending an
inconsistent battle between zombie and zombie master/police chief that gets too cartoonish in an
effort to be commercial. I really have to believe that box office concerns directed Craven to make
a left turn away from the path of originality. One of the last really good things in the story is
Pullman's rescue by another zombie, the fellow he came to investigate. When heroine Cathy Tyson
is saved in the nick of time from an axeman's blade, the movie circles back into silent serial
The young Bill Pullman makes an athletic hero gutsy enough to stand up to the Macoute's threats, and
Cathy Tyson a beautiful heroine and love interest (a shame, as a certain tension leaves the story
when they become lovers). Paul Winfield seems to be having fun being scary, and great support comes
from Brent Jennings, the boastful Voodoo chemist, Conrad Roberts, the credibly scary zombie, and
Zakes Mokae, a terrifying police chief.
Besides the compromised finish, the film may have had a voiceover imposed on it, to make the story
events perfectly clear. It's possible that Wes Craven wanted the story to be more opaque, which
might have been a good choice.
Universal's DVD of The Serpent and the Rainbow is a good transfer of an element which can
be darkish and grainy in some scenes, and lucidly clear in other. After a murky opening, things
generally stay better throughout, and the only degraded film is re-purposed newsfilm from Haiti of
the revolution. The authentic-sounding Caribbean music is well reproduced on the soundtrack. There
are Dolby surround tracks in English, French and Spanish, along with subtitles.
I give The Serpent and the Rainbow an A- among horror films. It's intelligent and ambitious,
qualities in short supply in genre films of the 80s, and shows Wes Craven at his creative best.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Serpent and the Rainbow rates:
Movie: Very good
Video: Very good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 12, 2003
1. I Walked with a Zombie from
1943 has its subversive political side as well. The black population of San Sebastian seem to
embrace Voodoo as a charm to ward off the oppression of white masters, and balladeer
Sir Lancelot taunts the local white landholders with insinuating, subtly threatening lyrics in
his songs. Serious political students of Haiti will probably see The Serpent and the Rainbow's
Zombie police chief as foolish nonsense, and it's true that the confluence of voodoo police
terror don't really go together - what brutal torturing cop would have the spiritual sensitivity
to be a priest in any religion? Or am I forgetting the Spanish Inquisition? This sounds like thematic
material for Larry Cohen!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson