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DVD SAVANT

The Serpent and the Rainbow


The Serpent and the Rainbow
Universal
1988 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 98 min. / Street Date September 23, 2003 / 14.98
Starring Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, Brent Jennings, Conrad Roberts, Michael Gough, Paul Guilfoyle, Dey Young
Cinematography John Lindley
Production Designer David Nichols
Art Direction David Brisbin
Film Editor Glenn Farr
Original Music Brad Fiedel
Written by Richard Maxwell, Adam Rodman from a book by Wade Davis
Produced by Doug Claybourne, Rob Cohen, Robert Engelman, David Ladd
Directed by Wes Craven

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.

Synopsis:

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 territory.

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
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 12, 2003


Footnotes:

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!
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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