The death of director Wes Craven last August hit me hard. I did not know Craven had been sick, and I'd wager many a horror-film fan mourned the passing of this icon, too. On a resume that includes A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes and Scream, The Serpent and the Rainbow struggles to stand out, and there was clearly a power struggle going on between Craven and the studio over this unique project. But even lesser Craven films offer depth, creativity and stories unseen in the genre offerings of lesser directors. Craven offers us a moody thriller set in Haiti, where voodoo reigns and re-animated corpses roam amid social unrest and political revolution. Bill Pullman is an ethnobotanist sent abroad to uncover the origins of a powder said to create zombies. Craven wanted to create a chilling drama and the studio wanted a horror film, and that divide is evident on screen. Even though these opposing genres fight for dominance, The Serpent and the Rainbow is largely successful thanks to Pullman's performance and Craven's assured direction.
After lighting the horror world on fire with The Last House on the Left and Hills, Craven slummed it a bit in the ‘80s, releasing forgettable B-movies like Swamp Thing and Deadly Blessing. Maybe he was tired of the genre that made him famous? He never explicitly said that, but the malaise is evident in those projects. Serpent gave Craven an opportunity to work horror elements into a suspenseful drama. Based on the work of botanist Wade Davis and his own novel, the film opens as Haitian Christophe Durand (Conrad Roberts) is buried. As dirt is thrown over the coffin, a tear rolls down Christophe's cheek. Years later, Dennis Alan (Pullman) searches for a non-mythical puppeteer behind purported zombies, and meets a very-much-alive Christophe, now lurking in the same graveyard in which he was buried. Alan's digging attracts the ire of local paramilitary officer Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), and sinister Voodoo rituals prove as dangerous as the social unrest brewing in the streets of Port-au-Prince.
Craven clearly wanted to explore the relationship between fringe cultures and conduct and mass insurrection. The film is initially a slow burn, as Pullman's Alan and local doctor Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson) meet a witch doctor about a drug said to raise the dead. Alan is paid by a pharmaceutical company hungry to use the drug as anesthesia, but he falls deeper into a dark Haitian Voodoo culture, where dangerous rituals are performed and spirits conjured. There is a stark contrast between the safe, touristy Voodoo staged during a lively public performance and the soul-stealing work behind the scenes, and Craven sets this action amid a revolution to remind viewers that panicking loyalists are skeptical of outsider involvement in the country. Peytraud is such a loyalist, and he warns Alan to leave Haiti undisturbed. Lawlessness and disorder allow Peytraud and his legion to shift their weight around with ease, and Alan's life is threatened throughout his stay.
Things go off the rails in the final act, where's it is clear the studio pushed for a dive into the supernatural. There are some frightening hallucination scenes and plenty of tension in the first half, but the all-out spook show during the finale feels a bit undignified. Craven had to give here, or likely risked having the film taken out of his hands. Despite the stumbling narrative, there is plenty to like about The Serpent and the Rainbow. The camera work and John Lindley's cinematography are gorgeous, and Craven shot on location in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. There are some impressive practical effects from David and Lance Anderson. Of note are the scene where Alan is buried alive and the jolt caused by a creepy female corpse with a serpent in its mouth. Pullman's performance is excellent, as is the work from Roberts and Tyson. The mostly true story is a unique property, and Craven brought in an effective, suspenseful drama despite making the aforementioned concessions to his backers.
Shout! Factory/Scream Factory brings the film to Blu-ray for Universal Studios. The 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is a newly created transfer struck from the film's interpositive, and the results are quite pleasing. This is definitely one of the label's best-looking Blu-rays, and the extra work put into the image is evident. The whole thing is blissfully unmolested by digital noise reduction and edge enhancement. There is plenty of natural film grain that does not clump or blur, and the print is largely clean and free of debris. Skin tones are accurate, and colors are nicely saturated. This is a bold, colorful film, and the transfer really pops in these scenes. Fine-object detail is abundant, and wide shots are well resolved, with stable contrast and sharpness. Black levels are mostly solid, with only a bit of black crush in darker, outdoor scenes. Only a couple of shots display some softness and a lack of definition, which is not unexpected for a late ‘80s, lower budget film.
The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio stereo mix does not rival modern theatrical mixes, but the track is plenty immersive, with good fidelity and range. Dialogue is clear and without distortion, whether delivered from the center channel or surrounds. Occasional overcrowding does occur, with dialogue sounding slightly overwhelmed during a couple of action moments. There are some nice ambient and action effects that travel to the surrounds, and Brad Fiedel's spooky score is given appropriate respect. English subtitles are available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc "Collector's Edition" comes in a standard case with dual-sided artwork. On the front is the newly commissioned artwork, and the reverse sports the theatrical artwork. A slipcover offers the new artwork in vibrant color. This is not the most loaded Scream Factory Blu-ray to date, and it's a shame we don't get the opportunity to hear from Craven. What is provided is certainly worthwhile: The Audio Commentary by Bill Pullman is moderated by Rob Galluzzo, and Pullman provides interesting insight into getting cast, shooting in Haiti, working with Craven, and the film's unique themes. The newly created The Making of The Serpent and the Rainbow (23:57/HD) offers interviews from Pullman, Davis, Lindley and both Andersons. This is a concise, focused discussion of the film, and I particularly liked hearing from Davis. He thinks the film suffers because it sanitizes Voodoo. No mention is made of his original desire to have Peter Weir direct and Mel Gibson star in an adaptation. Things wrap up with a Still Gallery (5:10/HD), a TV Spot (0:31/HD) and the Theatrical Trailer (1:23/HD).
While The Serpent and the Rainbow does not unspool as quite the film director Wes Craven intended to make, it is still an involving project from the late horror icon. Bill Pullman gives a good performance as an ethnobotanist searching for a zombie-making drug in Haiti amid a political revolution. Craven is more concerned with suspense and atmosphere than gore as he dives into Voodoo, but the studio's input is clear in the tonally different finale. Shout! Factory's Collector's Edition Blu-ray offers excellent picture and sound, as well as some worthwhile, newly created bonus items. Highly Recommended.