Director Wes Craven has long been known as a “master of horror” by film critics and fans alike. His films have experimented with fear in both the realm of reality and the supernatural more consistently than almost any other director in the genre. Craven has had a knack for exploiting gruesome killers and apathetic apparitions throughout his 40 years of movie making. In his 1988 thriller, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Craven attempted to spook audiences with through a crash course in Voodoo and zombies.
Based on a true story by Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow follows Dennis Alan, an anthropologist and ethnobotanist who is told of a man in Haiti who arose from the dead and roamed the streets of town as an zombie. Dennis is recruited by a pharmaceutical company to make a trip to Haiti and find the drug responsible for bringing the man back to life. If Dennis can isolate the active ingredient and help the company manufacture it, then they could save millions of lives while gaining millions of dollars, never mind answering the age old question of a soul’s existence. The task leads Dennis on a journey of impending doom that looms large in his future, one that becomes a constant reminder that the world of Voodoo is no place for an outsider.
It’s a Voodoo thing, you wouldn’t understand.
Craven’s filming techniques create unique moments filled with tension along with striking picturesque images of Haiti. Through a multitude of long shots and B-roll footage throughout the film, Craven showcases the beauty of Haiti’s landscape and dwellers. Occasionally throughout The Serpent and the Rainbow, Craven utilizes hand held camera to capture Dennis’ hallucinations. The effect is almost mesmerizing in parts such as when Dennis wonders the street in a daze as the camera hobbles along next to him whipping around in various directions to capture his bewilderedness. Much of the film could have benefited from more hand held shots due to the nature of its scares, but unfortunately the effect is only used minimally.
Moreover, The Serpent and The Rainbow deserves kudos for setting itself apart from others in the zombie/horror genre. While zombies are far from new in the horror films, the culture of those involved in Voodoo practices are usually marginalized or made to appear exotically frightening. The Serpent and the Rainbow not only focuses of individual people within the culture, but it also expresses the dynamics of good and evil witchcraft, giving the practice a romanticism despite it’s usually dark and horrific conceptions.
While I respect The Serpent and the Rainbow’s attempts at being different, individuality in a film means nothing when the screenplay is basically caca on top of crap. The Serpent and the Rainbow heavily indulges in the theme of surrealism for better or worse. At best, the dream like hallucinations we encounter through Dennis can be chilling and shocking. Yet, most of the time, odd and unexplained events take place just because they can. Character motivations suffer greatly in the script as the film’s villain, Captain Dargent Peytraud, is almost cartoonish in his anger and thirst for control. We never truly understand why he’s so adamant about the choices he makes because he is ultimately nothing more than the “bad guy.” Another major problem with the weak script is its inability to explain the depth of Captain Peytraud’s supernatural powers. It’s becomes even more confusing towards the film’s end when we are shown a whole multitude of acts he can manifest despite never seeing a glimpse of that at any other point in the film.
“I put a spell on you… but I’m not sure how or what I can actually do.”
Now, I’m all up for interracial dating on screen and loved seeing Bill Pullman, who resembled “True Blood” actor Alexander Skarsgard, head over heels for his work partner and Haitian doctor Marielle, however, the love angle in The Serpent and The Rainbow is forced and unnecessary. What’s even more distressing is the very awkwardly filmed sex scene that takes place out of nowhere with no indication that it’s even coming… much like Marielle on top of Dennis, am I right? Marielle is there for no other reason than to have her looks commented on by other men and to represent the damsel in distress. But hey, at least she’s a doctor right?
The best thing about that sex scene, 80’s boobs!
Sadly, The Serpent and the Rainbow is one of those films that aged poorly. Predictably bland scares seem forced, only existing as a “movie movement” that ultimately makes you question things like, “wait, why would he hit that car so hard like that?” Other times stunt doubles in fight scenes are in obvious plain sight. The most dated constituent of The Serpent and The Rainbow however, is its ever so perfectly cheesy soundtrack. At times the music reminded me of a straight throwback to 1994’s Pure Moods compilations, just with more syncopated electronic drums to attempt to capture Voudon rhythm.
Overall, Craven’s directing is pretty subpar throughout The Serpent and the Rainbow. Yes, there are some amazing shots and great use of editing and angles to accentuate the fantastic special effects and make up work featured throughout the film. But, much of The Serpent and the Rainbow is filmed like it were done by an amateur. Some scenes are so kitschy they’re laughable. One particular scene’s exectution of spirits rising out of a body almost made me spit water out of my mouth, and I had already swallowed it. At one point Dennis stands tall and proud and a beam of faint light casts over his body and his spirit animal, a jaguar, appears, growls and disappears. It’s comedic gold.
The Serpent and the Rainbow is unnerving, but mostly for the true nature of “zombie-like” drugs that exist like scopolamine, and because it plays on a likely universal fear of being buried alive. However, if you’re looking for something to scare a load in your pants this Halloween then look elsewhere. You can see scarier zombie tales from Walking Dead or even Béla Lugosi’s 1932 classic White Zombie.
Take a drink: every time you unintentionally laugh
Take a drink: for every strangely edited sequence, like the landscape montage in the beginning.
Take a drink: every time Dennis is asked to leave Haiti but doesn’t.
Take a drink: every time Dennis hallucinates.