Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: The Serpent and the Rainbow

This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch at least one horror movie a day. Today’s pick is the Apocalypse Now of horror movies in that just about everyone almost died and/or lost their minds while making it.

Wes Craven’s 1988 zombie drama The Serpent and the Rainbow is sort of like, as Joe Bob Briggs put it, “Freddy Krueger puts together a reggae band and starts slime-dancing behind your eyeballs.”

Wait, what?

It makes sense once you’ve seen the movie.

Bill Pullman plays Dennis Alan, a Harvard ethnobotanist who travels south to Haiti to study voodoo, observe some ancient sex rituals (as you do), and get to the bottom of the age-old question: Can these people create zombies or not? In the process, he falls in love with a local scientist (Cathy Tyson) and stumbles into a conspiracy involving Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), the head of the Tonton Macoute, a secret police unit so scary the locals named it after an evil Santa Claus figure said to disappear children by eating them.

Mokae told Craven he could easily play the character because he understood the mind of such a monster. He’d already met several just like Peytraud while growing up in South Africa where he was tortured and had to watch loved ones killed right in front of him.

Peytraud tries intimidation and torture to drive Alan out of Haiti, fearful this Westerner will uncover their local secrets. Yet, Alan persists. Screw it, Peytraud concludes, we just have to turn this guy into a zombie (more on the “how” of that later). It’s something Peytraud does a lot, since we eventually learn he has a thing for turning people into zombies and stealing their souls. Also, Peytraud seems to be able to insert himself into people’s dreams. Multi-talented guy, clearly.

Or at least that’s what Alan thinks.

Honestly, at a certain point Alan has been exposed to so many hallucinogens he doesn’t know what’s real and what isn’t, which is where Craven’s obvious prowess for dream imagery/sequences comes in handy. Snakes coming out of mouths. Giant, menacing jaguars. Red-clad priests carrying coffins across graveyards. All plucked straight from Craven’s own nightmares and inserted into the movie.

As the man himself later said, “[Serpent and the Rainbow] was my first movie out of the horror genre in the sense that it had a love story and politics and a big budget of $11 million. It had big crowds, 4,000 people in one scene. On the other hand, when the entire third act takes place within a hallucination of the main character and we go inside his mind, that’s pure Wes Craven stuff.”

Got to love a director who refers to himself in the third person.

Craven came to the project fresh off the disappointment of the 1986 flop Deadly Friend, a dialogue-heavy sci-fi thriller that was cut-up and refashioned by the studio into something more horrific and befitting what audiences expected from the guy who made Nightmare on Elm Street. The Serpent and the Rainbow continued his trend of preferring to move away from the horror genre, and he took great pride in getting to work with such a larger budget and explore different themes. As he alluded to, however, the third act bares more than a passing resemblance to a final battle with Freddy.

That gives The Serpent and the Rainbow, as a whole, a rather strange energy. It has a quasi-documentary feel to its first half, with Pullman solemnly narrating his tense navigation of the local customs and uneasy political atmosphere. Once the script reveals the truth of zombieism in Haiti – that it’s part of a voodoo ritual involving a special powder which merely makes someone look dead and leaves them entirely conscious as they’re buried alive – the horror is undeniably real. “Don’t let them bury me – I’m not dead!” cries Alan in a line which also doubled as one of the film’s taglines.

Bravo ranked this the 29th scariest movie moment of all time

But then this grounded approach to the truth of zombieism is followed by a go-for-broke supernatural finale, somewhat at odds with the rest of the movie. In Pullman’s Shout Factory Blu-Ray commentary for the film, he argues this finale was Craven’s awkward concession to the studio to deliver something a little more commercial and of a piece with his body of work to that point. Others have argued it’s actually the natural end for the film’s steady progression of weirdness. I lean more toward Pullman, however.

At least take me out to dinner first. Wait. What do you mean I AM the dinner?

Beyond just the ending, opinions on the film vary overall. Diabolique Magazine panned, “Although Craven was certainly adept at turning suburbia into a landscape of nightmares, here he seems slightly out of his element. If there’s one opinion I hold strongly about this film, it’s this—it had potential to be something far greater than the end results were.” Horror expert Kim Newman argued in Nightmare Movies, “There are too many of the director’s trademark nightmares, and the true story is bent into some peculiar shapes, but the film does take on a heady cocktail of Third World politics, mysticism, medical pioneering, action-adventure, and interracial romance.”

My take is that The Serpent and the Rainbow takes every horror fan’s dream – Craven and zombies, together at last – and presents a surprisingly mature depiction of what was then science’s best understanding of the reality behind zombieism. Those wanting their vintage Craven horror get what they’ve been waiting for at the end, but along the way they’ve been treated to a love story and political thriller about a country overrun by corruption and on the palpable cusp of revolution. It’s not quite what it could have been, but it’s truly a zombie movie quite unlike most others you’ll ever see.

Scarier than the actual movie, however, is the story of how it was made. There really was a Harvard scientist who went to Haiti. Voodoo tribes do allegedly use special powders, chemicals and poisonous to turn people into “zombies.” And when Wes Craven and crew went to Haiti to make their movie the screenwriter lost his mind and the entire crew almost died. But that’s a story for a different article….

Which I totally wrote and you can read right here.

Here’s What Else We’ve Watched So Far:

Tomorrow: The Babadook, Under the Shadow & Dark Water


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