Wes Craven is – oh, how shall I put this? – an uneven film-maker. He’s had the occasional flash of brilliance, some total crap, and everything in between. Yet it seems he’s not known for his most interesting films, one of which is the voodoo-horror The Serpent And The Rainbow.
The story begins in Haiti in the late 1970s, when a man is declared dead at a local hospital. But when he’s buried (without embalming, and I’m not sure if this is plot convenience or just the way things were done in Haiti), as his sister weeps loudly and calls the man’s name, we see a tear trickle down his face…and then the grave gets filled in. Not good.
Jump forward seven years, and pharmaceutical researcher Dennis Alan (a young Bill Pullman, skinny and floppy-haired) is visiting a shaman in the Amazon to get some local concoction. The shaman insists that Dennis drink some; he obliges and has a nice little vision sequence in which he learns that his spirit animal is a jaguar. Yes this will become relevant later on, as will the mysterious, evil-looking guy who appears in the vision.
(Am I the only one who doesn’t want to know what their spirit guide is? I’m just worried that it would be something really mundane, like a hamster, or just plain goofy, like a frilled lizard.)
Anyway, no sooner is he back from the Amazon then Dennis gets another assignment – he’s to go to Haiti and look into reports of a drug that turns people into zombies. Seems the gentleman who was buried in the movie’s opening segment has been seen, alive and not-so-well.
Despite Haiti being a less-than-fun place in the last days of the Baby Doc Duvalier regime, Dennis arrives there and meets a smokin’ hot lady doctor (Cathy Tyson) who’s trying to help the zombie man. She takes him around Haiti and along with a local wheeler-dealer (Paul Winfield, who doesn’t have enough screen time) they introduce Dennis to the positive side of voodoo in Haiti. Unfortunately Dennis also runs into Peytraud (Zakes Mokae in a scary, captivating performance) who not only is the head of the local secret police, but a voodoo sorcerer as well. Soon Dennis is in WAY over his head, both in the regular world, and in the supernatural one.
It’s far from a perfect film, but The Serpent and the Rainbow is both creepy and entertaining. There’s a perfect blend of the real (zombies are created with a drug, with the subsequent behavior attributable to physical and mental trauma) and the supernatural (the magical properties of voodoo) in the story. The horrors take a little while in coming, but it’s all for the best as the movie sets up the scene and the players. Once they do come, Craven uses the blend of real and supernatural to let loose with a number of dream and hallucination scenes. And there’s a good old-fashioned interrogation scene that shows almost nothing, but the implications… let’s just say the menfolk in particular won’t enjoy this part.
The film also makes a nice parallel between the oppressed people of Haiti and the captured souls of those who’ve been zombified; and the use of voodoo never feels exploitative (for a contrast see the same year’s Santeria horror film The Believers – on second thought, don’t see it).
That said, there are certainly flaws. Bill Pullman is his usual likable-but-wooden self, and only really takes charge on screen when he’s screaming, being buried alive, or recovering from zombie drugs. His weak voice-over narration doesn’t help. Cathy Tyson’s beauty makes up for a weak performance, but thankfully we have Paul Winfield and Zakes Mokae on hand. The latter gives an excellent performance, genuinely frightening as a man who will use all his considerable power (both as head of the secret police and as a voodoo sorcerer) to torture and enslave. It’s not about material gain; at one point a torture victim asks what he wants. The reply: “I want to hear you scream.”
It’s an entertaining yarn with just the right amount of chills that are well executed, a decent story and even a bit of subtext if that’s your cup of tea. If you need a Craven fix, by all means watch this instead of the ugly-and-overrated The Hills Have Eyes.
Extras are limited to a trailer and “recommendations” (for other Craven films by golly!). It’s a shame, as I’d have loved to see some features on the making of the film or how afar the end product strayed from its original source, a serious book about research into voodoo and zombie drugs.