Tuesday, November 10

Some quick thoughts on The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

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Bill Pullman stars as a top level scientist with a leading American pharmaceutical who travels to Haiti to retrieve a sample of "zombie powder" for his employer to see if any medical value (errr...profit) can be derived in discovering its supposed voodoo secrets. Based on The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist's Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic by Wade Davis.

Aside from Elm Street and Barbeau's astonishing chest in Swamp Thing, this is generally considered Craven's best '80s project (Horace Pinker naturally disagrees), but it's not without problems. The concept of a "serious" endeavor in bringing zombie mythos into present day and back to its homeland could prove excellent, but Wes settles for an above average albeit atypical late '80s/early '90s horror outing. Despite the fluid mostly on-location shooting don't expect a consistently eerie atmosphere or an interesting history lesson.

Craven instead focuses his attention on staging a cavalcade of the expected lurid ritual, third world rusty nails in scrotums, and ghostly grab bags without much background (or accuracy) besides the Haitian people being deeply religious, practitioners of voodoo (vodou), and the country being embroiled in seemingly perpetual societal strife. Some have pointed to a possible political metaphor with the lead baddie maintaining his ruler status by damning his opposers with black arts, but Serpent doesn't really flesh this theme out. The only direct reference is the mention of a once well-respected man now reduced to a zombified fright shunned by his community. All this is quite irritating as Craven seems determined to deliver a film narrowly confined to mainstream horror fare without ever displaying the courage to bend and meld genres to produce something grander or at least form a statement that transcends what it is. This seems so damn close too...

Pullman doesn't help, not imbuing his character with anything except probably just playing himself in whacked out mode, with lame narration that seems there only to hold the hands of those who can't keep up. The last half stuffs all sorts of convoluted twists that should have been scattered throughout more evenly. The climax is usual for the era consisting of an explosive, optical effects-laded good guy vs. bad guy blow out.

As this unnuanced Serpent slithered on, I concluded it's best to accept it as an entertaining B-flick that skips along its reality-based themes like a flat stone thrown by a director with "deliver a horror flick" intentions mandated by the financing studio. It's not bad at all when approached on those terms. This potential for greatness born from the concept still exists and maybe with this on-going box office zombie boom (after everyone gets tired of Olympic-speed maniac hordes) we'll witness another trek back into the darker corners of Haiti lore. Are you listening Peter or Guillermo?

As sidenotes, I haven't seen the Universal DVD re-release, but Image Entertainment's initial U.S. DVD looks ridiculously good for a single layer disc from 1998. Also the metallic backbeat and horns of Brad Fiedel's main theme strongly quotes the composer's iconic theme for 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

HorrorBlips: vote it up!

6 comments:

J. Astro said...

I think this actually a powerful film ruined by the hokey finale.

2vs8 said...

one of the most underrated films, i saw this in the theater on halloween night many moons again... and at the part of nail meets the wiener, every man grunted in pain. and when he was in the coffin and the screen is black... great visual without seeing anything...

sidenote: really fat guy dresses up as batman [mk], great costume... huge distraction as he sat in the middle and all you could see a mound with pointy ears...

great memory, thanks for your thoughts...

Jayson said...

I gotta disagree, I mean it's not bad, but it could have much more. The finale just didn't hurt it, but it's slam bang mentality instead of going a more quiet route.

KFelon said...

Was anyone else scared of the cover for this when they were younger? For some reason the cover always bothered me, possibly more than any other cover in the horror section at the local Mom & Pop video shop. I don't know if it was because the kid looks like he's being buried alive or because he looks half dead half alive.

Jayson said...

That's actually Pullman re-emerging from being buried. :-P

KFelon said...

I'll be damned it sure is. I always thought it was some kid in a casket.

...do you dare tread upon the staircase?
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