THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988) — Wes Craven’s Voodoo Nightmare

The Serpent And The Rainbow hits Blu-ray on Feb 23 from Scream Factory.

I’m going to just cut right to the chase and marvel over what an uncanny and incredible horror film The Serpent And The Rainbow is. That’s not really what director Wes Craven set out to do, nor was the book on which it’s based written that way, but by golly this is a horror picture — and a hell of a horror picture it is.

It’s impossible to go into this film without reflecting on the recent death of Craven and acknowledging his massive influence and genius. While I’ve long been a fan of A Nightmare On Elm Street, I’d only seen a handful of his other movies and his passing prompted me to personally catch up with many that I hadn’t seen before, including the Scream and The Hills Have Eyes franchises.

The Serpent And The Rainbow, though, is a film that had long cast its spell on me. When I was a kid my family went to a party with some of the other Korean families in the neighborhood and they put this movie on. Like Mr. Craven himself, I was not allowed to watch horror movies at that age, but I surreptitiously hung around sneaking glimpses of the screen, and was enchanted and terrified. I couldn’t engage with the plot, but lots of scary stuff transpired visually: a crying corpse, voodoo rites, a man being pulled underground by zombies, then again later falling into an open grave onto a corpse, elongated zombie arms reaching out of dungeon cells, and surrealistic images of death and violence.

These vivid remembrances weren’t far off, and the film actually more than lives up to my old memories. It’s filled with a sense of unease and dread, but takes the terror still one step further with a sense of authenticity and raw, primal evil. It begins by informing the audience that it’s based on a true story, and then takes the viewer on an insane and exotic journey. The movie was filmed on location in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and it shows in more ways than just the scenery. It’s really unlike any other film I can think of in terms of the immediate reality in the fiction. As described in the disc’s special features, some of the scenes that one might assume are Hollywood imagining, such as a woman eating glass and a man having needles shoved through his cheeks, are actual voodoo practitioners in an entranced state. Haitian Vooodoo’s perverse combination of natural science, witchcraft, and twisted, ritualistic Catholicism is an unsettling and hazardous mix, and it’s clear in listening to the cast and crew that the experience of making the film was bizarre and frightening one.

The plot, loosely based on the real-life experiences of author and anthropologist Wade Davis, follows an intrepid scientist named Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) who travels the globe procuring rare drugs for a pharmaceutical company. Rumors of a voodoo zombie elixir that give the appearance of death send him to the volatile nation of Haiti, where he encounters both political and spiritual opposition from Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), the evil (and terrifying looking) warlock who is also the commander of the corrupt paramilitary police force, and who not only hounds Dennis in real life but haunts his dreams as well.

As I described earlier, the surrealistic mix of nightmares, waking dreams and hallucinations provides no shortage of crazy happenings and horrifying visuals — this in addition to some real-life body horror. There’s also a scary sense of isolation of being a lone outsider in a strange and hostile land. Even though Dennis manages to find allies in a local doctor Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), witch doctor “Mozart” (Brent Jennings), and flashy voodoo priest Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield), they can afford him little protection — on the contrary, they are imperiled for helping him.

With its white protagonist in an exotic land and horror-driven take on voodoo and magic, the film could easily have fallen into racist “ooga booga” stereotypes, but the inclusion of Haitian allies — including voodoo practitioners — help deflect such negativity. Additionally, some glimpses of the more serene sides of Haitian culture, such as a mass pilgrimage to a beautiful waterfall, also help to balance the savagery (author Wade Davis cites this scene as his favorite, and the closest in keeping with his book’s theme of celebrating rather than vilifying voodoo culture).

This is where I would usually mention the things I didn’t like about the film, but I have no real complaints. A common criticism is Bill Pullman’s narration, but I found that it drove home the “true story” angle and filled in some points that may have been confusing otherwise. Jarringly surreal, expertly shot and directed, and steeped in an exotic real world that exists beyond our doorstep, The Serpent And The Rainbow is not only a great horror film, but possibly even Wes Craven’s best, and that’s coming from a huge fan of the Nightmare On Elm Street series. Highly recommended.

The Package

The Serpent And The Rainbow hits Blu-ray in a lovingly made new edition from Scream Factory, where it joins other Craven films Deadly Blessing, Swamp Thing, The People Under The Stairs, and Shocker. The disc fittingly opens with a dedication to Craven.

The package features a reversible cover featuring new artwork and the classic poster design. My copy also came with a slipcover with the newer art.

Special Features and Extras

Audio Commentary with Bill Pullman (53:28)
 Great audio interview with Bill Pullman, who calls the making of the film his biggest adventure. It’s worth noting that Bill only had a small window of availability — the commentary clocks in at a little under an hour, after which point the movie’s normal audio resumes.

The Making Of The Serpent And The Rainbow (23:57)
 A very interesting look at the making of the film, which sounds as if it was nearly as weird and perilous as the film itself. Features cinematographer John Lindley, author Wade Davis, and father-son FX team Lance and Dave Anderson. Also some audio from Bill Pullman, which is pulled from his commentary. Some of the highlights include Wade comparing the film with the book, Craven and Wade’s desire to make a more mainstream political drama along the lines of The Year Of Living Dangerously (while the studio mandated a horror movie), and various descriptions of the actual batshit insanity of the things they experienced in Haiti and the reality driving the fiction.

Theatrical Trailer (1:23)

TV Spot (0:31)

Photo Gallery (5:10)

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
 [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]

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