The Film: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
The Principles: Written by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman Directed by Wes Craven Starring Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, and Paul Winfield
The Premise: An anthropologist (Bill Pullman) is sent to Haiti by a pharmaceutical company in order to investigate a compound that seemingly revives dead people. In the midst of this journey, he runs afoul of the local oppressive government and becomes enemies with a demented officer (Zakes Mokae) who also happens to be a practitioner of black voodoo magic.
Is It Good?: It’s very nearly great. It would have been really easy for the movie to simply be a voodoo horror flick, but Craven and his screenwriters decided to make a political drama film with a horror movie draped across its shoulders. Setting the film amidst the tumultuous reign and overthrow of President Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier lends a whole different kind of tension to the film’s atmosphere, and it also stresses how exploratory and celebratory the film is when it comes to Haitian history and culture.
In interviews, Craven was always someone who was very aware of world events and atrocities, and he brings that viewpoint to The Serpent and the Rainbow without ever nosediving into exploitation. Though the nature of the story demands more outlandish elements, you can tell that Craven was drawn in by the slightly more adult story. That’s not to take away from the horror bits, because they are pretty effective and fun. Once again, Craven uses the dreamscape to craft some haunting imagery (Bill Pullman’s premonition about being buried alive is genuinely fantastic) as well as some nice spook-a-blast gags like a snake shooting out of a corpse’s mouth or Paul Winfield ripping his own head off.
Though both leads give thoroughly acceptable performances, this film belongs to its villain, Peytraud (played by Dust Devil‘s Zakes Mokae). He’s a malicious captain in Duvalier’s secret police, and he maintains his power by practicing evil magic. This is where the division of the film comes into place. The movie is ostensibly about Bill Pullman’s character going to Haiti to research the practice of zombification, but it turns into an outright magic duel at the end, complete with souls escaping from jars and a jaguar spirit animal. I like the combination of serious examination and ridiculous fantasy, but I can see it not working for some people. Still, Zakes Mokae makes it work. He oozes menace with just a simple smile, and his interrogation scene makes Le Chiffre’s from Casino Royale look like a cakewalk.
The Serpent and the Rainbow is one of Craven’s more sophisticated pieces (especially when you see it’s sandwiched between two zanier films: Deadly Friend and Shocker), but it doesn’t sacrifice its horror trappings in order to achieve that. It has a wider-reaching appeal than some of his more niche offerings, and that alone makes it something special. Did I also mention that a snake shoots out of a corpse’s mouth and Paul Winfield rips his own head off?
Random Anecdotes: Wade Davis, the author of the book that this film is based on, has also had his work used as the basis for multiple episodes of The X-Files. One episode, “Fresh Bones”, even features a burial that’s quite similar to the one in The Serpent and the Rainbow.
While filming in Haiti, the civil unrest forced the production to relocate to the Dominican Republic for the remainder of the shoot.
This was the first of Craven’s films that he did not have to resubmit to the MPAA in order to secure an R rating.
Cinematic Soulmates: Sugar Hill (1974), Wake in Fright (1971), White Zombie (1932)