Review: The Serpent and the Rainbow (dir. Wes Craven, 1988)

The Serpent and the Rainbow

The Serpent and the Rainbow
USA, 1988
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Richard Maxwell & Adam Rodman

Review by N Emmett.

It is 1985, and Haiti is under the regime on Jean-Claude Duvalier. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman), an American researcher, has suffered from nightmarish visions ever since ingesting an unknown concoction during a trip to the Amazon. He is sent to Haiti on a mission to investigate the alleged resurrection of a zombie, and try to find a rational explanation for the seemingly supernatural occurrence.

When he arrives in Haiti, Alan meets up with Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson) who serves as his guide to the land of Vodou. He then finds out that he must tangle not only with zombies, but also with a secret police force which will stop at nothing to quash perceived radicals – such as Duchamp…

The Serpent and the Rainbow is one of those “based on a true story” horror films. This time, the source material is Wade Davis’ book The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombies, and Magic, which posited a scientific basis for the legend of zombies.

A good deal of artistic license was necessary to make Davis’ account the stuff of Hollywood horror. The resulting fictionalisation is a strange mix indeed: it keeps Davis’ rationalisation of the zombie phenomenon while simultaneously throwing in a number of genuine supernatural elements, including serp1psychic premonitions, ghosts, mind control and spirit animals.

Haiti, shown to us through the eyes of a condescending and materialistic white American, is presented as an exotic land of magic and danger. As with Pre-Romero zombie films from White Zombie to Plague of the Zombies, The Serpent and the Rainbow uses a magician as the central villain: Dargent Peytraud, played by Zakes Mokae.

As well as being a bokor, Peytraud is the chief of the secret police; the scenes in which he acts in this latter role prefigure Pan’s Labyrinth by contrasting the brutalities of dictatorship with the more fanciful horrors seen elsewhere in the film.

Vserp2odou has a more positive representative in the form of Duchamp (is it just coincidence that her actress has a lighter skin than the rest of the black cast…?) The film uses this character to dispel notions that Haitian religion is all black magic and zombies, with one scene showing her educating Alan on the influence of Catholicism on Vodou. This is not much, but the movie is still slightly more balanced in its portrayal of Vodou than many other genre films.

For its first two acts The Serpent and the Rainbow resembles an Indiana Jones film without the humour or action. Having established its exotic backdrop, the film is content to let its one-note characters stroll through a flat narrative. It seems reluctance to leave anything to the audience’s imagination, with Alan repeatedly explaining plot points in a throaty, noir-like narration; he comes serp4across more as a bored tour guide than a haggard traveller. Certain plot threads, particularly Alan’s romance with Duchamp, are lazily plonked into the script solely to appease the conventions of Hollywood genre.

For the most part, the main areas in which the film stands out are the hallucination sequences. Director Wes Craven clearly knows a thing or two about nightmares, and skilfully blurs the line between fantasy and reality as Alan slips in and out of his visions. The central image across the hallucinations is a decomposed woman with a bridal veil and a snake for a tongue – a figure with hefty folkloric resonance.

The film finally comes alive in its third act, when it throws off any pretences toward realism. As Peytraud dons his ritual robes and begins flinging long-distance curses at Alan, the story becomes a serp3supernatural horror adventure in the manner of The Devil Rides Out.

Admittedly, come the finale, Craven ends up over-egging the pudding. The head of the secret police is rather absurdly vanquished when Alan smashes a set of horcrux-like jars, only to return – in the tradition of Freddy Krueger – as a fire-scarred ghost. After spending most of its duration being a little too coy about its supernatural elements, the film flings everything it has at its audience during this convoluted climax.

The Serpent and the Rainbow is a fine example of a curate’s egg. It has its share of flat stretches and conceptual misjudgements, but Craven’s knack for dark fantasy shines through.