With the loss of Wes Craven last year – which still stings the hearts of many a horror fan – the industry lost one of the absolute trailblazers in the genre. When you look at his catalog, not everything was a hit and not every movie even worked that well on its own terms, but he was always trying to reinvent both himself and the genre, beginning with the hyper-shocking ’70s movies The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, transitioning to horror-fantasies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, and eventually ushering in the postmodern horror film with Scream. But in the mid-to-late ’80s, Craven attempted to bring his brand of horror to a “mature” audience, basing a film on a powerful and popular fact-based book about real-life nightmares. The result was 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow.
Based on Wade Davis’ expose about Haitian Voodoo and “zombie” creation through neurotoxins and powders. Many of Davis’ claims were refuted by scientists, but the book itself is a fascinating excursion into this sort of dark and horrifying world where people can be drugged and paralyzed and taken for dead, only to actually really be alive and aware of everything that’s happened to them. It’s such an ordeal that after they’re dug up, their mind is blank and they are essentially very susceptible to taking orders, becoming mindless servants. It’s a terrifying thing to think about, and this was made famous by the case of Clairvius Narcisse, which the book deals with extensively.
Craven’s movie uses this as a jumping-off point but, being Wes Craven, takes it down the supernatural route, where once a person’s mind is affected by the voodoo master, their dreams, and even their actions, are forever controlled. There is startling imagery in this movie, and, like Nightmare, and the later film Shocker, it deals heavily with dream sequences and hallucinations that cause debilitating fear.
Bill Pullman plays Dr. Dennis Alan, an ethnobotanist and anthropologist from Harvard, who gets wrapped up in tribal customs. He begins in the Amazon, narrowly escaping a shaman’s wrath. He then is approached by a pharmaceutical company that wants him to investigate the drug powder used in Haiti to create zombies. They wish to manufacture a version of it to be used as the ultimate anesthetic. Great idea, of course. Alan heads to Haiti where there is a significant revolution happening and he meets a local doctor named Marielle (Cathy Tyson) who assists him – and also they get romantic because it’s a movie.
The head of the local paramilitary stranglehold, Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae, who is truly frightening in this) insists Alan leave, but he refuses. Alan then meets a local witch doctor and pays him to create the drug. All the while, Alan is plagued by increasingly disturbing nightmares involving Peytraud, whom we learn is a voodoo priest, and different horrifying things like a dead woman in a wedding gown who walks around and has snakes in her mouth and stuff. Alan is getting closer, thanks to discovering a real zombie created many years before, but each time he does, Peytraud’s threats become more intense, leading him to drive a nail through Alan’s scrotum at one point before finally dousing him with the powder.
Like a lot of Craven’s best work, it uses extensive nightmare imagery and surrealism. Dream sequences of Pullman inside a meters-deep coffin as blood begins to fill in around him, and another where he is dragged into the earth by a dozen decaying arms, go a long way to set up the horror before any of the “real” stuff happens to him and those around him, involving his paralysis and burial. Pullman’s performance during these feels incredibly genuine and you buy his fear wholeheartedly. And as his body begins to give out due to the paralysis, you really feel the horror as he collapses and grunts out the line “Don’t let them bury me…I’m not dead.”
The new collector’s edition Blu-ray from Scream Factor continues their long history of doing justice to films that might not get the love otherwise. While the extras do suffer from the lack of Craven himself (the release was dedicated to his memory), we do get a making-of featuring interviews with author Wade Davis, star Bill Pullman, director of photography John Lindley, and the special effects crew, as well as a feature commentary by Pullman, both of which are very enlightening and entertaining.
I think The Serpent and the Rainbow deserves to be recognized in the top five Wes Craven films, for its attempt to explore usually “schlocky” subject matter in a much more grown up and reverent way, as well as for his trademark use of terrifying imagery and for tackling a subject and a culture few have seen in any real fashion. It’s a movie that continues to shock nearly 30 years later, and one that makes you feel uneasy from beginning to end. That was Craven’s forte.
Images: Universal Pictures/Scream Factory