There has been something of a critical reevaluation of “The Serpent and the Rainbow” in the last decade. Upon original release, the film was only a modest box office success and was critically divisive. For years, nobody talked about the movie. Until recently, when it started cropping up on lists like “Underrated Horror Classics” or “Scariest Movie Moments.” In his book, “A Year at the Movies,” Kevin Murphy says the film is one of three to ever actually scare him. This was an odd discovery for me since, for the longest time, I considered “The Serpent and the Rainbow” to be that mediocre Wes Craven movie that, for some reason, got played incessantly on cable.
The film finds Bill Pullman’s Dennis Alan, an ethnobotanist, hired by a pharmaceutical corporation to hunt down the infamous powder used to create zombies. While in Haiti, he finds love with a beautiful doctor and crosses the local corrupt government. The deeper he goes in uncovering the secrets of the zombie powder, the deeper he is drawn into the terrifying world of voodoo black magic. The story is loosely based off the non-fiction book by Wade Davis and directly adapts the semi-urban legend of infamous zombie Clairvius Narcisse. In real life, Mr. Davis has pointed out that he was never zombified and never fought an evil Houngan with his jaguar spirit totem.
It’s apparent that this is another job Wes Craven got because of “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” You can’t say the producers didn’t get what they paid for. The numerous nightmare and hallucination sequences are by far the best moments in “The Serpent and the Rainbow.” The movie shows it’s strength for this early on when Bill Pullman is pulled into a black pit in the ground by a collection of grasping hands. There’s another creepy moment involving a walking corpse dressed in a white gown, slowly moving towards the protagonist. For me, the stand-out sequence starts slowly, with a strange burning boat floating on the water. This leads to a moment of claustrophobic horror, the room behind him shrinking into a coffin that slowly fills with blood. It’s a surreal, frightening moment and one that the film never tops. The fantastic sound design and frequently excellent score helps the movie along during these scenes.
Scenes that do work are sometimes immediately undermined. The opening hallucination fades into a cheesy looking green screen effect. Jump scares are only truly used once or twice. One, which ends with Pullman rolling into an open grave, actually isn’t bad. I still think they squander atmosphere. A bizarre dance sequence works well until the end when a grown man is tossed across the room in an unconvincing manner. The sight of a crucified pig is startling but the way that attack is settled is less so. A decomposed hand reaching out of a bowl of soup is creepy. A grown woman biting down on glass, swinging a serving knife around, and talking in a man’s voice isn’t. Undoubtedly the film’s centerpiece was meant to be the scene where we see a man buried from the buried’s perspective. Though decent, it never creates the intensity of earlier nightmare sequences. Worse, the moment is resolved with a clumsy plot device, an earlier character being revealed as nothing more then a lazy deus ex machina.
The movie moves into overt horror imagery at the end. There’s cool stuff here, like a zombie tearing his own head off and throwing it, or a man dangling upside down over a staircase. However, other elements come off as silly, like a chair creaking around or rubbery, long arms reaching out of doors. The finale sees the film becoming an action movie. Our formerly meek hero is suddenly throwing the bad guy into shelves, yelling swear words, and punching him in the face. It’s truly out of place and feels like the result of studio interference or test audience disapproval.
not the same person as Bill Paxton, is fine. Pullman is at his best when haggling for zombie powder, screaming in terror, or questioning the legitimacy of events. The problems with his character comes solely from the script. A heavy-handed voice over frequently puts too fine a point on the film’s themes. The voice over is used to awkwardly link scenes together. From time to time, Pullman has to deliver flat exposition about what voodoo is and the creation of the zombie powder. Early on, the jaguar is introduced as his power animal. His reaction to the animal represents his character’s developing arc. All of this is overly obvious.
The supporting cast is filled with recognizable character actors. Paul Winfield, typically, brings a great deal of substance to his small role. Cathy Tyson as the love interest delivers at least one great moment when criticizing Pullman’s character. Sadly, their romance is nothing but perfunctory. There’s no romantic sparks between the two. You never feel an attraction, even when they are entwine in a steamy love scene. The romance is even more problematic when it becomes Pullman’s primary reason to return to Haiti in the second act. Zakes Mokae and Brent Jennings are the true stand-outs in the cast. Mokae plays the extremely ominous villain. He’s sadistic in a matter-of-fact fashion and takes great joy in his evil acts. Mokae’s performance is glowering and he packs every line with sinister intent. Jennings, meanwhile, is the closest thing the picture has to comic relief. His character has integrity despite being a con man. Jennings jumps between jovial and stern nicely. A small scene on a plane right before lift-off showcases Jennings’ charm the best. Michael Gough shows up for a near cameo, bringing all the charm you expect from the veteran actor.
At this point in his career, Wes Craven had developed into a fully commercial filmmaker. “The Serpent and the Rainbow” is the first film where it appears he actually had a decent budget. He shows this off with long helicopter shots of the lovely Amazon rain forest. Haiti’s colorful culture is used as well, such as a great shot of a crowd marching up the streets, each person holding a candle. Over all, there’s none of the roughness that characterized Craven’s earliest films.