Tense, atmospheric voodoo adventure from Wes Craven. Shout!’s Scream Factory line, along with Universal, has released THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, the 1988 thriller directed by horror master Craven, and starring Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, Brent Jennings, Conrad Roberts, Paul Guilfoyle, and Michael Gough. Quite loosely “inspired” by ethnobotonist Wade Davis’ 1985 best-selling account of his search for so-called “zombie” powder in Haiti, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW was initially designed as a way for the A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET director to move upmarket into so-called “mainstream” moviemaking. What wound up on screen, though, is a little bit of Val Lewton, Fritz Lang, and Peter Weir, mixed in with a whole lot of Craven’s penchant for time-twisty nightmarish shocks, resulting in an entertaining — if a tad scattershot —horror hybrid. Speaking of scattershot...how about that new, informative commentary track here, where Bill Pullman just ups and walks out half way through to catch a plane? A new making-of featurette, theatrical and TV trailers, and a photo gallery round out the bonuses.
Haiti, 1978. Native Christophe Durand (Conrad Roberts, TV's THE DOCTORS) is pronounced dead by an American physician and buried the next day, as Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae, FRAGMENT OF FEAR, THE ISLAND), the Chief of the TonTon Macoutes — the vicious police force that terrorizes Haiti for dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier — looks on. There’s only one problem: Durand’s “corpse” is crying as the dirt is shoveled onto the coffin. Fast-forward to the Amazon Basin, 1985. Harvard-educated ethnobotanist Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman, INDEPENDENCE DAY, SPACEBALLS), working the Rio Negro Botanical Expedition, meets with a local shaman in the hopes of scoring wild, exotic plants that may be used in Western medicine. Forced by custom to partake of the drug, Dr. Alan experiences several frightening hallucinations, culminating in the shaman changing into Dargent Peytraud...whom Dr. Alan has never met. Dennis’ “trip” turns worse when his helicopter pilot is killed and he’s forced to travel 200 miles through the jungle to safety. Back in Boston, such bravery gets him mentioned by Dennis’ old prof, Dr. Schoonbacher (Michael Gough, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, TROG) to Andrew Cassedy (Paul Guilfoyle, HOWARD THE DUCK, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL), the head of big pharm’s BioCorp. Cassedy thinks Dennis is just the kind of resourceful, adventurous scientist capable of traveling to Haiti to uncover what drug made it possible for Christophe Durand to be “brought back from the dead,” since Durand, now a “zombie” under a voodoo spell, has recently been spotted. Such a drug could be a miracle anesthetic, saving tens of thousands of lives in the Western world.
Dennis’ contact in Haiti is beautiful Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson, MONA LISA) who runs a clinic where several zombies are kept. She in turns introduces Dennis to Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield, SOUNDER, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN), an influential businessman and nightclub owner who bowdlerizes the local voodoo religion into floor shows for tourists’ cheap thrills. Celine reluctantly gives Dennis the name of a man who makes the so-called “zombie” power: Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings, ALONE IN THE DARK, RED HEAT) who first tries to scam the savvy Dennis, before engaging Dennis to help make the real thing. Dennis’ dedication to his mission borders on the insane, particularly after Peytraud’s numerous warnings to get out of Haiti...including Peytraud nailing Dennis’ scrotum to a chair. If Dennis gets the “zombie” powder out of Haiti, will his nightmares about Peytraud stop...or will Peytraud’s evil pursue him all the way to the U.S.?
Some critics and fans peg THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW as Wes Craven's first attempt to climb up the movie-making food chain, leaving behind supposedly less-respectable exploitation horror efforts like THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, SWAMP THING, and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, to move into more mainstream productions that featured a bit more scope (the Haitian and Dominican Republic locations here), more complex thematics (SERPENT's subtexts concerning Haitian society and voodoo, and the resulting culture clash for the white protagonist), and most importantly: less outright, explicit horror elements. It's a theory that misses some big points. Granted, critics and Hollywood big-wigs may have looked down their noses at the horror genre during this time period...but those same suits didn't turn down the big profits that Craven delivered on his tiny budgets (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET returned over $25 million 1984 dollars on a $1.8 million dollar investment). As well, some perceptive critics recognized Craven's unique facility within the genre early on, tagging him as a horror director working several levels above the average slasher hack. As for the notion that THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW was Craven's first attempt at "breaking out" of the straight horror genre, that ignores Craven's earlier 1986 sci-fi love story, DEADLY FRIEND, which was turned into a more violent, explicit horror outing when Warner Bros. forced Craven to juice up the proceedings after a bad test screening.
According to sources, including Bill Pullman's commentary track found on this disc, Craven may have indeed thought he was going to be allowed to keep THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW's overall tone more shaded, focusing on atmosphere and suspense over straight-ahead gore and shocks...but before long he was being pressured by Universal Pictures to ramp up the special effects, even to the point of doing extensive re-shoots back in Hollywood after the production wrapped. It's not hard to see where those effects-heavy sequences come in the movie; during THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW first three-fourths, it plays very much like a kind of occult hybrid of Val Lewton's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and Peter Weir's THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY — the latter an inspiration that author Wade Davis thought he was getting when he sold the movie rights to his book (he specifically requested Mel Gibson and director Weir for SERPENT). By the movie's silly (but well-engineered) finale, big special effects swamp Craven's carefully built suspense, certainly giving the audience a blow-out leaving the theater...but in the process negating much of the genuinely scary tension that came before.
Craven's opening, set in
Haiti seven years before the main story's timeline, immediately unsettles the
viewer without resorting to overt shocks. With the aid of cinematographer John
Lindley's (THE STEPFATHER, LEGION) spooky lighting and composer Brad Fiedel's
(THE TERMINATOR, FRIGHT NIGHT) menacing music, our immersion into Haiti's voodoo
culture — corrupted and manipulated by Baby Doc's TonTon Macoutes —
is arresting, highlighted by a crying Conrad Roberts' live burial, a terrifying
image smartly linked by Craven with his earlier shot of a doctor sticking a
needle in “dead” Roberts' unmoving eye. Pullman's Indiana Jones
on LSD intro keeps the nightmare going, as Dr. Alan gets high and wrestles his
jaguar spirit totem, before he meets Zakes Mokae in a foreshadowing hallucination.
With Craven employing doomed noir narration that sounds like a cross between
Bogie and BLADE RUNNER, Alan's nightmare deepens as tries to navigate a Haiti
he can't possibly fathom (Winfield's character says, "In Haiti, there are
secrets we even keep from ourselves,"). Craven, crowding his mise-en-scene
with palpably authentic Haitian color (the voodoo rituals were the real deal
— not touristy productions staged for the cameras), begins to introduce
— lightly — some rather interesting tangents from Richard Maxwell's
(THE CHALLENGE) and Adam Rodman's script, including the notions of science not
conflicting with the voodoo faith (Tyson's doctor character, who also gives
herself over freely to possession), as well as the manipulation of religion
in the service of a terroristic regime.
Craven doesn’t forget to scare us, sprinkling in some effective grabbers — the little old lady corpse with the giant snake leaping out of her mouth, the coffin that drowns Pullman in blood, the scrotum torture that’s a highlight of suggestive editing — in-between the genuinely effective set pieces, such as the candle-lit procession of 6,000 believers, many actually possessed, trailing through the jungle. Craven’s overall effect is decidedly old-style, atmospheric noir creepiness, rather than Freddy Krueger slash-a-minute mayhem. However, once Pullman is kicked out of Haiti, and Mokae’s evil follows him to Boston...only to prompt Pullman to illogically return to the island, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW comes unglued. The movie’s primo scare — Pullman buried alive with a tarantula calmly walking across his eyeball — is the scene everyone remembers from THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (the effect in a dead quiet, pitch black movie theater, with Pullman screaming in the inky void, was remarkable). But inexplicably, Craven pulls his punch. Just when we feel the true horror of the moment wash over us — one of man’s worst fears visualized — he abruptly cuts the scene off and rescues Pullman far too quickly. Before we know it, Tyson is almost getting de-nogginized while we watch news footage of “Baby Doc” being expelled from the country, and the people rioting in the streets (why drag “real” politics in at the last minute, when the earlier implication of political corruption melding with mysterious voodoo was far more effective?). Pullman battles Mokae (or does he?) on an obvious Hollywood soundstage in a triple “gotcha” special-effects laden finale that totally negates the sensuous, suggestive suspense that preceded it. It’s a goofball ending for such an initially intriguing effort.
Scream Factory’s 1080p HD 1.85:1 transfer looks a bit darker, a bit more muddy than I remember the movie’s image on the big screen (granted, that was a long time ago). Colors vary somewhat from scene to scene: luminous, with quite a bit of depth, then glum. Fine image detail is only okay, while blacks are reasonably solid. Grain structure is fairly loose at times, during the nighttime scenes. A solid presentation...but no knockout. The DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo track is pretty clean, with little if any hiss, and occasionally impressive range (that nail getting hammered into Pullman’s sack really goes, “PING!”). English subtitles are available.
Extras include a partial commentary track with Bill Pullman, moderated by blogger Rob Galluzzo. I certainly can’t find fault with anything Pullman or Galluzzo say here. Galluzzo is a genial interviewer: he has pertinent questions and he lets his subject speak without interrupting (pretty basic...but shocking how often that doesn’t happen on these commentary tracks). Pullman is one of the best commentators I’ve heard in a long, long time: he’s well-spoken, thoughtful, and he has tons of interesting info on the production, as well as some pretty perceptive observations about the cast and crew, as well as the movie’s context. Great. So when he literally bails 54 minutes into the movie, with 43 minutes left of dead air — why didn’t Galluzzo keep talking? — with so much more of the movie left to be discussed (the switch to the Dominican Republic, all the crazy re-shoots), it’s not a satisfying result for the listener/consumer. At all. Next up is "The Making of The Serpent and the Rainbow" (23:53), which features interviews with author Wade Davis (speaking into a laptop), cinematographer John Lindley, special effects artists Lance and David Anderson, as well as audio bites lifted from Pullman’s commentary track. Davis is quite interesting talking about what led up to the production (his final assessment is that the movie fails because it ultimately trivializes voodoo...that would be the ending), while Lindley fills in some interesting asides about the filming, as do the Andersons, for all the big effects sequences. Rounding out the extras are the original theatrical trailer (1:23), a TV spot (:31), and a photo gallery. (Paul Mavis)
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