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The Test of Time: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

01.25.2018by: Jake Dee

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY WES CRAVEN

STARRING BILL PULLMAN, CATHY TYSON, CONRAD ROBERTS, ZAKES MOAKE, BRENT JENNINGS

Subjectively speaking, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is one of my favorite Wes Craven’s horror joints of all time. Objectively speaking, it’s also one of his more unheralded. As far as his career is concerned, one could dichotomize Craven’s impressive canon into two subcategories: The Majors, which would include towering titles like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and SCREAM; and The Minors, which would leave room for smaller, often non-franchise horror-shows like DEADLY BLESSING, DEADLY FRIEND, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, etc. And while THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW certainly falls into that Minor codification, let’s not front. Even so called Lower Case works can still cast quite the killer spell(ing). And as it relates to THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, the spell is literally extended to a baleful brand of Haitian Voodoo zombification!

Now, as hard as it is to still come to grips with Craven’s passing in August of 2015, it’s almost equally difficult to comprehend that THE SERPENT AND RAINBOW turns 30 years old this coming February 5th. If you can recall, the movie’s release was sandwiched in between the exhibition of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (1987), which Craven produced, and SHOCKER (1989), which he produced and directed. SERPENT also opened a few months before ANOES 4: THE DREAM MASTER, all of which to say it’s easy to see how this weird little offbeat anthropological horror flick got lost in the shuffle. Oh, but now it’s time we exhume the body, dust off the bones and give a closer examination to see just how THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW stacks up against the annals of Time. The Test begins now!

THE STORY: In of the very few scripts Craven was not credited for penning himself, SERPENT was based on the real life account of David Wade, anthropologist and botanical explorer who earned a Ph.D. from Havard, who wrote a book about his findings in Haiti. His reason for going there in the first place? Local Haitians told of a black magic zombie powder that had the potency to reanimate the dead. But not so in a brain-eating George A. Romero sort of way, not at all, we’re talking about real life zombification that includes the ability for the reanimated to think and even speak. In the film, Davis is played by Bill Pullman, with his name changed to Dennis Alan. The key case study that lures Allen over to Haiti is that of Christophe (Conrad Roberts), a man who was pronounced dead and buried underground seven years prior, the same man now seen around town walking and talking among the locals. If the zombie powder indeed works this kind of miracle, Allen needs to get his hands on it for a mass-marketed anesthetic wonder-drug. What could possibly go wrong?!

One of the things I absolutely adore about THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, aside from its kickass title, is how it unfolds very much like a detective story. It’s almost akin to something like ANGEL HEART in that way, where old fashioned voice-over narration stands in for the lead’s inner thoughts, much like an old Bogey private eye flick. In SERPENT in particular, this also reinforces the sense of Alan’s isolation and alienation, as he shares his own private thoughts about this world that is so exotically foreign to him, and by proxy, us the audience as well. Along that way, at every turn, Allen meets a farrago of sordid and shady characters. This includes his personal guide Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), with whom he’ll curiously copulate in a dingy-ass cave, Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings), a low-rent huckster trying to take advantage of Allen’s naivety, and perhaps most nefarious of all, Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), a torturous warlock and zombie overlord extraordinaire. It’s up to Alan to not only stay alive, but understand how and why the powder works to prove that death is not the end but the beginning!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Because of its truly compelling real life premise outlined above, the movies undeniable authenticity really endures as one of its towering pillars! This cannot be oversold enough. Shot on location in Haiti, until such civil unrest and dangerous political instability forced production to move to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, there is a starkly unique look and feel to SERPENT that never fails to impress. There’s no artifice to be found, Craven and crew really went to these places and commingled among real locals, and the result lends not only a very particular sense of verisimilitude, the atmosphere itself is one of inimitable spookiness. Props to DP John Lindley (THE STEPFATHER, FIELD OF DREAMS) and his village exteriors wafting in smoke, smoldering human-skulls perched on totems, those deep claustrophobic coffins, ritualized Voodoo ceremonies…for, when added up they all amount to a kind of aesthetic we don’t often see in horror films. Truly, the look, feel and atmosphere in SERPENT alone are among Craven’s most distinctly singular of his career. It's one of his most menacing movie milieus!

When revisiting the film the other day, what instantly leapt out in retaining its potency are the startling images and impressive FX work. One of the first key standout scenes in this regard still packs a mean punch. Of course, we refer to the scene at night, amid starry torch-lit flickers, when Alan is shown how the powder works. He comes face to decrepit face with a grossly decomposed woman in a bridal gown, who slowly bends her neck back, opens her maw until a large python snake erupts out of her mouth toward Alan’s face. Shit’s alarming! What makes it still work is the speed of the edit. The juxtaposition between how slowly the woman moves her mouth and how fast the snake juts out creates a tense “holy shit” moment.

Another standout scene that shocked audiences in ’88 and still plays comparably today is when Alan undergoes a terrifying dream (Craven can’t help himself when it comes to dreams, ay). Alan finds himself buried underground in a coffin that is slowly filling up in blood, his own blood, which threatens to drown him. It’s a harrowingly claustrophobic stint on its own, but it’s immediately followed by Alan waking up in terror, only to find a brutally decapitated local woman right next to him in bed. The push-pull of these two back-to-back scenes still makes for a surreally unsettling double-dose of danger. The cut from the dream to the bed lulls us into a false sense of security, only to strip that down immediately and up the horror quotient for real, in waking life. It’s a breathtaking right-hook, left-jab to the gut that still hurts!

Additional noteworthy stints in the film that still play as well today as they did in 1988 include a scorpion crawling out of a zombified mouth. F*ck all that! Then of course there’s the scene when Lucien I believe (Paul Winfield) rips his own head plumb off his neck and angrily throws it Alan. That practical effect reminded me of THE THING, which is just about the highest praise one can receive. Or how about the shot where Alan crushes to pieces with his hands a real spider-monkey skull? Gnarly! Then there is the final showdown with Dargent, which starts with the voodoo witch succumbing on a mountain of human skulls, ultimately culminating in Alan using his newfound powers to drag this sick sucker down to the bowels of hell. I particularly like the use of rainbow lens flares to depict what the opening scroll told us what the title refers to: The Serpent represents Earth, the Rainbow represents heaven…and between the two all thing must live and die. It’s as satisfying a conclusion now as it must have been way back when.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Let’s be clear, nothing blows so hard that it ruins the film. That said, a few minor gripes might be voiced regarding some of the startling imagery being too recurrent. That damn python shows up a little too much, as does the coffin iconography and bridal corpse. There’s also a few dated VFX in the finale, mainly having to do with the depiction of ferried souls. Still, there’s more good than bad in this regard. No, the one biggest complaint about SERPENT one may have these days is the casting of Bill Pullman as Dennis Alan. I don’t know, Pullman just seems a bit too soft for the role. Put it this way, he’s not Harrison Ford, the definitive anthropological action hero. Don’t get me wrong, I love Pullman, and actually think he gives a pretty credible performance in SERPENT. Had a manlier, more macho alpha A-lister been cast instead, perhaps even more credence would have been lent. Still, these are not enough to detract from what is still a very fine horror film.

THE VERDICT: That last sentence sort of summed it up. 30 years later and because of its compelling true story and subject matter, unique setting and undeniably stark atmosphere, because of the splendid direction by Craven filled with some of his most arresting imagery, yes, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW still casts a colorful array of abject horror. It’s not only one of Craven’s most original movies, it’s also one of his best. It’s so good in fact we may have to the subdivision of Minors and place it squarely in the company of Craven’s Majors!

STREAM THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW HERE

GET THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW ON DVD HERE

GET THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW ON BLU-RAY HERE

Extra Tidbit: According to article about the film from Fangoria #71, original cut of the movie was 3 hours long but Wes Craven felt that it was too long and talky so it was cut down to 98 minutes. It was then test screened to the audience and their reactions were favorable.
Source: AITH

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