1980s, 3/4, Horror, Review, Wes Craven

The Serpent and the Rainbow

#2 in my ranking of Wes Craven’s filmography.

Wes Craven went full Dario Argento’s Suspiria, fully embracing the logic of dreams in this adaptation of a non-fiction work by Wade Davis, taking the greatest strengths of his previous work and stretching it out to feature length. That feeling is the movie’s greatest strength, really giving its final thirty minutes a nightmare feeling that steadily increases over time, though Agento did it better.

Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is a medical researcher who goes into the deep, dark places of the world looking for unusual medical solutions used by out of the way tribes. One he’s forced to take which gives him a vision of a jaguar and helps him to walk out of two-hundred miles of jungle. Back in civilization, the major biotech firm he works for hands him a folder about a Haitian man, Christophe (Conrad Roberts) who was buried after being well-confirmed of his death but now walks around Haiti seven years later. There, he first meets Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), a local doctor and dissident against the tyrannical Jean-Claude Duvalier.

One of the larger failures of the film is the political situation in Haiti that operates as the backdrop across a lot of the dramatic tension. Duvalier was a real man and his police state was real as well. The movie uses his reign in limited aspect to set the scene, which would be fine, but his overthrow towards the end of the film ends up being important enough to point out specifically. The very vague way that the film deals with the Duvalier reign seems to dance inelegantly on the edge between the demands of a film set in the real world and a film that descends into a literal nightmare by the end. It only really becomes an issue in the final act, but I thought I’d lay that marker down early.

The pair start on the search for a mysterious powder that brought Christophe back to life, navigating the little power structures, both formal and informal, while working through the national combination of Catholicism and voodoo along with a local man Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings) who promises but does not quite deliver, as Dennis expects. Meanwhile Captain Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), the head of police in the area, has his eye on Dennis and Marielle, and he uses his men to threaten and intimidate them both.

The movie’s great strength is the steadily building sense of terror and nightmarishness as the journey continues deeper into the mists of voodoo. When Dennis convinces Mozart to give him the real powder, Dennis ends up on a dreamlike path that there ends up being no escape from. Mozart takes him into the jungle to create the powder using black magic spells and an odd procedure involving corpses, the visions that Dennis has been having on and off again gain a more dangerous feeling to them, blending the line between dream and reality.

There’s some wonderfully surreal stuff that begins to dominate the latter portions of the film, like Dennis walking up to a door, it turning into a coffin, and him getting buried alive. Ultimately, though, Peytraud wins and gets Dennis deported, leaving behind Marielle and Mozart to suffer under Peytraud’s whim while Dennis goes back to America to analyze the zombie making powder. And yet, even there, he seems to be under the influence of the Haitian voodoo with a young woman at a dinner party attacking him for seemingly no reason. His return to Haiti to try and secure Marielle’s freedom is the culmination of horror that the film had been building up to.

And that’s where the reality of Jean-Pierre Duvalier’s fall intrudes itself. I understand why Craven would have included it, but I think it was a mistake. The line between reality and dream has been so blurred by this point that any excuse for a riotous atmosphere back in Haiti seems unnecessary. Just let the chaos reign, and anyone who cares can look up to see if there was some kind of major event in Haiti in late 1985 or early 1986. In addition, all of the voodoo ends up feeling like a thin excuse for terror, which kind of undermines the earlier efforts that seem to take the whole thing seriously. Also, the finale gets pretty ridiculous to the point that I was a bit taken out of the film. The finale is by no means bad. In fact, most of it is quite excellent, but the final moments feel like Craven needed to up the ante even further and didn’t really know how to do it within the bounds of his rules and just started throwing things at the screen to see what stuck. The finale essentially leans too far into reality as well as feeling more movie-ridiculous instead of overwhelmingly surreal, making it end with less impact than I would have like.

Still, overall, the descent into madness and terror that the film represents as a whole is something that I really did quite enjoy. Exotically filmed in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic and anchored by a solid performance from Pullman, Craven more fully realized his strengths here than in A Nightmare on Elm Street or any other film he’d made up to this point. It helped that the script Richard Maxwell actually has the structure of escalating stakes that Elm Street lacked. It does lack the focus and tightness of Suspiria, but it’s still within the same ballpark.

Rating: 3/4

8 thoughts on “The Serpent and the Rainbow”

  1. We need to talk about Argento at some point. But I don’t want to get off on a tangent immediately.

    I want to specially praise Bill Pullman. He’s an actor that, like Jeff Daniels, has played just about every kind of role in every kind of movie and done so credibly. Not a lot of people can do that. In a way, this reminds me a bit of Lost Highway, in fact. Though Wes Craven is no David Lynch…for better or for worse.

    The true life events are a strength and a weakness here. The weaknesses you’ve touched on so I won’t just repeat your own words back at you. But the strength of using a non-fiction book and real world events as an anchor is that it ads a level of plausibility that the movie desperately needs. Taking the magic out of voodoo zombies and putting it into chemical reactions…and them putting the magic back in…you need the grounding of science to sell the superstition. Using real locations, real historical personages, real names gives a baseline to build of off when things get batshit. If this was pure fiction, it would be tremendously weaker as a film. Especially the stupid ending.

    It works though as a work of fantasy and yes I realize that saying that sorta seems like I’m painting over my previous statement. The fantastic elements, the nightmare, is what sticks with you. The sensation of not knowing where reality is strong here and honestly, this is not a movie I’d suggest anyone watch while drunk or high. Wes Craven, for all his many faults, understands nightmares.

    Sadly, I think Haiti was better off under a strongman dictator than the hell of existence the people in Haiti have today. The way the country has been used and abused by the elites in this country is a sadder epilogue than anything a fictional character can try to contradict.


    1. I don’t think that the real world elements should be excised or anything, just pushed completely to the front of the film. Use it to set the scene, and then let the nightmare take over. The movie doesn’t really know where to put the information, so it pushes a lot of it to the back end right as the nightmare is picking up steam. It kind of reminds me of the Plantation sequence in Apocalypse Now Redux. I get the idea, but it’s simply in the wrong place to actually work for what the rest of the movie is doing.

      I don’t think your concerns are contradictory at all. Settling the audience in a fixed reality to start with is key. Can’t let them get lost in the weirdness at first. So, firming it up with the real world is important, and then let the fantasy invade. In terms of horror, it does heighten the terror, sort of like how The Exorcist spends so much time on the medical side of things to sell the unreality of the possession.

      I may do an Argento run at some point. The problem is that outside of Suspiria and Inferno, I don’t really like a whole lot of his work.


      1. I like Argento visually. As for his storytelling, the acting and dialog in his movies is literally painful to me.

        I honestly don’t enjoy most of his films either. The remake of Suspiria is actually superior in ALMOST every way.


      2. Argento’s work can be quite beautiful, despite the subject matter. “Deep Red” (or Profundo Rosso) is one of the most visually appealing films I’ve ever seen. “Bird with the Crystal Plumage” is also great looking, and probably has his most straightforward story.

        I find his films beautiful to watch but very unpleasant at the same time.


      3. I’m not a fan of giallo in general. The conventions all feel very arbitrary and thin most of the time. It’s a lot of style and little substance. When the balance gets pulled off, there’s magic, otherwise I just see them as boring whodunits with splashes of violence here and there.


  2. zakes mokae’s character is not only a police chief, but a hougan (witch doctor) they were enforcers in duvalier’s fiefdom, he was an anthropologist among other things


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