Monday, October 26, 2009

The Serpent and the Rainbow (Wes Craven, 1988)

Although it offers a pedestrian and predictable conclusion, Wes Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow takes one of the central premises he used for his flagship film, A Nightmare on Elm Street (a villain who invades people's minds and dreams), to make a film five times more interesting and about ten times more frightening.

The film plays on some old standards in the horror genre: fear of the unknown, premature burial, the stealing of souls, Voodoo, and even regular ole prosaic torture and castration. It's not entirely successful-as I stated, the film's conclusion is a letdown-but when it is successful, it's truly compelling and terrifying.

The Serpent and the Rainbow came out just when I was getting really into horror films (it was released in February 1988, which means I would have been 10 at the time). I distinctly remember being both fascinated by the trailer and aware that, as much as I was now interested in horror films, it was going to be way, way, WAY to intense for me:

Being buried alive, having rotting arms dragging you into the ground, drowning in a coffin filling up with blood; yeah, that's some prime nightmare fodder.

Now, if you'll allow me a slight digression on A Nightmare on Elm Street? It ties in, don't worry.

First off, before you get all defensive, let me just that yes, I do like A Nightmare on Elm Street. It's smart. It's inventive. It's fun. It's scary. I watch it almost every October. I've even powered through many (but not all) of the atrocious sequels (I know I'm in the minority on this, but I'm not wild about the meta sequel, Wes Craven's New Nightmare: it's way too proud of itself and telegraphs Freddy's existence way too early, thus denying it of any suspense, metafictional or otherwise; but that's another digression for another entry).

However, with my problem with the original Nightmare is that its premise is exponentially more horrifying than the actual movie itself. The premise of a serial killer that can only kill you in your dreams is both original and truly horrifying. I remember actually having nightmares based on the idea of Freddy Krueger...until I actually saw the movies. Maybe it's one of those concepts that can only deliver in theory (since it allows the imagination to go wild) but not in practice (since you now have to deal with budgetary limitations, three-act story structures, et. al.).

Still, the original Nightmare is a decent movie, and offers up some decent scares (especially since it has Freddy abstain from making witty "quips," as opposed to the sequels, which turns Freddy into a third-rate standup).

Seeing The Serpent and the Rainbow a few years after it came out (I think I was 12 when I first saw it, but I could have been 13), like Nightmare, it too, did not deliver on the way-too-terrifying-to-deal-with movie I made up in my mind around the images in the trailer.

Despite this minor - and inevitable - disappointment, The Serpent and the Rainbow delivers on many scary and unnerving scenes, many of which fester under the skin long after they're done playing (such the image of a man, presumably dead, with a single tear sliding down his face as he's in a coffin being buried).

The Serpent and the Rainbow takes Voodoo much more seriously than many other Hollywood films, which often merely use the religion as a device for characters to stick pins in dolls. That the film was shot on location in Haiti and the Dominican Republic also adds some authenticity to the movie. Some.

Based very, very loosely on the nonfiction book by ethnobotanist Wade Davis (who apparently despised the film), The Serpent and the Rainbow is about an anthropologist (Dennis Alan, played by Bill "Lonestar" Pullman) who's sent out to Haiti by a giant pharmaceutical corporation to investigate a drug used in the Voodoo religion. Apparently the drug creates "zombies," but it is in fact a form of anesthesia.

Once the drug gets into a person's pores, the person appears to be dead by all counts. There's no recordable pulse, no notable breath, no response to outside stimulus. So, the person struck by the "zombie powder" is often buried, then eventually comes to, underground, and suffers brain damage due to the lack of oxygen (and, y'know, the trauma of being paralyzed and buried alive).

When Alan arrives in Haiti, which is in the middle of a revolution, he meets Marielle Celine (Cathy Tyson), a doctor who helps him research and investigate the so-called zombies. (Since she's a beautiful woman and Alan is the hero, do you think a relationship and sex scene develops? What do you think, dear reader?)

Alan's exploration to find the zombie powder attracts attention of the Tonton Macoute (the new regime and its secret police). The commander of the Tonton Macoute, Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), doesn't want the secrets of the powder revealed, since it's been used to control the people of Haiti through fear. He warns Alan to leave Haiti.

Alan of course doesn't leave, but instead continues to investigate the drug. He finds a local witch doctor, Mozart, who can produce it. Before gaining this knowledge, Alan is arrested a second time by the Tonton Macoute. And of course, in addition to all the mystical mumbo jumbo and nightmarish sequences of being buried alive, we've got a scene where Captain Peytraud tortures Alan and threatens castration. (Don't worry: he only hammers a nail into his scrotum. Oh, is that all?)

Here's the scene. It begins at the 3:25 mark:

See? This movie offers a diverse blend of shit to make you feel uncomfortable.

Alan, however, still refuses to do so and meets with Mozart to create the zombie drug. A few hours before picking up the final product, however, Alan has a nightmare - possibly the most terrifying sequence in the film, in my estimation - where his room slowly and steadily becomes a coffin and he's buried alive (and with the coffin filling up with the aforementioned blood).

Here's where we enter Nightmare on Elm Street territory, since, although yes, it turns out to be "just a dream," it also turns out to be more than that: the dream was planted in his head by Peytraud, who's not just a tyrannical government head but an evil Voodoo priest.

When Alan awakes, he finds a severed head in his bed. The Tonton Macoute storms in, takes photos of him with the severed head and forces him on a plane back to the States. On the plane, Mozart gives him the zombie powder free of charge.

While Alan is at a dinner party back in the States, Peytraud induces hallucinations of corpse hands appearing in Alan's food and possesses one of the guests to attack him. He realizes he's still not safe and, worse, Celine is in danger. He decides to go back.

Upon Alan's return, he's infected with the zombie powder and delivers the movie's famous tag line: "Don't let them bury me. I'm not dead." Too late: Peytraud captures Celine and buries Alan alive in another horrifying scene done in complete blackness, with just the sound of Alan screaming. It's not quite as terrifying as the similar sequence in the original The Vanishing, but still pretty unnerving and effective.

Remembering how horrifying it was for him to be buried alive, Christophe, the original zombie (the previously-mentioned man buried alive with the single tear in the opening sequence) quickly digs Alan up. Alan then saves Celine, confronts Peytraud and saves the day.

Unfortunately, the film's final showdown is generic and predictable: the hero and villain duking it out with their fists, complete with macho exclamations and "badass" catch phrases (yawn). Wasn't this entire battle supposed to be fought not on the streets, but in the hero's mind and soul? Then why such an uninspired conclusion? I guess that's Hollywood filmmaking in the '80s for you. (Although Craven has been guilty of this in many of his films, even in Nightmare.)

However, it doesn't ruin the rest of the film; it only serves as a mildly disappointing cap to an otherwise good film.

Though, true, it didn't quite deliver on the scares that my 10 year-old self imagined after seeing the trailer (God help any film that tries to compete with the hyperactive imagination of an adolescent), The Serpent and the Rainbow deftly mixes a nonfiction tale with the premise of Nightmare (but put to better use, in my humble estimation) to create an inventive and disturbing film that offers plenty of scares from the explicit (it's got decapitations and gore) to the genuinely bone-chilling.

Not wanting to mess with bokors,

James "Claustrophobic Agnostic" Comtois

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Blogger macrogers said...

Thanks for writing about this film. I saw it when it came out in theaters, and have never forgotten it. And the late Zakes Mokae was brilliant.

7:14 AM  
Blogger joshcon80 said...

As much as I love voodoo, all I can work up is a "meh" for this move. I did have the book as a kid, which contained all sort of great photos.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Nat said...

Man, if S&tR ended just, like, 10 minutes earlier, it would be one of my favorites of the decade. But, nooooo . . . Still, that scene with Pullman stumbling through the streets trying to tell people not to bury him is tops.

And I feel exactly the same way about Nightmare! The actual film was such a let down. By the time you get to the scene where Nancy starts boobytrapping her entire house in like 30 minutes (FILLING LIGHTBULBS WITH GUNPOWDER?!), I was unsure as to whether or not I was dreaming myself.

3:31 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

It seems like a number of Wes Craven films start (and continue) strong, but end in a generic, "main characters engaging in fisticuffs" showdown. Nightmare, Serpent, Scream, even Red Eye.

But yeah, aside from the so-so ending, it really is incredible up to that point. And again, that scene where Christophe's being buried and you see the tear sliding down his face. Oh, boy. Oooooohhhhh boy. I had to brace myself for that shot when I recently rewatched it. Thats' some scary shit.

And Joshua. What. Is. Wrong With You? (Oh, I get it. You're still getting back at me for my "meh" assessment of Rosemary's Baby and [fffffffffffaaaaart] assessment of Black Christmas. I see how it is. It's cool. It's cool.)

1:14 AM  
Blogger Ian Mackenzie said...

Aw the Serpent and the Rainbow. I remember it being way scary . . . not sure I could sit through it today.

Fun to read your thoughts on it.

What's next?

11:46 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Thanks, Ian! It still holds up, although like I said, the big finale is kind of annoyingly pedestrian.

I've got a couple other classic horror films I want to revisit; I just haven't had the time to re-watch them yet. Soon, though. Soon.

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Nick said...

Just saw this movie recently and thought it was pretty scary...but the one part was HILLARIOUS when Paul Winfield rips his own head off and throws it at bill pullman. Do you know where I can find a clip of that?!

7:43 PM  

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