CULT CORNER #73: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Is this one of Wes Craven’s best films? 

Who made it?: Wes Craven (Director), Richard Maxwell, A.R. Simoun (Writers), Doug Claybourne, David Ladd (Producers), Universal Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, Brent Jennings, Conrad Roberts.

Tagline: “Don’t bury me…I’m not dead!”

IMDb rating: 6.4/10.

Wes Craven is a bit overrated. We can all admit that now. For every hit under his belt, there’s a spectacular miss (did you see My Soul to Take?). In his best films, the inconsistent director manages to twist well-worn horror conventions to his liking. It was Craven, after all, who began the self-referential horror craze in the 90s with New Nightmare – an ingenious twist on his Freddy Krueger franchise that failed to set the box office alight but led to his genre-redefining Scream. The 80s were less kind to him, however, resulting in a series of commercial failures like Sharon Stone’s feature debut Deadly Blessing (surely you’ve seen that one?). To Craven’s credit, some of these “forgotten” films are nowhere near as bad as their reputations suggest, such as the dementedly brilliant The People Under the Stairs. Which brings me neatly on to his 1988 film The Serpent and the Rainbow, an underrated voodoo opus in its day that deserves a reappraisal by the horror community.

It is based upon the real-life experiences of fearless explorer Wade Davis, and his book provides the backbone of the picture. It follows Harvard anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) who is sent on a mission into Haiti to retrieve a mysterious powder that is rumoured to bring people back from the dead. He is joined by local nurse and guide Marielle (Cathy Tyson). Naturally, his search for the powder plants him in hot water. He is followed by evil and corrupt police chief Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), who has access to some malign powers that may or may not be of this world. Old Dennis is then flung into a terrifying world of ancient curses, vengeful spirits, and the “walking dead”…

Voodoo on film has a rather sketchy history. The biggest influence on the sub-genre was the Val Lewton-produced I Walked With a Zombie, which was considered the best of the breed for many decades. While that film carries its own share of frights, it still lacked a convincing backdrop to its supernatural hokum. Since then, the culture has been misrepresented in just about every horror film that has tackled the subject (especially in the Amicus anthology Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors). With this in mind, Craven wanted to do something different and unique. While his film takes liberties for obvious horror movie purposes, it still provides a convincing depiction of the area and its beliefs.

A wonderfully atmospheric picture from the opening sequence onward, The Serpent and the Rainbow has a lot to admire in its run time. That’s if you go into it with an open mind and don’t expect the usual splatter fest. I have to congratulate screenwriters Richard Maxwell and A.R. Simoun for taking their time to establish Haiti, the region’s culture, and the film’s use of the supernatural. The most successful element of the film is clear from the first few frames – it was shot entirely on location. There are several sequences set in America, but for 95% of the picture, we are treated to a glimpse of Haiti and its rarely-shot locales. Craven’s mood for the film is unique since he perfectly captures a sense of unrest in the country, tapping into a feeling of political and civil unease.

Unlike Craven’s most popular films, Rainbow is fairly restrained in terms of on-screen violence. It isn’t as strong as The Last House on the Left or The Hills Have Eyes, and it never reaches the Grand Guignol excess of Elm Street. This is more about nightmarish imagery. One gut-churning sequence will have men in the audience squirming when Alan is tortured by the villainous Peytraud (let’s just say it involves a nail and a scrotum). Elsewhere, the movie regularly dips into Craven’s fascination with dreams. Alan’s mind is tortured by Peytraud, whose diabolical spells can reach him wherever he goes. The film’s centrepiece also grips – Alan is buried alive by the fiend’s men, only to rise again with a renewed appreciation for life. Those who saw Kill Bill Vol. 2 will know where Quentin Tarantino drew some of his inspiration.

That said, the film is far from perfect. Craven builds on his steady space to deliver an effects-heavy denouement that brings all of the genre-dictated spectacle you desire, but would have been better off being much more subtle.  The performances are merely above-average. Pullman is decent in the lead role, relishing the chance to play a geeky Indiana Jones. He really gets into the “terror” toward the end of the film – this guy sure can scream! But his romantic interest in the shape of Tyson is given little to do despite her best efforts. The seemingly thrown-in sex scene between them just doesn’t suit the material, but then we’re dealing with an 80s horror flick, after all! As for Mokae, he’s one of the lesser-known but appreciated Craven bastards, essaying a fittingly larger-than-life scumbag who knows your deepest fears and exploits them to his own ends. The cast is solid but you never come to Craven films for peerless thespian craft. This one’s all about mood and all the better for it.

Many years after it was first released, The Serpent and the Rainbow is looking more and more like one of the celebrated director’s best outings. Craven takes the subject matter seriously, and the result is an entertaining excursion into a fascinating culture that you rarely see on film. And best of all, there isn’t a masked serial killer in sight…

Best Scene

Remember… they can get to you anywhere!

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Author Wade Davis agreed to sell the book rights on the condition that Peter Weir direct and Mel Gibson star. Neither man had any involvement in the project.
  • Due to political strife and civil turmoil in Haiti during the production, the local government informed the film crew that they could not guarantee their safety for the remainder of the shoot. The crew subsequently relocated to nearby Dominican Republic to complete filming.
  • The CD Soundtrack to this film is extremely rare, as it was pressed in limited quantities. Part of this was due to the film’s poor release and the fact that the market was transitioning from LP to CD as a mass format, meaning that the number of copies is much smaller than an average soundtrack album run.
  • Bill Pullman acted alongside a jaguar, a viper and a tarantula during the course of film. However all the animals were raised in captivity and were relatively tame.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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