CAPSULE: THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Wes Craven

FEATURING: Bill Pullman, Zakes Mokae

PLOT: An anthropologist travels to Haiti in search of the legendary “zombie drug” and gets mixed up in voodoo and third world politics.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  There are three or four vivid hallucination/dream sequences in The Serpent and the Rainbow that are unique visual treats.  (The most unusual and striking vision is a disembodied zombie hand crawling into a bowl of soup).  Craven, however, uses only the canonical scare iconography—corpses and skulls, blood, snakes and spiders—which makes the scenes add up to standard, if well executed, nightmare sequences.  Coupled with an ordinary horror movie plot (although it’s disguised well for the first two-thirds of the film), Serpent is a film with some fantastic scenes, but not weird one.

COMMENTSSerpent is an above-average horror outing, although its ultimately a mild disappointment because the black magic premise has so much unrealized potential.  The voodoo milieu the civilized doctor encounters in Haiti is memorable and spooky; the setting is also unique in that it mixes witchcraft with politics by having the main villain be both a powerful warlock and an officer of Haitian dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s secret police.  In the end, unfortunately, Craven can’t figure out how to keep the momentum rolling into a proper climax to its interesting premise.  We end up with a formula horror finale where Zakes Mokae’s brilliantly sadistic Dargent Peytraud transforms into a poor man’s Freddy Kruger.  The eye-rolling climax comes complete with false deaths, catch phrases, an ironic comeuppance, and other silliness. 

The movie was adapted from a memoir of the same name by real-life Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who actually went to Haiti to investigate the real zombie drug.  To make this serious scientific book into a horror movie seems a bit like adapting “A Brief History of Time” as a space opera.  Davis called the film “one of the worst Hollywood movies in history”; it’s not nearly that bad (in fact, it’s pretty good), but his frustration is understandable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Things speed towards an ‘Omen’ finale, via some stunning dream sequences. People get thrown against walls, objects move around. Then, the Hollywood Emergency Ending Team rushes in. And you breath a sigh of relief because you realize there was no evil to worry about, it was just Special Effects all the time.” – Desson Howe, Washington Post

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