To fans of horror, Wes Craven is the equivalent of an Olympian god. I would normally say that that previous statement is a bit much, but I really can’t. Just look at his ridiculously influential body of work and compare it to anyone else working in the genre. There are some people who come close, but in my book, he’s the guy. While certainly showing his skill in the maniac killer/slasher format, he also showed his ability to work with fantasy with films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and the topic of today’s review, The Serpent and the Rainbow.
After returning from Haiti and recovering from a near death experience, Harvard anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is recruited by a pharmaceutical company to return to Haiti after they discovered a potion that seems to bring the dead back to life as zombies (not in the eat your brains kind of way either). Dr. Alan meets with a Haitian psychiatrist, Marielle (Cathy Tyson), and the two begin their investigation to procure this potion. What Alan doesn’t realize is that the captain of the Haitian secret police, Captain Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), is a practitioner in black magic, and will do anything in his power to keep Dr. Alan away from the potion, even if it means forcing him to face one of man’s most basic fears: being buried alive.
So, it’s been established that Wes Craven is a master of horror, but The Serpent and the Rainbow isn’t exactly a horror movie. There are definitely scenes that will freak you out, what with all of the weird voodoo images and the whole idea of being buried alive is enough to make anyone stifle a scream. What the movie is before any of that, though, is a mystery film with a lot of fantasy thrown into the mix. The whole plot is about Dr. Alan figuring out the mystery of the potion that brings people back to life, and his conflict between believing that the potion really is some sort of black magic, or if it just plays on the body’s biochemistry in a way that he doesn’t understand.
The idea that this movie isn’t really a straight up horror movie may turn some people off to watching it, since that’s what you expect when you watch a Wes Craven movie. The horror aspects of this movie also feel very traditional. The most obvious comparison I can make for this movie is the 1943 film I Walked With a Zombie produced by another icon of horror, Val Lewton. Both have scenes of voodoo rituals and people being brought back to life as zombies, and in that same vein The Serpent and the Rainbow feels like an old fashioned horror film, even though it was produced in 1988.
What I mean by this is that it’s a film that doesn’t rely on scares to tell the story, unlike many horror movies both older and new. Even Craven’s film The Last House on the Left is told through a strictly horror point of view that heavily features rape and brutal violence in order to tell the story. This one has voodoo rituals involved and lots of blood, but it builds its story on suspense, taut pacing, and the curiosity of the mystery of the potion. That being said, another strong point of this movie is the eerie atmosphere which even brings a sociopolitical to the forefront since the story takes place in the midst of a Haitian revolution.
The Serpent and the Rainbow may not be the most effective film in Wes Craven’s filmography, but it is a memorable horror movie to say the least. I respect the way that the story is told through the eyes of mystery and suspense, but I also appreciate the scenes of genuine terror that are appropriately sprinkled throughout the rest of the movie. While I do say that this film is more of a fantasy and a mystery, I will also say that it is a genuine tale of horror that features themes of plot elements that I haven’t seen in a horror movie in years.