The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Director: Wes Craven

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By Roderick Heath

Wes Craven’s career making horror films lasted over forty years, but he remained devilishly hard to contain or categorise. A former philosophy student and English professor, he often exhibited great conceptual intelligence in his work, utilising highbrow ideas like metatextuality and nested realities well before they became fashionable, as well as pursuing a definite satirical interest in confronting the violent and perverse impulses lurking under the surface of the modern world. But he also gleefully delivered the down-and-dirty pleasures of his chosen genre, and as he developed from the relatively straightforward rawness of his infamous debut, Last House on the Left (1972), he began to revel in a stylised, madcap, virtually slapstick version of horror. There was a strong dash of Looney Tunes to his horror – the villains reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote or Yosemite Sam in their braggart ferocity, the heroes fighting back with their Acme kit-like improvised methods. His sixth feature film, A Nightmare in Elm Street (1984), was the kind of hit every low-budget, ghettoised filmmaker dreams of, one that made mountains of lucre and impacted upon the genre significantly. And yet the director himself was forced to sell the rights to the film before its release, and could only stand and watch as his brainchild became a pop cultural phenomenon. Craven’s career would remain skittish, even after he finally found a degree of stature and mainstream success with the Scream series. In the phase following Elm Street, Craven did some of his best, most distinctive and vigorous work, but little of it was well-received at the time, including the would-be new franchise creator, Shocker (1989), the freakish, scabrous parable The People Under the Stairs (1991), and the ingeniously self-referential Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1993).

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The Serpent and the Rainbow might have seemed at first glance a play for relative respectability. Craven took on a script by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman, adapted a memoir by researcher Wade Davis, recounting his investigations into tetrodotoxin, a chemical derived from puffer fish venom and used by Haitian voodoo practitioners in zombie creation rituals, with the hope of adapting it for medical use. Respectability seems the last thing on Craven’s mind when the viewer is confronted by the resulting film, however. Long before Charlie Kaufman made a joke out of trying to turn dry reportage into a popular genre movie in Adaptation. (2002), Craven beat him to the reality, creating one of his strangest, most defiantly individual films, as well as one of his best – ridiculous, weird, and riotously entertaining. The Serpent and the Rainbow arrived as a near-freeform assault on familiar narrative niceties, shifting through familiar modes at breakneck speed. It’s a travelogue, anthropological study, political thriller, surrealist fugue, blood-and-thunder horror yarn, and action blockbuster all at once. It looks back to Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s great I Walked With a Zombie (1942) in trying to seriously and even realistically encompass voodoo as a socio-religious tradition, with an aspect of a specific, very ‘80s brand of fashionable ethnographic study and Third World consciousness-raiser a la The Emerald Forest (1984) or Under Fire (1983). But it also shifts into utterly whacko B-movie shtick and haunted house ride-like showmanship when it feels like it.

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Davis becomes Dennis Alan, played by Bill Pullman, a dashing young Harvard-trained ethnobotanist (!) who arrives deep in the Amazon forest hoping to find commercially exploitable herbal remedies amongst tribal shamans. One shaman (Evencio Mosquera Slaco) feeds him a hallucinogenic concoction as he thinks Dennis needs to perceive things beyond, because there’s some immensely evil force looming over him. Dennis, in his altered state, encounters a jaguar that terrifies him at first but proves to actually be his protective spirit animal. But the shaman is replaced in the fugue by a fearsomely leering sorcerer (Zakes Mokae), who torments Dennis with visions of being dragged down into the earth by dead and buried men. When he awakens from this grotesque trip, Dennis heads to his helicopter in relief but finds the pilot dead, killed by some malediction. Dennis is forced instead to hike out of the jungle, seemingly guided to safety by the jaguar spirit. When he gets back to the US, Dennis is hired by his mentor, Earl Schoonbacher (Michael Gough), who now works for pharmaceutical company boss Andrew Cassedy (Paul Guilfoyle): Schoonbacher and Cassedy want him to go to Haiti, to investigate a seemingly authentic case of somebody having been made into a zombie. The first scenes of the film have already shown this, as the evil magician of Dennis’s dream, actually Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), oversaw the burial of the man pronounced dead but, Craven reveals, weeping in his coffin. The Captain works for the Tonton Macoute, the secret police force that did the dirty work for the government of ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier.

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The unfortunate victim, Christophe Durand (Conrad Roberts), has since been disinterred and briefly sheltered for a time by psychiatrist Marielle Duchamp (the ever-excellent Cathy Tyson), whose report attracted outside attention. Dennis meets up with Marielle but Christophe has long since left the run-down, grimy asylum Marielle tries to administrate: eventually they track him to where he now lives, the cemetery where he was buried, lurking in the shadows as a distraught and disorientated shell of his former self. Christophe was a schoolteacher who was fighting the Duvalier dictatorship, and Peytraud targeted him for destruction. Dennis tries to get on with his job, approaching braggart gambler and alchemist Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings) to make some of the supposed zombiefying concoction he’s famous for, and Louis happily agrees for a few hundred dollars. Louis tries to cheat Dennis by giving him a batch of the bogus blend he sells to tourists, but Dennis spots the gag and forces Louis to put up the real thing. Louis eventually agrees but insists Dennis join him the long and complex preparation process for this mysterious concoction. Trouble is, the longer he spends in Haiti, the more deeply Dennis becomes involved with both the local culture and its marvels, and also the evil of the Duvalier regime, as represented by Peytraud, who uses both torture and voodoo to torment and terrorise anyone who attracts his sadistic interests.

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Standing on the side of the just is Marielle’s friend, fellow resistance member, and voodoo priest Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield), who tries to use white magic to protect Dennis and Marielle as they tread on territory Peytraud jealously defends. In many ways Craven’s sense of style could hardly have been more different to the elegance and suggestiveness of the classic Universal and Val Lewton horror films: his camerawork, quite often utilising hand-held and steadicam shots that roam about his characters and vivid lensing effects that mimic the presence of unseen forces assailing them, is vigorous in a manner that suggests Werner Herzog’s work on Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) on crack, the special effects unrestrained, and the manifestations of primal and supernatural terror visualised with gusto. And yet in other ways, particularly in Craven’s obsession with dreams and visions as the bridging point between the concrete and the fantastic, The Serpent and the Rainbow maintains links with an older, more ethereal brand of horror; reality and dream, worldly power and magic are in such a constant flux that they become inseparable. A richly visualised, otherworldly elegance pervades parts of the film, particularly a magical sequence in which Marielle takes Dennis on a trek along with thousands of worshippers on a religious festival. Streams of worshippers flow through the jungle to a rock pool high in the mountains where they carry a statue of the Virgin Mary, camping at night along the way in forests bedecked with jewels and totems and guttering candles, and Dennis and Marielle make love in a cave with a sense of ritualistic fervour, capping a movement of deliriously sensual textures.

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In the midst of this movement, Craven offers an interlude when Dennis has another of his prophetic visions, seeing himself visited in the night in the forest by Christophe carrying the corpse of a voodoo priestess in a white grave dress, which then disgorges a snake for a tongue that bites Dennis on the face. Such are the breakneck shifts of mood and effect in this film, which come so often as to become their own, weird form of lucidity in creating a world where just about anything can and does happen. Dennis is constantly assailed with similarly strange and often spectacular dreams hallucinations and Craven uses these to give a more pyrotechnic brand of horror. Dennis’ early vision of being dragged down into the earth sees corpses thrusting rotting fingers at him before plunging into a black abyss, as if the dread sins of the past buried however deep are about to claim Dennis. Later, when he’s retreated from the villains to a small beachfront cabin, he sees a burning boat drifting to the shore, carrying the voodoo priestess, before the cabin closes up, shrinks down, and becomes a coffin, blood filling it up like a bathtub. The idea that villain Peytraud fights his battles on both a physical level and on the spiritual lets Craven go to town in portraying the totality of this form of warfare. Peytraud also represents for Craven one of several attempts to create another Freddy Krueger, a trickster villain who respects no usual limitations of physical law and logic to attack his enemies. Mokae was a South African actor who first found repute working with playwright Athol Fugard, and his later acting career was usually split between politically oriented dramas and horror films. Here he had a chance to combine those two, and he’s an unrestrained hoot in the role, with his rolling, bugging eyes and gold tooth flashing matched by rasping voice of cruel relish, as if someone recast Robert Newton’s Long John Silver as a Blaxploitation villain.

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Most of Craven’s films had a powerful undercurrent sense of absurdist black comedy, and oftentimes entirely explicit. That streak is certainly present here, particularly apparent in just how much abuse Dennis receives throughout the film. It gets to the point where this all starts to feel like a lampoon on both the usual travails of venturesome heroes in pulp tales – young Pullman’s square-jawed, all-American visage needs only a pith helmet to complete the picture – and also of white western anxiety in the face of dangers beyond the safe limits of home, like Midnight Express (1978) gone troppo. In one sequence Craven reaches an apogee of discomfort in mainstream cinema whilst somehow avoiding depicting any actual gore. Peytraud seeks to terrify and punish Dennis by having him arrested, strapped to a chair naked in the secret police’s favourite torture chamber, and hammering a nail through his scrotum. Before striking his relished blow, Peytraud matches any Bond villain as he responds to Dennis’ desperate question “What do you want?” with, “I want to hear you scream!” This moment ranks with the “Squeal, piggy!” scene in Deliverance (1972) in literalising a protagonist’s emasculation by forces beyond his control. There is a disparity at the heart The Serpent and the Rainbow between the thesis Davis was arguing, that the apparent manifestations of the supernatural were actually the work of a complex, puzzling but actually rational work of nascent chemistry, and Craven’s casual demolition of that concept by embracing ooky-kooky magic. Voodoo as a religion and cultural phenomenon has been a constant source of interest for storytellers interested in the fantastic, but very few investigate it with much depth or seriousness as a genuine cultural phenomenon.

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Whilst The Serpent and the Rainbow throws out any pretences to being seen as a strict tract on the subject, it does find Craven with an anthropological bent, truly fascinated by the sights, sounds, and lifestyle of Haiti, considering it as a fully-fledged society present amidst but also cordoned off from familiar definitions of modernity. The eruptions of irrationality in the storyline literalise this schism and also lets Craven show his own sensibility, associating political tyranny with forces of evil. There’s an appealing casualness to the interracial romance of Dennis and Marielle that looks forward to Craven’s embrace of black heroism in The People Under the Stairs and fusion of horror with Blaxploitation lampooning on Vampire in Brooklyn (1994). The pilgrimage scene is a highpoint of this bent, amidst an immersive sense of place (although the production was forced to leave Haiti mid-shoot and was finished in other locations including the Dominican Republic), as is a brief but fascinating depiction of Lucien performing a wedding. The Duvalier government and the Tonton Macoute really did use the paraphernalia of voodoo as part of their arsenal of repression, although ironically Wade Davis himself had little trouble from them. Marielle, a modern rationalist by profession, is also famed for her performances when possessed by spirits, and Dennis witnesses this transformation with bewilderment: “There is no conflict between my science and my faith,” as she states.

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Craven’s pointed sense of humour makes itself apparent when a tourist-friendly display of local performers for a hotel crowd is portrayed as a festival of the strange with a male performer getting female guests to shove spikes through his cheeks, another chewing on glass, until finally Peytraud, who looks on, announces himself by mesmerically compelling one of the performers to attack Dennis. This scene is mirrored later in a vignette that counts amongst the most Cravenish of Craven moments, when Dennis returns to the States with the zombiefying powder and is treated to a swanky dinner by Cassedy and his wife Deborah (Dey Young) in their mansion as reward. Deborah, possessed by Peytraud in spite of the many miles and supposed barriers between these places, suddenly turns strange and sneering, begins chewing on a glass, and then launches herself across the dinner table in an attempt to stab Dennis, forcing her husband and Schoonbacher to drag her off. This makes for a disturbing/hilarious image of posh, lily-white insularity turned into funhouse for chaos and vengeful lunacy. There are seeds here for Craven’s later, equally wild and loopy The People Under the Stairs, which would turn the mirror back on Reaganite America and accuse it of being essentially the same thing. Craven didn’t help write the script here, which points to why some of Craven’s favourite themes are channelled in slightly different directions to his usual work, particularly his recurring motif of good and bad families and their avatars who, in the course of the tale, become increasingly blurred: Krug and his cohort and the bourgeois parents of Last House on the Left, the holidaying family and the mutants of The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the suburbanites and their resurging tormentor/victim in Elm Street.

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Here the oppositions are more political and national. The corollary to that theme, of the “normal”, “good” people becoming increasingly warlike and competent in facing their enemies, is more clearly present here too but it takes a long time before Dennis, reduced to a worm before the boot of Peytraud’s intent, finally turns. Peytraud frames Dennis for the murder of Christophe’s sister and uses it to ensure he’ll have him executed if he ever returns to the country, before sticking him on the next plane out. However Mozart sneaks aboard the plane and gives Dennis the batch of zombiefying powder for free, asking only that Dennis let people know about his talents. But Mozart is captured and executed by Peytraud, and after the incident at the Cassedys’ house Dennis feels compelled to return to Haiti as he senses Marielle will be in danger too. Lucien arranges to have Dennis brought to safety by some of his men disguised as cops, pre-empting the Tonton Macoute, so Peytraud has Marielle kidnapped, uses a hex to kill Lucien, and has an operative treat Dennis to a dose of the zombie powder. Dennis desperately begs bewildered people not to bury him as he folds him and seems to drop dead. In his paralysed state, Dennis is forced to experience his own burial.

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This sequence sees Craven paying tribute to the famous dream of death and burial in Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), shooting much of it subjectively from the view of the frozen Dennis as he passes under the eyes of friends and doctors, and his mocking enemy Peytraud. Just before he’s put into the ground, the Captain drops a tarantula into the coffin to keep him company, giving Craven a chance to stage a most iconically phobic horror image, the monstrous black arachnid crawling over Dennis’s stony face. Dennis is saved by Christophe, who knows very well what’s happened and digs Dennis out of his grave. The clash of aesthetic attitudes apparent in the texture of Craven’s filmmaking, and the ruthless way the original three-hour cut was pared down into a very peculiar 97 minutes, makes The Serpent and the Rainbow an experience that would probably seem to many perturbingly hectic. But it also finally exemplifies something rare about its maker and gives it force that refuses taming. The finale sees all hell break loose in both senses of the term, as the Duvalier government collapses, leading to scenes of explosive rage and rejoicing on the streets, through which threads the smaller but vital drama of Dennis taking on Peytraud for control of the nation’s spiritual as well as physical fate.

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Here Craven goes all-out with a riotous assault of inspired, crazy images – the torture chair coming to life and chasing Dennis about the room, Dennis being assaulted by Lucien’s shade, his bashing his way through a door only to find gravity inverting as if he’s in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and dangling from the doorframe, and a nod to Lewton and Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946) as Dennis enters a hall of prison cells from which prisoners’ arms reach, unnaturally long, trying to grasp him. Craven connects Peytraud’s relish of holding the captured souls of his victims, including Lucien, with the political oppression, as Peytraud uses his control over the apparatus of terror to turn victims of that oppression into weapons. Except, naturally, this proves a double-edged sword, as Dennis and Marielle smash the pots containing the souls, letting loose the magical wrath of the repressed on their tormentor, spirits massing to drive Peytraud into a fire and burn him alive, whilst Lucien’s released shade passes on his powers to Dennis. Peytraud is defeated in the real world but there’s one fight left on the spiritual plane. Dennis, invested with Lucien’s magic and utilising the fierceness of his jaguar spirit, is able to overpower Peytraud here too, whereupon he hoists Peytraud by his own petard, psychically tethering him to the torture chair and punctured through the balls before being shunted off to hell, complete with reversal of the “I want to hear you scream!” line. The spirits of the dead arise in rainbow colours whilst the populace celebrates and Dennis and Marielle limp away, bloodied but triumphant. This climax goes so far over the top it all but hits orbit, and I dare say the film as a whole is a litmus test, either sweeping you up in its mad thrust or leaving you totally cold. But it’s also uproarious and casually flings brilliantly staged filmmaking at the audience, a perfect encapsulation of Craven’s delight in his art. Horror film will miss him.

  • J.D. spoke:
    6th/11/2015 to 3:24 pm

    Good call about the “I want to hear you scream!” scene with Bill Pullman being strapped naked to a chair – that scene still makes me squirm every time I see it.

    I would rank this film right up there with his very best work and it’s supremely underrated, which is kinda how I feel about DEADLY BLESSING, which I’ve grown to appreciate more over the years.

    Such a shame that he became the caretaker for the SCREAM franchise, which, compared to THE SERPENT & THE RAINBOW, is no where near as interesting. There’s a lot more going on in this film and one feels that Craven is having a blast with the material.

  • Roderick spoke:
    6th/11/2015 to 8:23 pm

    Well, I disagree JD; I don’t feel it’s a shame Craven became associated with Scream – it’s a great series that benefits tremendously from the intensity of his filmmaking, although I agree it’s certainly much less ambitious than some of his self-penned work. And it also saved him from probably drifting into fringe work like George Romero or not working much at all like John Carpenter. Deadly Blessing is actually one of the continuing gaps in my viewing and I really need to plug it. But anyway, I’m glad we concur on The Serpent and the Rainbow – mandatory Craven.

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