The Serpent and the Rainbow Poster

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) – Musings on an Exceptional Movie

With the fifth Scream sequel’s release around the corner as I write this, remembrance of the iconic filmmaker who directed that movie’s preceding four instalments invades me. Wes Craven (1939-2015) left an indelible legacy that could effortlessly fill up an entire floor in the horror hall of fame all by itself. From revered cult classics like The Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes to successful groundbreakers such as Scream and A Nightmare On Elm Street, both franchises that would grow into household names, not just in horror but in pop culture in general, Craven ranks among the greatest of greats on whose shoulders many a genre filmmaker has stood, and still stands, to this day.

Browsing through his portfolio it’s not hard to discern Craven’s development curve as a filmmaker. Starting off with edgy indies, he would soon expand his scope, a desire he already harboured when developing ‘Hills’ until his then-producer Peter Locke, made it clear that he was keen on seeing the underground success of ‘Last House’ repeated. With Craven financially cornered at the time, this would momentarily force him to back down on his creative ambitions. But already budding in Swamp Thing, his unique blend of assertive horror with satire, humour and play on clichés would yet come to full fruition in ‘Nightmare’, later in his career adding self-referencing metafiction to the mix in his Scream sequels.

The Serpent And The Rainbow is a bit of an outlier in Craven’s body of work. While still successful, albeit moderately, at the box office, it never made the name for itself that many of his other titles would, and even the advent of home media couldn’t change that. The movie contains one of his frequent and oft-explored motifs – the netherworld between dream and reality – and features a popular theme, zombies.

But also distinctly differs in style from what many have come to expect from him, with its tone more leaning into that of a pseudo-documentary. In this article, I will try to make sense of why I think The Serpent and the Rainbow holds a unique place to this day, not just in Craven’s legacy but in the horror genre as a whole.

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The Serpent And The Rainbow follows the exploits of Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman, Independence Day, Lost Highway), an anthropologist who travels the globe in search of medicinal herbs that might benefit mankind. After an ominous burial sequence in what we would eventually find out to have taken place in Haiti, the movie starts off with Dennis’ field trip into the Peruvian Amazon basin, where he has a drug-induced premonition upon visiting a local tribe. After he comes to, he finds the village deserted and his helicopter pilot killed. But he’s guided his way out of the jungle by a jaguar and eventually finds his way back to Boston.

Back home, his mentor Dr. Earl Schoonbacher (Michael Gough, Batman Forever, Sleepy Hollow) arranges a meeting with big pharma mogul Dr. Andrew Cassedy (Pail Guilfoyle, Don’t Look Up, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) who shows Dennis the original medical death certificate of Christophe Durand (Conrad Roberts, The Mosquito Coast), a resident of Haiti, along with his photograph of later date proving that he’s somehow still very much alive. Cassedy suspects an as yet unknown drug to be involved and sees an opportunity to develop a better anesthetic. So he tasks Dennis to go to Haiti, find out what’s what and come back with the drug.

After initially scoffing at the idea of resurrection and ‘zombification’, Dennis accepts Cassedy’s engagement and off he goes, to one of the poorest countries in the world amidst the throes of ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier’s dictatorship and the reign of terror by his secret police, the Tonton Macoutes. Arrived in Port-au-Prince, he meets up with Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson, Priest, Band Of Gold), an elegant Haitian doctor running a needy local clinic for the mentally challenged and it is here, around 15 minutes in, where the movie gets to the meat of its story.

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Dennis’ attempts to find Christophe puts him at odds with and in the crosshairs of the ruthless Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae, Cry Freedom, Dust Devil), who runs the Haitian secret police. Aside from violence, Peytraud also turns out to draw power from black magic. Dennis finds some protection by Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, The Terminator), a Vodou priest and his tenuous ally.

His quest will ultimately lead Dennis to a showy con man named Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings, Moneyball, All American), who surprisingly appears to possess deep knowledge of the drug that Dennis is after when his sham is exposed by him. But getting safely back to Boston again will prove to be problematic, with revolution brewing in Haiti and Peytraud hot on his heels, also spiritually.

The Serpent And The Rainbow was penned by Richard Maxwell The Challenge) and Adam Rodman (Unforgivable) and inspired by the eponymous book by real-life anthropologist Wade Davis, published in 1985. In his book, Davis details his research into the process of making zombies in Haiti by investigating the case of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was purportedly zombified and subsequently enslaved, and on whom the movie’s persona Christophe is based. The book furthermore intricately details the composition of the ‘zombie drug’, involving a mixture of pufferfish, dried toad, sea worms, various other ingredients and additives, and an intricate system of Vodou rituals.

The crux of Davis’ findings was that ‘zombification’ is a chemically induced near-death experience, followed up by keeping the ‘resurrected zombie’ compliant by drugging him or her with devil’s trumpet, a weed containing a hallucinogenic alkaloid. The whole phenomenon is furthermore amplified by religious conviction and fear. The scientific validity of Davis’ research and resultant findings have been contested and remain controversial, though not conclusively refuted, to this day.

Criticism from the academic community was mainly directed against the presumed insufficient scientific quality of his research, i.e. inadequate peer group testing and experiment verification, consistency of chemical tests on the base material, and so on; accusations that Davis in turn contradicted.

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The Serpent and the Rainbow incorporates and follows Davis’ findings quite closely, particularly with the process Louis Mozart takes us through in the movie, barring a few dramatic liberties. Given his proclivity for dream worlds, Craven weaves quite a bit of metaphysical, or magical if you will, subtext into the proceedings. Interestingly, filmmaker Richard Stanley (Dust Devil, Color Out Of Space) made a documentary for BBC in 2000, broadcast in 2002, about the magical aspects of making zombies in Haiti called The White Darkness. He went in as level-headed as possible, but his experiences there seem to retroactively, and likely incidentally, support Craven’s adaptations.

What sets The Serpent And The Rainbow apart from almost every other zombie film ever made since Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), is that it takes its subject matter completely seriously. Vodou is treated respectfully as the predominant syncretic religion in real-life Haiti. Rites and processions are authentic and locations are real; The Serpent and the Rainbow was shot on location in Haiti and Hispaniolan neighbour the Dominican Republic.

Possession is not an evil entity randomly inhabiting someone’s faculties but a religious experience, a state of ecstasy and an inherent way of life. Zombies are nothing like the cannibalistic undead that we’ve come to expect from pop culture, but ordinary living people who’ve been robbed of their free will, and who’re now condemned to face and serve the bokor in their darkest dreams.

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But Craven also knows that The Serpent and the Rainbow is first and foremost a feature film, and neither a full-fledged dramatized documentary nor a social or religious commentary. This led him and his writers to insert a few dramatic subplots, not all of which work equally well. The biggest problem lies with the character Marielle, who serves as Dennis’ Haitian guide (so far so good), develops into his love interest (um, okay I guess) and ends up being the driving force behind Dennis’ impetuous return to Haiti, knowingly putting his own life in grave danger.

But getting mindlessly pussy-whipped hardly constitutes a credible motive for the weathered world traveller Dennis is portrayed to be as. Cathy Tyson’s portrayal of Marielle is also problematic. She’s a capable actress and doing her best, but her accent shifts from half-hearted Creole-ish to distinctly British in a hurry, and some accent training – or casting a real Haitian actress – would’ve worked wonders for Marielle’s believability as a Haitian.

But in The Serpent and the Rainbow’s grand scheme of things, these are near-negligible gripes. Bill Pullman, then still up-and-coming as an actor, is at the movie’s front and center and he carries the movie well. His character Dennis is someone we get to know and root for as a sympathetic and relatable guy, even though he’s supposed to be Bostonian with a perplexing Texas drawl – but I just touched on the lack of a dialect coach already.

As a horror movie, The Serpent And The Rainbow works like a charm with its pervasively menacing atmosphere, both politically and spiritually, with evil and danger constantly looming around every corner throughout the movie. And it has a couple of effective jump scares to boot before that was even a thing. Needless to say, everything is done with practical effects, and effectively so.

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I realize that I’ve been consistently labelling this movie as a zombie movie, and to a degree, it certainly is, although one very dissimilar to – and more reality-based than – the ones we’re used to seeing and expecting them to be. But it’s also a ‘voodoo movie’ if that’s a term, or Vodou as it’s more accurately named here. To me personally, the movie leans more into being akin to Angel Heart (1987) in terms of atmosphere and approach, even though they tell an entirely different story, and the differences between voodoo in Louisiana and Haitian Vodou are no less significant. But watch both movies back to back – makes an awesome bill – and perhaps you’ll see what I mean.

The movie still holds up surprisingly well today, well over 30 years later, albeit also for tragic reasons. The situation in Haiti sadly hasn’t really changed since the time in which this movie takes place, and if anything it’s only gotten worse. The ruthless Duvalier dynasty may be long gone but local crime lords and their gangs have taken over the reign of terror from the Tonton Macoutes with their kidnappings, shootings and executions.

The country remains riddled with corruption, hardly has a functional central government and has been pummeled into shambles by several natural disasters – earthquakes and hurricanes – that it’s nowhere near anything resembling recovery from. This sad and mortifying reality eerily (and unintendedly) helps The Serpent And The Rainbow retain its actuality.

In conclusion, The Serpent And The Rainbow is a one-of-a-kind and unjustly underrated movie, not only within Wes Craven’s own formidable body of work but also within the entire horror genre. It’s a uniquely engrossing, eerie, scary, fascinating and highly recommended viewing experience that will let its 98-minutes runtime fly.

The Serpent and the Rainbow is available on Blu-Ray and DVD as well as various Digital platforms. You can consult JustWatch for ones in your country.

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Where to watch The Serpent and the Rainbow

2 thoughts on “The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) – Musings on an Exceptional Movie”

  1. I’ve seen some most of Craven’s essentials but i’ve never even heard of this one. I can’t even think of a voodoo-centric horror movie that i’ve seen, much less heard of. Once i start reviewing some of his movies i’ll queue this up!

    1. As Alfred said, this didn’t really get noticed for some reason. It’s a really good film, although it might be more accurate to call it a thriller rather than a straight horror film.

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