Terrifyingly Gnarly: Wes Craven, Week 3: “THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW”

Originally posted on 2010-09-10 21:23:52 by Samuel Zimmerman

Quite recently, a blog went up on FANGORIA taking a handful of legendary horror directors to task for essentially riding the waves of their legacy and failing to continuously and contemporarily put out excellent work. No doubt, it’s an interesting theory worth debating and investigating. However in my eyes, its author made one fatal mistake (and no, it wasn’t that confrontational opening line—although that was slightly devoid of taste). Nick sought to claim that Wes Craven neither is, nor ever was, great. I’m under the belief that no matter how you feel about many of his films, that’s simply a falsehood. So with four weeks until the filmmaker’s latest, MY SOUL TO TAKE, hits theaters, I’ve decided to look at one of his movies a week (excluding the landmarks like LAST HOUSE, NIGHTMARE and SCREAM) to showcase that even during misfires and his lesser praised works, Craven displays talent, chops and incredible imagination. Check out last week’s right here and read on for week three—my look at 1988’s Haitian Voodoo-zombie flick THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW.

“Listen to me, there’s a door to the mystical, and you just walked through it,” says Michael Gough to Bill Pullman. “Right now you are very vulnerable. I wouldn’t go back to Haiti. You’d be a grade school boy in a world of Nobel Prize winners.”

Considering the fine china, parlor room, bow ties and Boston/Cambridge Ivy League setting, and especially considering the American conceit of often thinking of ourselves as the most developed and intelligent (often in relation to third world and struggling nations), it’s an interesting (and ironic since Pullman’s Alan Dennis would presumably be awarded something akin to a Nobel Prize if his mission were successful) choice of words that hold a lot of weight in explaining just what makes well done horror and THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW so effective. It’s that classic fear of the unknown, the different. A good many citizens of superpower nations around the world may study all they want, and the idea here is that Alan—being an anthropologist—has, but will never fully understand or not be unsettled by the clash of values, customs, superstitions and beliefs that often crop up in underdeveloped countries. Nor will they grasp that often their aid and wishes to help will have nary a dent of an effect thanks to corrupt political regimes.

In SERPENT, Dr. Alan Dennis is approached by a pharmaceutical corporation with the task of learning more about, and obtaining a sample of, a powder used in voodoo ceremonies in Haiti. His past exploits in the Amazon fuel the idea that Alan will be able to handle what comes next. We know he can’t. Once in Haiti, Alan becomes close with Marielle Duchamp, a psychiatrist and branded radical. The two investigate the existence of the powder, what’s happened to supposed zombie Christophe and becomes entangled in both supernatural voodoo rites and political upheaval amidst the Jean-Claude Duvalier regime.

From its initial concept (based upon a nonfiction account by Wade Davis), what’s very exciting about Craven and screenwriters Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman’s approach to this zombie film is their interest in looking back farther than Romero’s 1968 landmark to the original zombies, mindless slaves spawned by voodoo in the Caribbean. By 1988, audiences had no doubt grown very accustomed to the modern undead and just what they entailed so bringing it back a step to an unfamiliar landscape no doubt brought a freshness and still does. There aren’t a whole lot of films like THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, and it’s all the better for it. What’s more is that Craven’s scares are still effective which is in part thanks to the set up and execution of out-and-out supernatural shocks, but also the all around sense of dread and hallucinatory “out of one’s element” atmosphere in the film (in the beginning, a man comments on the remarkableness of Haiti in that at a communal celebration involving needles and fire feats, none of the Haitians seem to bleed or be injured). Craven smartly lets his shots linger steadily and matter-of-factly and often a bit too long on the odd and off-kilter happenings, putting an audience member face-to-face with something alien. The director also takes his time in setting up the environment in things like displaying an entire funeral procession before transitioning into the characters and beginning of the Haitian aspect of the story. The atmosphere begins with Alan in the jungles of the Amazon, clenches tightly to his shoulders throughout his stay in Haiti and even follows him back to the U.S. at the end of the second act for one of the scariest and best scenes in the film (a friend’s wife mimics a Haitian glass eater seen earlier in the movie by chomping on her wine glass at dinner, and with a mouth full of shards viciously, attempts to attack Alan across the table). 

What makes these scares so deeply unsettling is very akin to Craven’s work in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Many of Alan’s more frightening encounters are dreams or hallucinations that very much skirt the line of reality. There’s a sense that these aren’t nightmares that will wash away with the cold sweat, but have a lasting effect either physically or mentally that’s only confirmed when it’s revealed that Captain Peytraud (a superb and sinister Zakes Mokae), the dictator’s second-in-command and head of the oppressive and violent secret police, is heavily dabbling in voodoo and crafting the walking nightmares Alan sees (who could forget the skeleton bride, spewing the serpent from her mouth?). 

Even though the film had apparently departed greatly from its source text, something it came under fire for from the original author—likely for being turned into a genre story—under Craven’s guidance and his social and political awareness, the horror becomes a way to express his interest in looking at what an unstable, militant and violent government does to itself and its people. Before zombies became ravenous flesh eaters, the real fear was that you’d be a mindless slave, stripped of soul and forced to wander in limbo and servitude, often to men of dark intentions (which Romero fused beautifully with the modern zombie in his DAWN OF THE DEAD to discuss our blind loyalty to consumer culture). Under Peytraud, who holds many souls hostage, he’s slowly turning the people of Haiti into figurative and literal zombies, unable to speak out, doing as he says and deploying both the aforementioned walking nightmares and very real and very murderous police to make his point. Setting the film during the regime of Duvalier grounds the supernatural occurrences, creating a very clear parallel and showcasing that although Alan is able to kill Peytraud, it’s the people of Haiti who had to rise up and drive Duvalier out.

While most of the frights in THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW aren’t exactly subtle, they contain a stern eerie sensibility, one that flies out the window when Alan and Peytraud meet in the climax and where some viewers may be taken out as souls begin flying around and Peytraud comes shooting out of walls. I wasn’t necessarily taken aback or put off, but excited by the grandiose-ness of it all and where it ends up, with the captain in his torturing chair, being sucked into hell, no doubt an incredible moment in the film. 

THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is an example of Craven at his best, employing excellent filmmaking, tension, scares and what horror should often be used for, exploring the plight of the repressed, both in the sense of people and taboos.

You can read the blog that incited my seven week response right here, as well as check out my initial idea and drop me suggestions for what Craven films you’d like to see me tackle here.

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FANGORIA: The First in Fright Since 1979.
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