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The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

 Rating: *** out of 4

“What did you dream about this afternoon? A woman in your arms? The sea at your doorstep? Noooo! You dreamt of me and of the grave. I know because I was there. And I can be there every time you close your eyes. The pain I cause you in the room upstairs is nothing to the pain I can cause in your own mind.” - Dargent Peytraud

Cast: Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, and Brent Jennings.

Writer: Richard Maxwell and A. R. Simoun

Director: Wes Craven

Following the unfortunate bomb that was Deadly Friend, Craven found his first real post-Nightmare critical success with The Serpent and the Rainbow. Once more, Craven tried to break free from his horror film shackles by making a psychological thriller that dissected the misunderstood religion of Haitian Voodoo, but due to studio constraints and pressure, he was forced to make a more marketable horror film. Rather than fight the studio, he embraced their wishes while also keeping relatively true to his original concept for the film.

Set in 1985, the film follows an anthropologist who has been sent to Haiti amidst political unrest to seek a drug that causes zombification that U.S. pharmaceuticals want to use in place of anesthesia. Once there, Dr. Alan uncovers a secret society of voodoo practitioners that are using the drug to target those that they dislike and keep the regular people in line. Dr. Alan writes off the religion as mere myth and exaggeration but discovers that there may be truth to the voodoo practices after all.

The film’s treatment of voodoo, on the whole, as a legitimate folk religion is taken with care. The film never moves to ostracize voodoo as being a religion of evil people or suggests that it is a fake religion. It is treated with understanding and is celebrated for its uniqueness. But like with any religion, in the wrong hands it can be utilized for evil. I like that the film doesn’t condemn the religion, but rather those who bastardize it. The fact that the studio enforced Craven to deliver a straight up horror film does cause the climax of the film to fall under some scrutiny of rendering voodoo as a horror film McGuffin cliché a bit, but the fact that the film firmly places emphasis on the human element of villainy makes the climax easier to swallow.

The film is loosely based on a true story, as chronicled in the novel of the same name written by Wade Davis (who was very much an on set presence during the film’s making). He developed a strong working relationship and friendship with star Bill Pullman who shines bright among the many strong performances in the film. Davis’ guiding presence helps to present an authenticity in Pullman’s performance and elevates the film’s plausibility. The atmosphere of the film is something to admire, as it was shot on location in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It almost has the flare of a documentary lending more to the believability of the film.

Craven injects a lot of nightmarish imagery in the dream sequences that guide Dr. Alan’s character in the film. There is some truly unnerving material in those scenes and the final showdown is a pure Evil Dead-esque delight. The film’s only real drawback is a forced romance between Dr. Alan and his Haitian guide, Marielle Duchamp. It is completely unnecessary and grinds the film to a halt. That said, the film is an effective slow burn with a strong climax and one of Craven’s better works from the middle of his career.

-March, 2016

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