R, 98 min.
Director: Wes Craven
Writers: Richard Maxwell, A.R. Simoun, Wade Davis (book)
Starring: Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, Brent Jennings, Conrad Roberts, Badja Djola, Theresa Merritt, Michael Gough, Paul Guilfoyle, Dey Young
“The Serpent and the Rainbow” is a good effort, but I’m not sure it has decided just what it is an effort at. I suspect that Wes Craven saw Wade Davis’s book as a gateway to possibly get him out of the horror genre to which he’d been attached since his directorial debut “The Last House on the Left”, the modern horror shock revisioning of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring”. Davis’s real life experience investigating a Haitian voodoo cult served as the basis of his study for this book, and Craven might’ve identified the real life aspect as an opportunity to be taken more seriously as a filmmaker.
Most of the movie’s running time focuses on a rather straight forward account of an America anthropologist sent to Haiti by a drug company hoping to develop a drug used in voodoo practices that apparently turn living people into zombies into a drug with positive medical applications. The anthropologist finds a Haiti in political upheaval, with a coup brewing. This makes it easy for the head of the police force to use his power to keep the American away from voodoo practices he’s used to influence his position.
Craven does a fairly good job of using the zombie plot to parallel the political upheaval in allegory. I can’t help but think he’s also referencing the first ever zombie movie, “White Zombie” (1932), with this material in the way they both use the Haitian culture and isolation as a setting for their zombie stories. These zombies are also in that original tradition as mindless servants rather than the flesh eating nature developed by George Romero in his “Night of the Living Dead”.
The story itself drags a little through most of the film’s running time. There’s a sense that Craven is avoiding some of the supernatural ideas behind the voodoo culture in order to keep the film fixed firmly in reality. His lead, a young Bill Pullman, is also just a little too goofy at times for this heady material. Still it works for the most part. There are some wonderful dream sequences, where Craven gets to fall back upon some of his “Nightmare on Elm Street” experience to spice up some of the more stagnant political material that he never quite seems willing to embrace.
Unfortunately, in the film’s final act, Craven lets his horror leanings get the best of him by getting more extreme with the supernatural elements in some sequences that would fit in better with the aforementioned “Elm Street” movies. It’s as if he goes from resisting his horror experience to diving in full force as if that’s what the whole movie’s been about from the beginning. It feels like some studio heads looked at the dailies and said to Craven, “Couldn’t we make this a little more Freddy Kruger?”