Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Serpent and the Rainbow

1987, US, Directed by Wes Craven
Colour, Running Time: 94 minutes
Review Source: DVD, R2, Universal; Video: Anamorphic 1.78:1, Audio: DD2.0

Anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) chisels a reputation for himself by surviving for weeks lost in the Amazon (jungle, rather than warehouse) on a pharmaceutical mission. A short while after returning he is requested to go on an expedition to Haiti to locate Christophe, a dead man who’s apparently been seen alive several years after his certification and burial, to discover more about a drug that can supposedly cause temporary death (or the appearance of it), allowing the victim to be revived later - the idea being to use it as a revolutionary anaesthetic to reduce life loss on operating tables. Arriving in the politically burdened, voodoo-fearing country he enlists the help of a woman, Dr Duchamp, who shows him an apparently real living ’zombie’, now incarcerated at the asylum where she works. Following enquiries they contact a shaman who claims he can concoct the drug Alan seeks - but for $1000. Unfortunately Alan has attracted the attentions of the aggressive police and a dictator called Peytraud who isn’t enthusiastic about the American’s presence and will go to any lengths to scare him away. After Alan and Duchamp finally locate Christophe wandering around a graveyard, Alan is convinced there is more to the story than just a poverty stricken asylum keen to acquire funding through publicity-seeking means.
Based on the (ostensibly true) Wade Davis book (published in 1985) Wes Craven crafted one of the most intelligent ‘living dead’ films of its time by taking an intriguing story and moulding a world that exudes a sense of mystery and the supernatural. Bill Pullman, generally better known for roles in comedies and romances, convincingly portrays an adventurer that is both daring and fragile, while Zakes Mokae (also a strong presence in Dust Devil) is frightening as the despotic Peytraud - these performances, combined with an engaging script, help to capture viewer attention. This is supported by an appropriately funereal score that adeptly alludes to impending doom (wonderful work by Brad Fiedel), an undercurrent of Alan’s quest, the summit of which being a chilling episode where he faces the ordeal of inhaling the very drug he seeks, followed by his own conscious burial. The problem with what is otherwise a gratifying journey arrives in the last 15 minutes when Craven can’t seem to help himself taking Alan’s hallucinations - which are hitherto a staple of his journey through to the unknown - into inappropriate Nightmare on Elm Street territory with dead arms elongating out of prison cells, autonomous chairs and, most ridiculously, a Shocker-style charred antagonist attacking Alan (even the music becomes conventional slasher fare at this point). Removing this rubbish for the sake of some verisimilitude and a little more ambiguity may have resulted in a masterwork. As it is, you have a superb hour and fifteen minutes of immersion into a supernaturally oppressive world, followed by 15 minutes of disposable footage that was probably shot to make the product more marketable, undermining audience intelligence (where present) in the process. Either way, it’s still Craven’s best film in my opinion.

Serpent and the Rainbow was released on DVD featuring a grainy, slightly washed-out but otherwise decent picture with its original Dolby surround track (though it’s a pity it wasn’t upgraded to 5.1) that betrays the limitations of the era. The disc is the same in both the UK and US. Without a complete overhaul the presentation serves well enough and, aside from the terrible final act, I love watching this film and it stands up well to repeat viewings.


  1. I really loved this movie and while agree with you that the final act was kind of lame, overall it was a unique take on a zombie movie. Oh man, that scene where they are burying him and through in the tarantula for good measure... I was squirming :)

  2. Definitely unique in what is now a very over saturated sub-genre. I always remember the Sky trailer in the early nineties, which featured the scene of him being buried - it prompted me to check out the film and I've loved it ever since. Nice site of yours by the way.


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