October 30, 2012

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

"An anthropologist goes to Haiti after hearing rumours about a drug used by black magic practitioners to turn people into zombies."

It's very windy outside (and inside too now that I've just had a plate full of chips and beans), so what better way to end my "Hallowe'en Countdown" than with Wes Craven's zombie movie.

You don't see the connection in that segue, do you? It's okay, there isn't one other than the tenuous link between Haiti being destroyed by an earthquake a couple of years ago and the current "Frankenstorm" allegedly being about to destroy the East coast of America. It's just like how there's no connection between zombies or slashers and Hallowe'en, but that hasn't stopped other horror bloggers from writing about them for the last month.

Even though I've tried to keep my own reviews on topic during this month with lots of ghosties, witches, and other supernatural entities, "The Serpent and the Rainbow" has been haunting me ever since I got it in Universal's "Cult Horror Collection" 4-movie pack (along with "Phantasm II", "The Funhouse" and "Sssssss"). I remembered it as being a decent thriller rather than a horror so I couldn't wait any longer to see if it would still hold up today.

Inspired by the book "The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist's Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic", this has to be one of the most overambitious movies Wes Craven ever made. It's certainly a far more realistic and "back to basics" depiction of zombies than George A. Romero's ghouls. The zombies here are the drugged, hypnotised and brainwashed kind as in "White Zombie" (1932) or "I Walked with a Zombie" (1943).

The filming in Haiti and the Dominican Republic adds a lot to the atmosphere even though the voodoo rituals depicted are full of typical Hollywood excesses and clichés. In its favour, "The Serpent and the Rainbow" includes more details about voodoo and Haitian black magic than "The Vineyard" (1989), for instance, but they are still rather minimal and contrived.

Standout moments in "The Serpent and the Rainbow" include Bill Pullman wrestling with a very tame jaguar, Michael Gough being not very different from Alfred in the "Batman" movies for all of five minutes, and of course, the lovely Cathy Tyson constantly forgetting which accent to use and giving a quick flash of her boobs.

Most people rave about Zakes Mokae who is, without doubt, very sinister as Dargent Peytraud, but I found Brent Jennings to be far more entertaining as Louis Mozart. The scenes with Bill Pullman and Brent Jennings playing off each other are the best in the movie.

I wish I could say the same for every other scene that Bill Pullman is in, but I've never liked him as an actor. His role as Dennis Alan is, however, one of his best despite barely rising above two-dimensional. What do you expect though? This is a Wes Craven movie after all.

I'm not sure if it was added as a joke or a cliché, but one thing to remember from "The Serpent and the Rainbow" is that screaming, "I'm a U.S. citizen!" will never do an American any good at all. The rest of the world doesn't care, hates Americans anyway, and identifying himself as such a coddled, easy target in such a foolish manner is more likely to get the shouter's head kicked in than anything else. Oh yes, the xenophobia is rife in "The Serpent and the Rainbow", and with good reason given the political unrest in the background.

If you can't stand Bill Pullman constantly grinning and want "The Serpent and the Rainbow" to end in a downbeat way then stop the movie at 1 hour and 20 minutes. If you want to see a lame and formulaic horror movie ending full of explosions and dated effects, just continue to watch the last 17 minutes. In fairness, the final payoff scene is nicely done, but the silliness preceding it will probably make you groan in disbelief.

Overall, "The Serpent and the Rainbow" is a slightly more cerebral '80s horror movie than all the Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers tripe, and is well worth rewatching at this time of year (or any other for that matter).

Anyway, watch out for all the blustery winds and rain which the TV news is unnecessarily sensationalising. There's no need to panic, the stores will still be open, and you don't need to buy every can of beans and soup in the supermarkets. If you still have electricity, just stay safe indoors and watch some scary movies. It's Hallowe'en tomorrow!

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