The Serpent and the Rainbow Review

What makes a good horror movie? Wes Craven has always known the answer to that question; like Randy from his smash-hit Scream, he knows the formula inside and out. In his best films, the auteur manages to twist the well-worn conventions to his liking, often with entertaining results. It was Craven, after all, that began the self-referential horror craze with New Nightmare - an ingenious twist on the Freddy Krueger franchise, that failed to set the box office a light, despite its heady premise. For every hit he churns out, he reacts with a series of financial flops. To his credit, these 'forgotten' films are nowhere near as bad as their reputations suggest. In most respects, audiences will be surprised at how good some of these gems are.

Which brings me neatly on to the director’s 1988 film The Serpent and the Rainbow, an underrated voodoo opus, that deserves a reappraisal by the horror community. The late 80s was a tough time for Craven. Following the all-mighty success of A Nightmare on Elm Street wasn’t easy. Yet, Rainbow was a film that showed significant promise. His take on the voodoo culture is certainly the most ambitious in modern cinema; and in most respects, is probably the most faithful representation of these dark magics.

The film is based upon the real-life experiences of explorer Wade Davis, and his book forms the backbone of the picture. It follows Harvard anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman), who is sent on a mission into Haiti to retrieve a mysterious powder that is rumoured to bring people back from the dead. He is joined by local nurse Marielle (Cathy Tyson), his guide. Naturally, his search for the powder plants him in hot water. He is followed by evil police chief Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), who has access to these malign powers. Alan is then flung into a terrifying world of ancient curses, vengeful spirits and the walking dead...

Voodoo on film has a rather sketchy history. The biggest influence on the sub-genre was the Val Lewton-produced I Walked With a Zombie, which was considered the best of the breed for many decades. While that film carries its own share of frights, it still lacked a convincing backdrop to its supernatural hokum. Since then, the culture has been misrepresented in just about every horror film that tackled the subject (especially in the Amicus anthology Dr Terror’s House of Horrors). With this in mind, Craven wanted to do something different and unique. While his film takes liberties with the culture for entertainment purposes, it still provides a convincing depiction of the country and its beliefs (at least until the effects-heavy conclusion).

A wonderfully atmospheric picture from the opening sequence onward, The Serpent and the Rainbow has a lot to admire in its run time. That’s if you go into it with an open mind, and don’t expect the usual splatter fest. I have to congratulate screenwriters Richard Maxwell and A.R. Simoun for taking time to establish Haiti, its culture and the films use of the supernatural. The characters are carefully characterised, despite being clichés, and the script never hurries. It builds tension. Those who are suited to the breathless MTV-style of recent horror films may be turned off, since the first act of the movie is all about build-up. Thankfully, it just about manages to deliver the pay-off we all want, though I know some will be disappointed.

The most successful element of the film is clear from the first few frames - it was shot entirely on location. There are several sequences set in America, but for 95% of the picture we are treated to a glimpse of Haiti and its bizarre locales. Craven’s mood for the film is unique; he perfectly captures the sense of unrest in the country, tapping into a feeling of unease and dread. One thing’s for sure - you won’t want to go there on holiday.

Unlike Craven’s most popular films, Rainbow is fairly restrained in terms of on-screen violence. It isn’t as strong as The Last House on the Left or The Hills Have Eyes, and it never reaches the Grand Guignol excess of Elm Street. Yet, it still sends chills down the spine. One gut-churning sequence will have the men in the audience painting their underwear brown, as Alan is tortured by Peytraud; a nail slammed through his scrotum. While the atrocity is never seen, it sure is felt. Elsewhere, the movie regularly dips into Craven’s fascination with dream sequences. Alan’s mind is tortured by Peytraud, whose diabolical spells have an alarming effect, reaching him wherever he goes. The films centrepiece also grips - Alan is buried alive by Peytraud’s men, only to rise again. It’s a highly gripping chain of events. Those who saw Kill Bill Vol. 2 will know where Quentin Tarantino drew his inspiration.

Yet, the film is far from perfect. The performances are merely above-average. Pullman is decent in the lead role, relishing the chance to play a geeky Indiana Jones. He really gets into the 'terror' toward the end of the film - this guy sure can scream. But his romantic interest in the shape of Cathy Tyson is rather poor screenwriting. The sex scene between them doesn’t really suit the material either, but it does provide male viewers with a glimpse of Tyson’s 'assets'. The conclusion of the film manages to satisfy, despite being rather silly. Craven’s pacing goes up a notch, delivering a series of engaging special effects. They all look impressive enough, but it is over too quickly, and a darker denouement would have been better. But fans of the director will love it.

16 years since it was first released, The Serpent and the Rainbow has matured into a minor cult classic. Craven takes the subject matter seriously, and the result is an entertaining excursion into a fascinating culture. And best of all, there isn’t a masked serial killer in sight...

The Disc

Universal give their reissue of The Serpent and the Rainbow a barebones effort, but the disc doesn’t disappoint technically. The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is respectable, but not perfect. That said, I haven’t seen the film looking so good. The colours are mostly strong, yet in some shots they are muted (I can’t decide if this was a stylistic effect or a flaw of the print). The blacks are deep and resonant, and the switch from night time to daylight is seamless, with above-average shadow delieanation. There is some grain, but it isn’t easy to detect, and is so minimal that many audiences won’t notice it. In most respects, this is a clean transfer, but I wished that it could have been sharper. Fans like myself, will be happy though.

The audio is bog-standard Dolby Digital 2.0. This is a film crying out for a 5.1 overhaul, but until a better release comes along, it will have to do. The effects are restricted to the front speakers, with dialogue and music coming across in a flat manner. While it doesn’t do full justice to Brad Fiedel’s great score, it is acceptable. The sound is clear throughout, but in this day and age of souped-up tracks, I’m sure Universal could have done better.

All we get in the extras department is the original theatrical trailer, accessible through the static menu. Wes Craven is well-known for his commentary tracks (he even provided one for the dire TV movie Summer of Fear, so there should be something here). Unfortunately, until someone realises the cult appeal of this film, fans are once again left in the dark.

Recommended to die-hard fans of Wes Craven and those looking for something different in the recent glut of horror pictures, The Serpent and the Rainbow has aged well. Its story and themes also remain fresh, and fans will be happy just to have the film on a decent disc. Now, if only Anchor Bay could pick up the rights...

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