The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #372

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Number of Views: Three
Release Date: February 5, 1988
Sub-Genre: Supernatural/Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $7,000,000
Box Office: $19,595,031
Running Time: 98 minutes
Director: Wes Craven
Producers: Doug Claybourne, David Ladd
Screenplay: Richard Maxwell, Adam Rodman
Based on an original novel by Wade Davis
Narration: Bill Pullman
Special Effects: David LeRoy Anderson, Lance Anderson
Visual Effects: Gary Gutierrez
Cinematography: John Lindley
Score: Brad Fiedel
Editing: Glenn Farr
Studio: Universal Pictures
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, Brent Jennings, Conrad Roberts, Badja Djola, Theresa Merritt, Michael Gough, Paul Guilfoyle, Dey Young, Aleta Mitchell

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Brad Fiedel The Serpent and the Rainbow

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Fucking voodoo magic man! I’ve always found black magic unnerving, ever since my first introduction to Baron Samedi from Live & Let Die. Something about it rattles me so perhaps watching The Serpent and the Rainbow at the tender age of fourteen wasn’t my most astute move. There are few films that had such a profound effect on me growing up and part of me always wished that the topic had remained ambiguous as a mysterious man with a painted face handed out night terrors the moment its credits rolled. It has taken until now for me to appraise what some regard as Wes Craven’s best film but I have decided it is high time I face any childhood fears and hopefully ship some off in your direction in the process.

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I credit Craven and indeed he was largely responsible for elucidating this nightmare on the silver screen. However, the source novel was written by ethnobotanist Wade Davis and I’m assured that he had other ideas than how events played out. His one stipulation when surrendering his ghoulish vision to the studios was that Peter Weir direct and Mel Gibson play the focal character. Neither had any involvement in the project whatsoever which must’ve come as an almighty nail in the scrotum for the novelist. Regardless of promises broken; I would imagine that Davis could have little else to quibble over as the result was every bit as disturbing as any other occult film to surface towards the decade’s end.

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Davis had done his homework and conducted scientific research at Harvard to delve deeper into Haiti’s voodoo-laden underbelly. He was even responsible for identifying a number of elements used for zombification, which occurs when the metabolic rate of the victims plummets so much that they take on the appearance of being dead, despite being quite the contrary. Haiti’s population take their voodoo somewhat seriously and were in political strife around the time so Craven and his crew were forced into relocating to the Dominican Republic to wrap up principal filming. I can’t say I particularly blame them.

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Bill Pullman (Lost Highway/Brain Dead) always gives good bang for the buck in Keeper’s opinion and here he predictably excels as curious cat and somewhat abrasive Harvard anthropologist Dennis Alan. He is benign to the spine and only looking to locate and transport an anaesthetic as he sets off to Haiti. What he gets is ultimately far more than he bargains for as it turns out to be no gimmick. Thankfully his vacation isn’t quite to Chevy Chase standard quite yet as he manages to snag himself some hot chocolate. Cathy Tyson (in her first role since Mona Lisa) is an inspired choice to play Alan’s Hiatian contact Marielle Celine and the two share real tangible chemistry. But she’s merely pawn in a much larger and more sinister game. Once we’re introduced to Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), the malevolent high priest with far too many teeth for his jaw to be encouraging and 3D peepers to boot, we arrive at the blackened heart of any tribal rhythm.

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I apologize to the family of the late Mokae as I’m sure he was a delightful fellow but, should I have happened across him in a dimly lit alleyway in the dead of night and he flashed those pearls, I’d effortlessly beat Nicholas Cage’s proud record of sixty seconds to be gone in. His performance, combined with the authentic location and well-versed personnel, lends The Serpent & The Rainbow a real sense of stifling, particularly when Alan’s world begins to spiral into hallucinatory madness. This is very much Craven’s forte, having pioneered the meteoric rise of a certain crispy-coated dream craftsman, and his vivid lasting imagery leaves a muddy footprint on our psyches at numerous junctions throughout.

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There is perhaps no moment in motion picture history that has ever been as excruciating to sit cross-legged through to any man amongst us who values his Johnson than the one where Alan receives his comeuppance for meddling. This scene alone has me clutching my trophy balls like precious exotic stones even now and I would imagine the pain is transferable to ladies also. As if that isn’t enough to rob me of my fast depleting oxygen supply, he is then buried inside a shallow grave for a full five minutes as a particularly leggy arachnid crawls across his unflinching eyeball. Suddenly any Samedi-themed phantasms reconvene although this time with the hellish Peytraud playing peekaboo with my last remaining fraying nerve.

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The most terrifying aspect of The Serpent and the Rainbow is that it’s mostly more than plausible. Director of photography John Lindley captures the gregarious hubbub of the Haitian streets perfectly, while the story is steeped in fact and sprinkles its ominous dust over our senses, rendering us powerless. I would argue that this is not quite Craven’s finest work but would have no objection to it being regarded his most affecting. Some may well remain skeptical as to voodoo and its validity while others may be put off by the film’s meandering pace but the rest of us will be buried right alongside Pullman. Where’s Agent Bond when you need him?

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Dread Factor: 4/5

For the Dread-Heads: Presumably our protagonist breathes a considerable sigh of relief when that final nail isn’t used to secure his coffin. That is until Peytraud produces his DIY kit and gives said nail a far more personal home. Grue-guzzlers will be overjoyed to learn that decapitation and immolation is on the splatter platter but, more critically than gore, little can condition you to the sheer horror of being unwittingly buried alive with an eight legged freak and left to fester.

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7 Comments

    1. You weren’t alone my friend. The first time I ever saw Baron Samedi was the moment when I perfected the art of shitting through the eye of a needle.

  1. Thanks, Keeper. I can’t watch or read gore … but persist with your reviews just cause it’s you :). Your soul-sharing work though … THAT is gold — pure gold.

    Be well,

    ~Shauna

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