THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Wes Craven

Written by: Richard Maxwell & Adam Rodman

(based on the book THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW by Wade Davis)

Starring: Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae & Paul Winfield

Voodoo is creepy, but few horror films have taken full advantage of that. Of the handful of memorable scary movies that involve voodoo, Wes Craven’s SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW ranks among the very best. It’s not a perfect movie by any means, but this is certainly an underrated gem of Craven’s filmography. SERPENT manages to feel unlike any other horror film I’ve seen and I’ve watched a ton of horror movies. Blending an otherworldly adventure with truly nightmarish imagery, SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW serves as an eerie horror flick that’s ripe for rediscovery.

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Dennis Alan is an anthropologist hired by a drug company to investigate mysterious happenings in Haiti. It seems that somehow, someway, a man (named Christophe) died and has been brought back from the grave. Dennis journeys to Hispaniola and meets with the lovely Dr. Marielle. Together they investigate how Christophe seemingly died and was resurrected. The mystery deepens when Dennis’s investigation has him witnessing dark voodoo rituals and meeting mysterious witch doctors. With Haiti in political turmoil, a black magician has set his sights on Dennis. The American anthropologist has unwittingly plunged himself into a living hell of madness, hallucinations, and deadly magic.

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Though it takes its title from a non-fiction book by Wade Davis and claims to be based on a true story, SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW plays fast and loose with actual voodoo and source material. The rituals and magic are certainly exaggerated to make for an insane horror film. I can’t really fault the film in this regard because it makes for great entertainment. The plot is interesting from beginning to end, even if it has brief stumbles along its journey. Wes Craven already practiced delivering nightmares on film with a certain famous slasher that involved a razor-gloved killer. He seems to have perfected his craft in SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW’s dream sequences. Not to state the obvious, but the horrific visuals in these moments are the literal stuff of nightmares. Some of these images include a bottomless pit, a hallway full of outstretched arms, and a decaying corpse bride rising from the grave. However, the scares aren’t just reserved for the dream sequences as the actual story has creepy moments that include a cringe-worthy torture scene, a dread-soaked POV sequence and much, much more.

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As far as the cast goes, Bill Pullman serves as a leading man here. I’ve seen him give good performances and I’ve seen him give bad performances. SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW delivers Pullman in an Indiana Jones sort of role. The film is also narrated by Pullman in a sort of noirish way that felt a little out-of-place, but helped serve easily digestible chunks of exposition. Cathy Tyson is good as the doctor/love interest, but her character is only developed in one moment that seemed a tad half-assed. Brent Jennings is great as the witch doctor Mozart and serves as Pullman’s main guide into the world of zombie drugs. Finally, Zakes Mokae is absolutely fantastic as Dargent Peytraud. This villain serves as both a sadistic secret police officer and an evil Voodoo priest. In a story that features political tensions and supernatural happenings, this antagonist is a threat for two entirely different reasons. For my money, Mokae delivers the best performance of the whole cast.

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SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is definitely an 80’s movie. This brings a distinct set of positives and negatives. While the practical effects and insane visuals are definite highlights, the last third feels like it came out of an entirely different story. The excuse for its progression (which has something to do with possession from a country away) was far-fetched and didn’t fully jive with everything seen up to that point in the film. Things progressively get over-the-top from there with a scorpion conjured in someone’s throat and a cheesy Jaguar spirit being released from a jar. It all comes down to a ridiculous showdown that remains entertaining in spite of all the silliness, but feels like a severe change in tone from the rest of the film.

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SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is Wes Craven’s most underrated effort and one of his best films. The story is interesting and you’ve never seen Voodoo brought to the screen quite like this. Though it does get over-the-top in the final third, the film is fueled by a creeping sense of unease and plenty of nightmarish visuals. SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW made me wish that a great modern horror film would tackle Voodoo in an interesting way (SKELETON KEY came close, but didn’t take full advantage of it). In the end, SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is one of the more unusual horror flicks out there and comes highly recommended as a result.

Grade: B+

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