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The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987) – DVD Review

Serpent and the Rainbow DVD


Written by Richard Maxwell and A. R. Simoun, quite loosely based on the book by Wade Davis
Directed by Wes Craven
Starring Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield

Released by: Universal.
Rating: R
Region: 1
Anamorphic: Oui.

My Advice: Eh, read the book instead.

Hidden amongst the rituals and legends of native cultures are effective treatments unknown to Western medicine. Dennis Alan (Pullman) goes to the shamans and medicine men to discover their secrets. This has gotten him in trouble but nothing as deadly as what he about to encounter. Evidence surfaces of a Haitian man who was declared dead but is found wandering around, saying he is a zombie. A pharmacological firm wants information on the process, thinking this could lead to the next big anesthesia. So off to Haiti Alan goes where he meets the beautiful Marielle Duchamp (Tyson) who is his guide in his quest for the powerful voodoo powder. Amidst the beauty and brutality of the island nation where political unrest is about to explode, Alan and Duchamp explore Haitian voodoo society where houngan Lucien Celine (Winfield) warns them of the danger of such dark magic and its main practitioner Dargent Peytraud (Mokae), head of the dictator Dulavier’s secret police. With revolution, madness, and darkness at every turn, Alan risks his very soul as he travels between The Serpent and the Rainbow.

[ad#longpost]I should say up front that I’ve actually read the book this movie is supposedly based on. It is a scholarly but readable history of Haiti, the various voodoo denominations, and the study of anthropology. So when I saw that the movie was directed by Wes Craven and was marked as “Horror,” I was concerned. But Craven has helmed some good movies so I went at it with an open mind. And, in turn, discovered that my concerns were completely justified.

Bill Pullman is completely wrong in this role. Dennis Alan has traveled to exotic locales and met all manner of interesting people but Pullman conveys nothing but naiveté and boyishness. He looks more at home at a kegger than among the dark mysteries of Haiti. This really needed an actor with more seasoning and gravitas. Especially when putting him up against Mokae as the evil voodoo priest Peytraud. That leads me to another point. For the first half of the movie, Craven manages to keep the audience wondering if what Alan experiences is actually voodoo magic or simply hallucinatory episodes influenced by the setting and Peytraud’s machinations. Then it’s as if Craven goes into default horror movie mode, abandons rationality and then results to tiresome mano-a-mano fighting. Instead of dealing with the mundane evil of men, which is more than sufficient, Craven didn’t trust the material and added occult evil to “spice things up,” I guess.

There are no special features, which is a little odd. Craven has provided commentary on several of his movies, even on Summer of Fear, a made for TV movie. So the commentary is conspicuous in its absence. This treatment, or lack thereof, isn’t that surprising since this is considered one of Craven’s weaker efforts. According to the author Wade Davis, he only agreed to sell the film rights if Peter Weir would direct and Mel Gibson would star. Of course the studio couldn’t see past the zombies and figured since it’s horror, it must need a horror director. That’s a shame since Davis’ choices would have made for a far more interesting movie. Instead we get this piece of crap. Read the book instead; avoid the DVD like a shambling corpse.

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