Inspired by Harvard ethnobotanist and anthropologist Wade Davis' factual book of his experiences in Haiti studying voodoo and the poison tetrodotoxin, Wes Craven's 1988 horror thriller The Serpent and the Rainbow is an intelligent albeit bitty cinematic experience.
Davis had spent several years in the '70s and '80s going back and forth to Haiti investigating the claim that local man Clairvius Narcisse was in fact a zombie, one of the living dead. It is claimed that, as part of a voodoo ceremony, Narcisse received a dose of a chemical mixture containing tetrodotoxin (a pufferfish toxin) and bufotoxin (a toad toxin) to induce a coma that would lower the metabolic rate and thus mimic the appearance of death. Upon collapse, he was certified dead and was subsequently buried, but was later exhumed by a boker (the Haitian for 'sorcerer'; a practitioner of voodoo) and given further 'treatment' in the form of Datura stramonium, an hallucinogenic plant extract belonging to the nightshade family. This treatment is said to have made Narcisse a compliant zombie, and he was sent to work on a plantation. When the plantation owner died a couple of years later, Narcisse returned to freedom and his family and his legend begun.
Having published his account in 1985, Davis agreed to sell the rights for cinema on the condition that Peter Weir would direct and Mel Gibson would star. Ultimately and for whatever reason, neither man were involved in what eventually appeared on the screen three years later, but it remains a tantalising what might have been project.
Instead, we have Wes Craven's rendition of the story which depicts Davis as one Dennis Alan, a sort of Indiana Jones style scientist and explorer who arrives in Haiti on behalf of a Boston pharmaceutical company who have got wind of the story of Christophe, a man who has allegedly returned from the dead thanks to the drugs used in an ancient voodoo ceremony and believe that, with research and licencing, this specific drug mixture could be used as a kind of 'super anaesthetic' for patients across the globe. In his research, Alan is aided by local doctor, Marielle (Cathy Tyson, in her first big screen role after Mona Lisa and, I think, her only Hollywood credit) Lucien Celine, a sort of white witch played by Paul Winfield, and Bret Jennings' local bar owner Mozart, who may be a witch doctor or may be a confidence trickster. His work is hampered by Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae) of the Tonton Macoute, the Haitian paramilitary force loyal to the dictator 'Baby Doc' Jean-Claude Duvalier, and who has haunted Alan's increasingly surreal and gruesome dreams since he drank an hallucinogenic potion in the Amazon basin. It should go without saying that the dreams are spectacularly handled by the man who gave us Nightmare on Elm Street.
Where The Serpent and the Rainbow succeeds is in its commitment to depict voodoo with the same reverence its believers and practitioners bestow upon it, and that it is a way of life rather than a cheap Hollywood gimmick to invest the material with an ill-thought creepiness. It is clear that the film makers have researched the occult ceremonies and religious beliefs well enough, and have committed to the source material. Principally, Craven has a commitment to depict his story with a hefty dose of realism as well as authenticity and this is perhaps best witnessed in his decision to explore not just the myths of Haiti but also the very real terror of Baby Doc's dictatorship. There's an especially gruesome moment that sees Alan strapped naked to a chair and at the mercy of Peytraud's brutality. In a scene sure to see the legs of every man watching become hastily crossed, the paramilitary chief nails Alan's scrotum to the chair. It's a harrowing scene that isn't just there to shock, it's also there to remind us of the disgusting power in the hands of a dictatorship.
Shot on location in Haiti itself, the visual look of The Serpent and the Rainbow is nothing short of stunning, capturing the strange and simmering city of Port Au Prince in an almost travelogue like manner that helps invest the film with its overall sense of plausibility. We may be dealing with wild themes that people discredit, but Craven plants his story in a very real place that the viewer cannot deny, even if we're still dealing in Hollywood cliches like the good looking, smart blonde hero adventurer and the exotic and sensitive local beauty who runs the local clinic.
Where it fails perhaps is in the seeming pandering towards the tropes some audience expect from a 'horror' movie; not for everyone the intelligent chills, so instead we get a series of jump scares to remind us just what genre of film it is we are watching. It's a shame really as they don't amount to anything approaching scary and detract from the overall aim of the piece. Also, I'm not altogether convinced by the voice over narration. Call me cynical, but whenever I hear v/o I wonder if it was the film makers first choice or whether it has been enforced upon them to explain and make sense of what is happening on the screen. I read somewhere that Craven's original cut for The Serpent and the Rainbow came in at a ridiculous three hours, before he edited it down to just half of that, and I do wonder if the v/o was seen as a necessary inclusion by that point.
I'm also not that convinced by Bill Pullman either, an actor who always seemed a bit bland and the kind of go-to-guy when your first and second choices to headline your picture proved unavailable. It's not that he doesn't give a relatively good account of himself, it's just that I struggle to buy just who he is and that he unsteadily pitches his performance between the scientist and the Indy-type adventurer.