The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)


Horror maestro Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream) tackles voodoo and zombification in The Serpent and the Rainbow. Bill Pullman (Spaceballs) stars as an anthropologist sent to Haiti by a pharmaceutical company seeking the ingredients of a powder that is thought to give the living every appearance of being dead. Victims are buried alive while still hearing, seeing, and feeling everything. Along the way, Pullman falls in love with a local doctor (Cathy Tyson) and tangles with a torturous police chief (Zakes Mokae) who also happens to be skilled in the dark voodoo arts.

I was confused and disoriented for most of the first half of this movie. It’s an editorial nightmare. Scenes go by too quickly, with Bill Pullman dolling out bits of narration here and there. It feels like a movie that was originally much longer, hacked down during post-production. Characters aren’t introduced properly. The rules of the game, so to speak, are never clearly laid out. It was thirty-five minutes into the film before anything engaged me, but it wasn’t character or story. It was the way Craven captured a (presumably real) religious procession with hundreds of extras, followed by another documentary-style scene at a beautiful waterfall. The movie then resumes its insane narrative tangle and blunt-force pacing, but at least there’s a little feel for the Haitian culture wedged in there sideways.

I’m not saying the movie doesn’t have its moments. The whole film was probably built around the sequence where Pullman’s character is attacked with the powder and collapses in the street, only to wake up ‘dead,’ with doctors staring into his open eyes and declaring the time of his demise. He’s then lowered into a grave with a big spider to keep him company, and covered over — a horrific sequence if there ever was one. There’s also a shocking torture scene involving a spike and a scrotum, as well as a few dream sequences that conjure up some lurid imagery.

Unfortunately, The Serpent and the Rainbow‘s good parts are quickly buried (no pun intended) by its bad ones. The atrocious editing and pacing rob would-be important moments of their dramatic weight and leave little for the actors to do in terms of character development. Brad Fiedel’s score operates in only two equally tedious modes — as ambient droning or electronic noise. There’s also a subplot of true-life political uprising haphazardly tossed into the mix, threatening to sophisticate matters, but ultimately going nowhere. The third act reeks of studio interference, descending into unjustifiable, supernatural ridiculousness. At one point, there’s even a gratuitous double-climax. Normally, I’m a fan of the double-climax, but The Serpent and the Rainbow is a such a stinker, I just wanted it to die. And stay dead.

With Brent Jennings, Conrad Roberts, Michael Gough and Paul Winfield.