The Serpent And The Rainbow (1987)
Cast: Bill Pullman, Zakes Mokae
Director Wes Craven has had the fortune to build two solid franchises during his twenty-year career, both in the horror genre. While his "Scream" movies haunt mostly younger audiences these days, Wes Craven is also the father of Freddy Krueger, the undying, disfigured, blade-wielding maniac from Elm Street who haunts teenagers with lethal nightmares in their sleep. Craven established the "Nightmare On Elm Street" series in the mid 80s, and after directing and supervising some of the first installments of the series, he turned his focus towards other projects. One of those projects was "The Serpent And The Rainbow", a vastly underrated film that, unfortunately, never really found its audiences during its theatrical release. I have never really understood why this is, because I feel "The Serpent And The Rainbow" is one of his most powerful films, albeit less horrific and supernatural than most of his other works.
Based on real events and filmed on location in Haiti, "The Serpent And The Rainbow" tells the story of Harvard anthropologist Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman). On the search for cures and new medicines, Alan visits uncharted regions in the Amazon delta to talk to shamans and discover their healing secrets. One day he is sent to Haiti to discover the secret behind voodoo’s zombies. If in fact there were a substance that allowed to put people into a death-like state, only to allow full recovery later, the uncovering of this new anaesthetic could change the world of medicine forever. Full of hope and full of doubts, Alan makes his way to Haiti. Soon he meets the first real zombies, people who were proven clinically dead and who still walk the streets of Port Au Prince years later. Unfortunately, in his eagerness, Dr. Alan throws all caution to the winds and soon he learns that he has been stirring up some extremely powerful sources, sources that would be best left undisturbed. Before he can uncover the secret of zombification he, himself becomes the victim of a powerful voodoo priest, the evil houngan Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae).
"The Serpent And The Rainbow" is an exploration of voodoo in a manner you might not have seen in a movie before. Neither would you expect such a serious exploration of the matter from the director who invented Freddy Krueger, a nightmarish maniac who captivated whole legions of horror fans for years. I consider myself to be somewhat knowledgeable in the field and history of voodoo, and its ethnic heritage, and the first time I saw the film I was completely taken by Craven’s authenticity. Revisiting the film a few years later, on this brand-new DVD from Image Entertainment, I am still surprised by the way Craven depicts voodoo as a religion and a lifestyle firmly and inseparably embedded in the Haitian culture.
Without getting too much into supernatural issues, the film explores voodoo on a rather scientific level. Although many of the events depicted are still mystic, they are always rational, and if they actually venture into the realms of the supernatural, Craven makes sure the viewer understands that voodoo has also very much to do with mental states and hallucinations.
The film is beautifully photographed and clearly carries Wes Craven’s signature especially towards the end when the events get more frantic and lean into the realm of the supernatural. It boasts a great cast that adds much to the film’s authenticity. Bill Pullman puts in a great act as the eager anthropologist who isn’t scared of anything, but who finds himself in the heart of a maelstrom of events not even he can understand. Desperation, fear, and helplessness dictate his acting and the way he pulls off the character of Dennis Alan is gripping to the end.
Image Entertainment have released "The Serpent And The Rainbow" in its original theatrical 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio in a new <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer. The image is beautiful and absolutely clean, free of any scratches or marks from the original film material. The film boasts strong colors, bringing to live the colorfully blazing settings in Haiti and the South-American Amazon regions. It captures much of the exotic locations and the culture and this <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> transfer reproduces every little detail. The compression is flawless, without artifacts or <$pixelation,pixelation>, and colors are not only strong but also faithfully reproduced, even under the most demanding lighting settings. The dark night shots maintain plenty of shadow detail and give the imagery an astounding depth. <$chroma,Chroma noise> or color smearing are literally non existent on this great disc.
Sadly, the audio section is not quite as impressive, mostly due to the average quality of the film’s original soundtrack. Much of the dialogue sounds flat and thin with rather obvious and obtrusive ADR-produced dubs that oftentimes don’t match the original recording’s ambiance. Dialogue is also mixed a little too low in volume in comparison to the powerful sound effects and Brad Fiedel’s syncopated, heavily percussion-oriented musical score. The transfer of the film’s soundtrack to DVD is quite good – flawless, in fact – and the <$DS,Dolby Surround> field is good, though not overly active, with surprisingly powerful low ends. The disc does not contain language tracks other than English and does not contain any subtitles. It features director Wes Craven’s filmography, but that is as far as additional features go. "The Serpent And The Rainbow" is one of those discs that just scream for a <$commentary,commentary track>. Too bad Image did not have the chance to include a commentary with Wes Craven and Wade Davis, the man on whose true life experiences this film is based, on this disc. It would have clearly put this release through the roof and would have allowed many more people to venture deeper into the real world of voodoo.
I love "The Serpent And The Rainbow". In my eyes, the film adds immeasurably to Wes Craven’s credibility as a director. The film shows that you can indeed create gripping films based on the voodoo religion without lowering yourself to completely fabricated mumbo-jumbo. Voodoo is rich enough to fascinate audiences in its true form, and the way Craven’s excursion takes you through some of the established voodoo symbolisms, myths, and routines is extremely compelling. This film is a must-have disc for every Wes Craven fan, no matter whether you just like him for his "Scream" outings or because you have been following his work from earlier movies, like "The Hills Have Eyes" or "Last House on the Left". "The Serpent and the Rainbow" is his most underrated film ever, and if you haven’t seen this film, you haven’t seen what Craven is actually capable of.