The Serpent and The Rainbow
(For more Horror essays in this October Horror series click HERE)
Wes Craven’s 1988 horror film is something of a cult classic that I’ve always been a little wary of approaching. It seems that almost everyone I know that knows about the film hasn’t watched it and I had no way of gauging whether to buy it on DVD or not. So anyhoo, I bit the bullet and bought it and got an interesting watch.
The film is based on the first-hand accounts of one Wade Davis, a Harvard anthropologist, who studied Haitian voodoo practices to better understand the zombie phenomenon and how it actually comes about. He found that voodoo shamans used an odd mixture of toxins that make the subject weak, amnesiac, and highly suggestible for a short period of time. Sometimes the concoction of puffer fish poisons and toad slime wouldn’t be potent enough, but cultural awe and regard for the voodoo practitioner would create a respect that allowed for placebo effects to often register in subjects. By administering the zombie powder daily, the patient could be made into a virtual slave to the voodoo shaman, sometimes (as in the case in the book) for years at a time.
The film takes the premise of the book, but expands it with some pretty interesting horror twists and turns. The anthropologist Dr. Allen (Bill Pullman) is investigating hypnotic medicines used by tribes deep in the Amazon rain forest, when a local shaman concocts a bad trip, religious awe entheogen for the professor, who then proceeds to have a vision revealing his totem as the jaguar and presaging his future difficulties with the dead in Haiti. He awakens to find no one around, except for the corpse of his guide that is. “I could feel the darkness and cold closing in one me.”
After a 200 mile trek to a local airport, he makes it home only to have a friend send him on an assignment to Haiti. It seems a man who was buried seven years earlier somehow turned up at a clinic last week. They think that the voodoo zombie drug reportedly used on him is some form of advanced general aesthetic and want to procure it for the American BioCorp company.
The film’s opening scrawl lends an interesting key to the film: “In the legends of voodoo the Serpent is a symbol of Earth. the rainbow is a symbol of Heaven. Between the two, all creatures must live and die. But because he has a soul man can be trapped in a terrible place where death is only the beginning.” Although a perfect quote to mine for philosophical, and especially metaphysical, subtexts, the film is pretty restrained intellectually. Rather than dealing with these themes cerebrally, it approaches them through dream and parallel. The Serpent appears twice in a beautiful dream sequence in a forest lit by candles. It bites Dr. Allen as he lie there prone and later it attacks again from the mouth of a dead voodoo priestess. I’m not sure if it symbolizes anything in the film as such, however. The rainbow appears briefly toward the end of the film when Dr. Allen destroys the jars that hold the souls of the zombies trapped by the local voodoo police chief, symbolizing their escape from the “terrible place where death is only the beginning” and their move onward to Heaven.
Dr. Allen himself succumbs to the corrupt police chief’s voodoo magic and becomes a zombie for a brief time. All his dreams of being buried alive by the man come true, but he is saved by the very man he came to Haiti to find in the first place: the man who was reported dead and turned up at the clinic. The first scenes when these two men meet reminded me immediately of the first zombie scene in Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 Val Lewton RKO picture “I Walked With A Zombie.” Except this time, instead of an emotionless zombie without the power of speech, the zombie Dr. Allen encounters can speak, but is a deeply tormented soul who is rarely straightforward, uses cryptic manners of speaking and is fixated on the night that they buried him alive as he watched, unable to move his body (mirroring the fears of Ray Milland’s character in Premature Burial).
For any fan of horror, there is sufficient red meat here as zombies roam the country, people are possessed by voodoo shamans, people are buried alive, there are dreams of corpses coming alive and of our protagonist drowning in blood, decapitations and executions, and supernatural elements galore. For the action fan, there is political intrigue and violent revolt in the streets, gunfire and torture. Hell, a very sensitive part of Dr. Allen’s anatomy is even nailed to a chair in one scene. There’s a pretty steamy sex scene in the film too.
All in all, while this film doesn’t really meet the atmospheric greatness of the films of Jack Clayton or Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and isn’t as heady as Dario Argento or Mario Bava, as political-social-real as Cannibal Holocaust or The Blair Witch Project, or as bloody as Tobe Hooper films, it has some great scenes with real beauty, explores some interesting themes and images in an above-average manner, fuses the political film with the horror film, and excites the imagination less with buckets of blood and more by leaving it to the viewer. I enjoyed the film and would highly recommend it to anyone ho is still among the uninitiated, as I was until a few short hours ago.
[Next up: Jeepers Creepers!]