Sunday, 19 October 2014

Halloween 31 For 31: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Dir. Wes Craven

Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh Easters (1979) - [review here] - brought zombies back to their Voodoo roots, but this film tackles the origins of the folklore, not of "destroying the brain" or gut munching, but Haiti and people being brought back from the grave as slaves to sorcerers. The Serpent and the Rainbow is an adaptation of a non-fiction book of the same name by ethnobotanist Wade Davis, but especially from midway through, its best to see this adaptation as a Wes Craven horror film first. Ethnobotanist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is assigned to Haiti by the pharmaceutical company he is working with to investigate an incident of zombism with the help of a local doctor in the region Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson of Mona Lisa (1986)), specifically in the hope he brings them back a biological explanation for the phenomenon that, in chemical form, they can sell as an anaesthetic for medical purposes. As he and Marielle become more closer romantically, and he comes across a witchdoctor, Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings), who may help him acquire a zombie creating powder, he also unfortunately encounters the secret police of the country. The film is set during the last year or so of Jean-Claude Duvalier, son of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, both notorious for being dictators, the main antagonists for this film being a fictionalised version of the Tontons Macoutes, a paramilitary force active between both reigns, personified in the film as Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Morae), leader of the group who are willing to kidnap and torture people, but with an added force in that Peytraud is a black magic sorcerer of immense power who heads a group of loyal worshippers in the dark arts, who may in fact have captured souls of some of their victims and turned them into zombies amongst his various crimes.

The obvious issue between a non-fiction novel becoming a horror film which is effectively about scary black magic versus good heroes is that it does sound like typical mainstream cinema where the heroic white male comes in to rescue the minority victims of another country and have the local female character, tough but sexy, fall in love with him. The film thankfully avoids this by having a sense of scale and detail, because of the subject matter, which prevents this from happening. The flaw with the film is that it's a conventional horror film at its core, not necessarily an issue in terms of the results but that aspects of the film aren't as creative or engaging as they should be. What makes it interesting is the subject material itself and when the film becomes more of a horror story at the end. The subject matter lifts the film up immensely. When films invoking zombies usually means the brain eating dead, a rare film which takes them back to their origins is something of interest, especially as they are merely a part of a bigger, real mythology from Haiti and Voodoo culture, which the film takes pains to describe and explain for a curious viewer. The zombies themselves, the few included, are people who seem to have had their minds taken from them, able to commute still to others but in a state adrift from everyone, petrified statues that can still walk. They merely are a piece of a film that is more about the supernatural and occult magic. Of souls being taken by evil witchdoctors and ritual combined with motifs common more to Hollywood cinema - nightmares about living corpses, jump scares - that nonetheless do work. It's a film working with an entire brand of religious practice and mythology rarely seen in the genre, and while it may be slightly dodgy in terms of making it more cinematic rather than the accurate reality, the fact remains that the entirely different set of symbology being used is helpful to the film, reliving it from the dust of more frequently used symbology of other supernatural and religious beliefs that have become dulled from overuse. This is as interesting seeing Pullman's character getting involved with Mozart, and the play between them before the later finally gives in and lets Dennis Alan in on how real zombie powder is made, as it is in him being repeatedly threatened by the Tontons Macoutes. Admittedly the fictionalisation of real life events for more dramatic purposes always has an air of tastelessness in not careful, as the revolution that took place in Haiti in real life ends the film, though in this case it's never trivialised baring a teaspoon of syrup, and the decision to make Pullman unable to stand up to the group by himself, capable of being harmed by them in a sequence with a eye-watering use of a nail that you rarely see male heroes in films endure, adds a nice dramatic tension, both in that the white foreigner is not going to be able to merely get by because he should as the white hero in an Hollywood film, and that it's as much the magic that is of importance for the ending.

The other virtue is that, as the supernatural and black magic content increases, the film develops the same tone as A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) where a creative dismissal of tangible reality is used in favour of the scares and how the symbology is used in the film. Wes Craven is an odd director in terms of someone who has become a "Master of Horror" cinema, from the same era as George A. Romero or a Tobe Hooper. While with a Hooper a trademark is obvious, and someone like Romero  or John Carpenter has a consistent interest in particular themes, Craven has been all over the place in the type of films he's made - from the repulsive shock of The Last House On The Left (1972) to the meta-slasher Scream (1996) - and does feel more like a working director who follows trends then particular obsessions. I've seen a few films, but there's no sense of a clear through line yet, and it's strange, unless I start giving his career and full overview one day, that he could go from The Last House On The Left, to this, from The Hills Have Eyes (1977), to a musical drama Music of the Heart (1999) aside from the fact that he merely works in films as just a career, a dangerous word to use as it sounds dismissive, but for me in this case means that Craven would probably not care about auteur theory as long as he made films he thought were good. There is one thing, though, that does feel like a consistent trait of his, and it's the creative dismissal of tangible reality that I've already mentioned, the film effectively transforming into A Nightmare On Elm Street as the hallucinations being used against Dennis Adam as a weapon increase when torture isn't enough. Whether the film works as a successful adaptation of a book that was a document of a real case of zombification is really up to debate, that and as a serious dramatic film, but as an entertaining horror film, it does kick up into high gear and a better quality when the hallucinatory and supernatural aspects build up. It's more enjoyable then rather as a popcorn flick, but far from dismissive, Wes Craven has always had a talent for unsettling and creeping out the audience. My inability to find a consistent through line is more because I've yet to see all his work, someone who has dabbled in many types of film, and that doesn't detract from him being a good creator of tension and scariness.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
There was no chance for this to be added. It's more nightmarish sequences certainly have a flair for them, but not enough for the list, and the rest of the movie is a conventional horror film.

A Cinema of the Abstract movie?
By itself, The Serpent and The Rainbow is an underrated little horror film, not the best but with a lot to like. The really interesting thing for me, with the above question, is this film's place in terms of building up a director, Wes Craven, by what his work is in quality and content. Whether his career has been consistently good is up to me watching everything and seeing what I enjoy, include films that others would be aghast at. Whether any of it has any interest for the blog's theme depends on the films I've yet to see, but as my interest in Wes Craven has become significant, to be able to see how a director can shift over multiple decades in their work is always something of interest. In this case, it's nice to see a topic rarely done being made into a film, and while not perfect, it's still considerably good.

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