Criminally Neglected: The Serpent and the Rainbow

This surprisingly thoughtful examination of voodoo and political upheaval in Haiti is among Wes Craven's strongest and most mature films – so why has it had such a hard time getting its due credit?

"I'm here for the snobs who
 dismiss movies when
they deviate from the source material."
Few films experience the bizarrely extreme dissonance of fan love and critical scorn which The Serpent and the Rainbow has endured for much of its existence. The pop-cultural tension over whether Wes Craven's film is a masterpiece or a slap in the face is so polarized that the argument might as well be over Batman v Superman. Yet as extreme as the arguments about the film's merits or offenses can get, most of the criticisms against it don't even consider the film seriously or give it a chance to prove itself; the criticism seems to be just that it exists, period. Before it was even released in 1988, The Serpent and the Rainbow encountered a truly angry backlash from which, in a way, it never recovered: critics went into the film predisposed to hate it simply for what they assumed it to be, and the inevitable first wave of bad reviews created a myth of the film's awfulness which persisted for years, especially among those who had never seen it. There were critics – like the greatly-missed Roger Ebert – who stood up for it as an unfairly-maligned great film upon its release, and it almost immediately became a cult-classic with a passionate following of defenders. But it is only in more recent years, as the internet age of film criticism has leveled the playing field, that Craven's movie has gotten a more fair reassessment, and has even started to get credit as a classic. Its Rotten Tomatoes score finally reads fresh instead of rotten, and earlier this year it got a long-overdue special edition blu-ray release from Scream Factory, with special features that make a very compelling argument for the film's reevaluation. It's about time: The Serpent and the Rainbow is a great movie. It is one of Wes Craven's finest films, one of the most ambitious and artistic movies to come out of the horror genre in the 1980s, and crucially, it holds its own as a very good film, period, not just a horror film. It is long overdue for the world to realize it, and for its pop-cultural legacy to by changed for good.

The Serpent and the Rainbow tells the story of a Harvard anthropologist (Bill Pullman) who goes to Haiti to investigate the scientific and medical truths behind some of the country's voodoo practices. Working with a Haitian doctor (Cathy Tyson) who wants to expose the human rights abuses of “Baby Doc” Duvalier's totalitarian regime, Pullman's Dr. Alan immerses himself in Haiti's voodoo culture – and gets more than he bargained for, in more ways than one. As the beautiful, haunting, complex religion and its seemingly-real magic challenges and expands his perspective, he faces grave danger as his presence draws the attention of the sadistic captain (Zakes Mokae) of Duvalier's secret police, who uses magic of a far more malicious kind. This story is something very different for Wes Craven: for much of the film it isn't a horror story at all, but a drama/thriller about real-life voodoo beliefs and Haiti's political turmoil, told in a psychologically-subjective way that gives it a heavy touch of surrealism.

"Well, I guess this is still better than my
hallucinations turning me into an ape..."
The tone Craven achieves is less A Nightmare on Elm Street, and more along the lines of Ken Russell's hallucinatory journeys into the psyche, like Altered States. Most of the film's horror images – there are plenty, and they are quite unnerving – exist in the context of nightmares, trances, and hallucinations; Dr. Alan's psychological and spiritual reactions to his experiences. The real-life horror of the Duvalier regime's human-rights abuses are another matter; those feel real enough that they could belong in Midnight Express. It is only late in the film that it truly starts to enter horror territory, but even then it builds off of, and is grounded by, the far more realistic things that came before. Craven walks a careful tonal tightrope with The Serpent and the Rainbow, and while admittedly there are a couple moments that fly off into too-stylized-for-its-own-good horror imagery, for probably 95% of the film he strikes a near-perfect balance between occult thriller and human drama. This is the movie that finally gave him a chance to show what a mature director he could be when allowed to show off his talents.

So why did it face such a backlash when it was released? Honestly, in theory the reason seems totally understandable. The Serpent and the Rainbow is based on anthropologist Wade Davis's non-fiction book about his research into Haitian voodoo practices, and his experience of the final years of Duvalier's regime during his time there. A scholarly book, albeit one written with a very readable adventure-memoir style, Davis's The Serpent and the Rainbow is not something you would ever expect to see adapted into anything resembling a horror movie. Indeed, when a film adaptation was first pitched to the studio, it was supposed to be a Year of Living Dangerously-style drama directed by Peter Weir, and it only morphed into a psychological horror film after Wes Craven was attached as director. This disconnect between the nature of the source material and the style of the adaptation lead to widespread criticisms that Craven's film was an opportunistic non-adaptation that was an insult to Davis's book. Craven was accused of sensationalizing a serious study of a real-life religion in order to make another Elm Street-style shocker, and it was widely assumed that the resulting film would not be exactly respectful of Haitian culture; a set of criticisms similar to our current conversations about the ethics of cultural appropriation. The problem is that most of these assumptions were thoroughly solidified well before the film was even released, based strictly on Craven's involvement and the studio's horror-focused marketing. There is an inescapable feeling that a significant number of critics had decided in advance that the film would surely be an abomination, and the result was a bunch of very shallowly dismissive reviews that never got much past “it's a Wes Craven adaptation of a non-fiction book – enough said.” But the film isn't actually guilty of these criticisms at all – as those who went into the film with an open mind and a willingness to go against its negative buzz saw. Yes, it is (in a sense) a horror film, and yes, that may be a somewhat misjudged way to adapt an anthropological study. But it is equally true that in many ways this is a worthy adaptation of Wade Davis's book, and it's undeniable that Wes Craven worked very hard both to do justice to the book, and to be respectful towards Haitian culture. It may seem unlikely that this film could be all those things at once, but Craven manages to pull it off.

Come on, Wes Craven puts images
 this beautiful
into a film and still can't get taken seriously?
There's one absolutely crucial detail of The Serpent and the Rainbow's production that most criticisms of the film ignore, but the documentary on the Scream Factory special edition emphasizes: while the film differs significantly from Wade Davis's book, Davis himself was very actively involved in the production. Far from Craven treating the source material disrespectfully, he made a point of keeping the author in on the creative process, to make sure he got it right. From working with Wes Craven and Bill Pullman during pre-production to being right there on-set making sure the film's portrayal of Haiti was authentic, Wade Davis shaped this film more strongly than its detractors give credit for. Of course, he's not entirely happy with the finished product: he has always remained critical of how the last act flies off the rails into horror-land. But in the Scream Factory documentary, he sets the record straight that he does not blame or begrudge Wes Craven for this: quite to the contrary, he says Craven took the project very seriously, and wanted to make a great drama that was a total departure from his past work. The touches of brooding Ken Russell-ish surrealism were part of his artistic vision to begin with, but Craven never wanted it to be the full-fledged horror film that the last act turns it into. According to Davis, that happened when the studio forced the director to add more Elm Street-style stuff to the finale so they could market it using the Wes Craven brand. That bit of fairly obvious studio meddling aside, however, Davis has more good things than bad to say about the late horror auteur's treatment of his book, and of Haiti.

Perhaps the most pleasantly surprising thing is how well the film does in its treatment of Haiti's voodoo religion. This is not one of those films that uses stereotyped and vague voodoo images for exploitative, tacitly racist thrills; in fact, it's just the opposite. Wes Craven was always interested in exploring themes of faith and belief systems in his movies, and he shared Wade Davis's commitment to not only show the religion authentically, but counterbalance its more common, exploitative pop-cultural representations by showing its beauty, philosophy, and importance to Haitian heritage. To achieve this, wherever possible he showed actual voodoo ceremonies, and employed genuine local religious leaders to work on the scenes and the set-dressing to ensure their authenticity. Several ceremonies shown in the film are real, shot documentary-style, and the one major sequence that had to be recreated using extras – a candlelight pilgrimage of several thousand people to a holy site at a waterfall – was carefully based on an actual pilgrimage documented by Davis during his studies. That scene in particular is breathtakingly beautiful, and shows how much Craven's focus was on the spirituality of voodoo, rather than the horror. Of course, one could argue that the villain of the film, Captain Peytraud, ostensibly being an evil sorcerer somewhat undercuts the film's more positive intentions, but the movie stresses that his evilness has nothing to do with his being a voodoo practitioner; he is evil because he is a tyrant's professional torturer, and he has corrupted magic to suit his ends. The film counterbalances him with two voodoo-practicing heroes: Cathy Tyson's Dr. Duchamp, and Paul Winfield's priest-turned-nightclub-owner, Lucien. The portrayal undoubtedly isn't perfect, but this has got to be one of the most authentic and thoughtful looks at voodoo ever in a Hollywood film. Anyone who accuses Craven of exploiting Davis's study of the religion for cheap scares hasn't done their homework.

With the arguments about its intentions in adapting the book cleared up, it should be a bit easier to judge the movie based on its own merit, which is where it really shines. When judged as its own film, and not on assumptions about how Davis's memoir should have been adapted differently, it is excellent. Craven's tonal balance of more restrained drama punctuated by surreal nightmare images makes for a truly compelling and unusual experience, as both sides of the film are expertly handled. Shot mostly on location in Haiti and the Dominican Republic with gorgeous, documentary-style photography, the primary plotline of Dr. Alan's anthropological quest is more than strong enough to carry the movie on its own. The script takes time to soak in the details of Alan's journey, painting a very realistic-feeling portrait of a country on the verge of revolution, yet with a rich culture that refuses to be suppressed by the government-enforced fear. It is worth noting that, since the 1986 revolution against “Baby Doc” Duvalier was still very much in the realm of common-knowledge current events, the film gives very little background info on Haiti's politics, so those unfamiliar with that piece of history might benefit from a quick read-up about it before seeing the film. The way that the plot weaves itself into Haiti's recent history is very effectively handled, and actually shooting in Haiti just a year after the revolution gives a sense that the film is genuinely capturing a historical moment.

"What, you mean grave-robbing wasn't a skill
you studied for your anthropology degree?"
Shifting from this style into surreal visions is not an easy thing to do without straining plausibility (not even Ken Russell could get it quite right every time), but by using moody dreamlike transitions to signal the shift from a real-world perspective to Dr. Alan's psyche, Craven gets these two sides of the film to fit together remarkably well. Shifting from a documentary shooting mode to swirling, stylized camerawork similar to his nightmare sequences on Elm Street, he gives his Altered States-style trips an eerie power that really gets under the viewer's skin. Conjuring up impressively-realized, ever-shifting horrors backed by imagery and symbolism relatable to the real-world storyline, he uses these sequences to underscore the larger plot and further Alan's psychological/spiritual journey, as well as frighten. In his efforts to stay as close to Wade Davis's book as possible, he styles many of these visions in such a way as to leave their nature ambiguous: are we actually witnessing magic, or just tricks of our protagonist's mind, influenced by the mysticism he has encountered? As the film goes on Craven gradually ratchets up the intensity of the dreams/visions, increasing the supernaturally-tinged horror proportionately to the real-world horrors Dr. Alan encounters at the hands of Captain Peytraud and the Tonton Macoute (Haiti's secret police).

This gradual shift from drama with some horror to horror with some drama manages to work not just because of Craven's directing, but also thanks to a great cast that sells it all at an emotional level. Bill Pullman, in his third film and first dramatic role (after Ruthless People and Spaceballs), gives an excellent performance, adding to the believability of the film's more realistic sections, and grounding it in its more surreal moments. He conveys perfectly a young and somewhat cocky academic who in theory has an expert level of knowledge, but in practice is woefully unprepared for what he is about to encounter. It's the sort of personality that very plausibly lends itself to vivid nightmares and moments of surreal panic as he finds himself literally and metaphysically in over his head. Cathy Tyson is just as good as a fellow scientist with far more practical experience, having grown up both with voodoo and with the harsh political realities of life in Haiti. Paul Winfield and Brent Jennings give extremely memorable supporting performances as important voodoo practitioners. But the movie-stealing performance belongs to Zakes Mokae in one of the strongest roles of his long career as a character actor: that of Captain Peytraud. Mokae radiates menace and violence, as exactly the sort of person you would be terrified to encounter if you had the misfortune to get arrested in an oppressive dictatorship. What makes his performance so scary is that he doesn't play Peytraud as a horror villain; his villainy feels extremely real, as though he dropped in from a straight political thriller like Missing or Midnight Express. The ambiguous nature of his character – whether he is a genuine sorcerer or just a sadist hiding behind mystical iconography – works because he is such a master of intimidation that it doesn't necessarily matter; he could scare you to death either way.

"Have you seen Casino Royale, Dr. Alan?
There's this one scene that's my favorite..."

Despite these strengths, the film still has a few flaws, mostly in the last act. A strong argument could be made that it goes a couple steps too far into horror imagery at the end, when the studio's request of a stereotypically Craven-esque finale forces the film a bit too close to familiar Elm Street territory. In fact, given what Wade Davis says in the Scream Factory documentary about Craven's original intentions, I suspect the director himself would agree that the ending was a misstep, or at least a compromise that he would rather have not made. It doesn't quite fly off the rails and lose its dramatic credibility, but there's a moment or two when it gets perilously close. Even so, there's enough room left to imagination and psychological subjectivity that viewers can still debate what was actual magic and what was merely psychological torture backed by the power of suggestion and belief. I can't help but think that a Wes Craven director's cut would have had a stronger ending, but the ending we get is not enough to undo the greatness of the film it caps off.

While the iconic nature of A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, and Scream overshadows much of the rest of Craven's career, The Serpent and the Rainbow stands as one of the very best entries in his filmography. While it has its (mostly studio-mandated) flaws, and while adapting Wade Davis's book as a horror film maybe wasn't, politically-speaking, the wisest idea, the movie is a fascinating narrative experiment that mostly works brilliantly. Combining a rare showcase of Craven's skills as a dramatic director with moments of mind-grabbing surrealism that are among the most memorable he ever crafted, this movie is proof that the late genre auteur was one of – if not the – best of his generation. It's nice to see the record finally being set straight about The Serpent and the Rainbow being a great movie, but it hasn't happened fast enough. The mere fact that the film never got a special edition release until after Craven's death is proof enough of that. Scream Factory's release of The Serpent and the Rainbow is nonetheless excellent, even if it came too late to include the director's involvement. With a documentary that does a wonderful job of putting the film in context and correcting its longstanding criticisms, the new blu-ray is perhaps the final piece of the puzzle to change this misunderstood movie's legacy. It is one of the biggest must-own horror releases of 2016 so far. Don't miss it.

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- Christopher S. Jordan