There are two scenes in Wes Craven’s 1988 horror film The Serpent and the Rainbow that everyone remembers: Bill Pullman’s character having his groin mangled, and Bill Pullman’s character being buried alive with a tarantula. Those stick with you. Other elements of the movie are murkier — but a rewatch offers a reminder of how oddly it has aged in 34 years.
Inspired by the best-selling but now-controversial 1985 book by anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow opens with a title card letting us know it’s based on a “true story.” This is dubious for the most part, but the movie strives for authenticity in a very “Hollywood in the mid-1980s” sort of way. It gives us an outsider perspective on Haitian culture (the movie’s take on Haitian culture, anyway) in the form of nominal Davis stand-in Dr. Dennis Alan (Pullman), who makes a living jetting around the globe to developing nations on behalf of a pharmaceutical company that sees potential dollar signs in folk remedies. After a hallucinogenic experience with a shaman in the Amazon — in which he has an unsettling vision of a snarling man with a gold tooth and a slew of hands pulling him into the ground — Dennis accepts his next assignment, even though it’s proffered by an exec who asks him, “What do you know about zombification?”
Not a lot, as it happens, but oh boy will he learn. In short order, Dennis is landing in Port-au-Prince and befriending his unexpectedly good-looking contact, Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson). Even though it’s very clearly established that Marielle is one of precious few doctors at a desperately overcrowded hospital, she soon becomes Dennis’ constant companion above and beyond what she’s been contracted for — like, romping through graveyards at midnight — as he tries to track down the “zombie powder” his employers hope will revolutionise medical anesthesia (eventually they hook up, of course, because you gotta have a romantic subplot.). That’s the kind of movie The Serpent and the Rainbow is: it takes place in a poverty-stricken country controlled by a dictator and his secret police, full of tension that suggests (correctly) that it’s teetering on the brink of revolution, but also full of unique, deeply-held cultural traditions and religious beliefs — all of which we experience through the filter of Dennis, the centre of everything as far as the film is concerned.
To his credit, and the script’s credit, Dennis reacts to his Haitian Vodou encounters with a reasonable amount of chill — though he is prone to vividly awful nightmares, as well as nightmares-within-nightmares, which account for a lot of The Serpent and the Rainbow’s most horrific imagery (no surprise there, in a movie from the creator of A Nightmare on Elm Street). As characters like Marielle and Vodou priest-slash-nightclub owner Lucien (Paul Winfied) are there to show us, not every Haitian has sinister designs on our fish-out-of-water protagonist; another key character is Mozart (Brent Jennings), who at first treats Dennis as a mark before deciding he’ll go ahead and share his zombie-powder recipe after all.
But there are bad guys, too, chiefly Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), a particularly potent enemy since he’s not only a powerful master of black magic — he’s a gold-toothed man glimpsed in Dennis’ visions, which happen well before they meet in real life — but also the head of “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s torture-happy secret police. “I don’t want money,” Peytraud declares before inflicting extreme pain on Dennis’ scrotum. “I want to hear you scream!” Later, in a plot development that’s telegraphed from that first Amazon scene, and heavily hinted at throughout, he’s the architect of Dennis being dusted with zombie powder and buried alive. With a tarantula.
“Though I came for the powder, I’m getting into something much more,” Dennis muses in one of his many voice-overs, which often restate the obvious and usually just serve to remind us that we’re getting everything from Dennis’ point of view. That’s the biggest problem The Serpent and the Rainbow has, watching it in 2022; it’s very much a “white guy immerses himself in another culture and discovers how terrifying the Other can be!” journey, historically a common trope in horror that’s thankfully given way to more inclusive stories, especially now that filmmaking itself has become much more diverse. Its approach doesn’t necessarily feel overtly racist or xenophobic, or even outrageously problematic; it just feels… really dated. Through Marielle and Lucien it does try to establish that “voodoo” — an actual religion that horror has enjoyed exploiting over the years, very much in the vein of the “cursed Native American burial ground” — isn’t necessarily something to be feared. But it’s used as a scare tactic so much here, that the takeaway is the opposite.
Something else that feels dated, but in an amazing way: the awesome practical effects, including special effects make-up by father-son team Lance Anderson and David LeRoy Anderson (a Best Make-Up Oscar winner for The Nutty Professor and Men in Black). Who needs slick CG when you can use models and prosthetics to render rotting corpses so realistically? Thanks to that, The Serpent and the Rainbow still makes for a mostly satisfying horror-viewing experience; it’s also interesting to see a movie from Craven — made during his post-Nightmare, pre-Scream period — with a setting so removed from his usual fare. Should you want to revisit this one yourself, or maybe even watch it for the first time, The Serpent and the Rainbow just arrived on Shudder, where it’ll soon be the focus of one of the streamer’s upcoming episodes of Cursed Films.