Wes Craven has had a long career. The man who started with Last House on the Left made a gem in 1988 that I regard as one of my favorite Wes Craven movies. Why? Because it’s based on a true story, and the subject is terrifying.
The Serpent and the Rainbow opened in the late Eighties to little fanfare. Based on Wade Davis’s journal of the same name, Bill Pullman plays Dennis Alan, an anthropologist sent all over the world to gather potions and creams for pharmaceutical companies. His most recent trip takes him to Haiti, an island notorious for Voodoo and witchcraft. Dennis must retrieve a sample of a “zombie” drug. The drug ceases all external appearance of life for 12 hours, only to bring the person back to life. But this resurrection equates to being buried alive since Haiti’s primitive medical infrastructure can’t help but bury them quickly. Dennis’ employers want this drug as their latest anesthetic.
Almost immediately, Dennis senses something ominous all around him. A man he’d seen in a vision on an earlier expedition is real. Peytraud is a man not to be trifled with. From the first encounter, Dennis knows this man is out to get him. He learns about the zombie that turned his employer to the drug and get out before Peytraud can harm him. Marielle, a local psychologist and witness to the man’s undead self leads Dennis around Haiti, exposing him to the culture and sites as he works to find the undead man and someone who can make the powder needed to complete the zombification of others.
Right away, Dennis’ stay becomes plagued with problems. Apart from the obvious white American in a mostly Black Haitian culture, his ignorance of Voodoo often finds him in bad situations. And each night, Dennis has nightmarish visions of being buried alive, attacked by a zombie bride, and Peytraud looming over him, only to find out later is all under Peytraud’s control.
The strength of the film is in its convincing lead Pullman. He comes across as a fish out of water, but none the less eager to learn of the culture. When he finally finds a man to create the potion, he diligently learns what it entails.
The nightmarish sequences are genuinely frightening, elevating as the plot reaches its climax. Each one plays to another fear of Dennis. Some are more bizarre while others cause him to question the very reality he lives in. Is he safe from all this? What is Peytraud’s intentions with him?
Despite not being a well-known film, The Serpent and the Rainbow is frightening story based on Wade Davis’ own travels to the region. Though Davis’ has said openly he doesn’t care for the film, it still succeeds where it counts. It isn’t a perfect film, or a completely accurate film, but it is scary. 3.5 out of 5 stars.