Ah, The Serpent and the Rainbow. This + The Believers kicked off a teenage obsession with all things voodoo and magic … which I guess would explain why I’ve watched it at least 20 times. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that my beloved Bill Pullman is the star.
Serpent is chock-full of insane drug-infused nightmares, visions, and of course the famous torture sequence, which left every male audience member shivering in fear.
Ethnobotanist/anthropologist Dennis Alan is employed by THE MAN to go to Haiti and track down a rumored potion that renders people unable to move or speak—and even gives them the appearance of death, though they can still think and feel. The end result, if the people survive this ordeal and manage to rip themselves out of their graves, is a sort of crazed zombie state.
All of this is actually based on a book by a real ethnobotanist, Wade Davis (who apparently HATED this adaptation), which I actually read and was fascinated by—well, after I got past most of the scientific talk. But this is a horror film, not a science report. So even though the potion and one of the “zombies” are routed in a (possibly) true story, Craven adds his own spin, which involves railroad spike torture, blood-filled coffins, mummies that shoot snakes out of their mouths, and a power-mad paramilitary leader obsessed with owning as many souls as he can.
So, anyway, Alan arrives in Haiti, and in the process of trying to track down a guy who will make the potion for him, falls for a beautiful doctor named Marielle and grabs the attention of Commander Dargent Peytraud, who is a very evil man.
Despite being warned many times to leave Haiti, both by Peytraud and by his own nightmarish visions of what’s to come, Alan ends up naked and strapped to a chair in a torture chamber. Zakes Mokae who plays Peytraud is brilliantly menacing in this scene … and Pullman looks genuinely scared.
“What do you want?” Alan asks, and Peytraud says, “I want to hear you scream.” Right before having his assistant drive a railroad spike into Alan’s scrodum. *eeeessssshhhhhh* While making the voodoo potion with his hired hand Mozart (I really, really love the whole “potion”-making process in this film. So many gross things! Lots of great special F/X and set dressing in the cemetery etc.) and recovering, Alan has few more grotesque nightmares and wakes up next to a dead woman. Framed for murder, he’s placed on a plane back to the U.S.
Back home with the potion, Peytraud makes an appearance again by possessing a woman at a dinner party and threatening Alan with death—so it makes perfect sense that he’d return to Haiti immediately, right? Wait. What.
Alan is almost immediately felled by the zombie drug himself after returning, and is buried alive. This is my favorite sequence, because it involves the coffin filling up with blood, and of course the idea of being buried alive and KNOWING you are being buried alive is one of the most frightening things I can think of.
Thankfully Alan is rescued by the man who brought him to Haiti in the first place, Christophe, the zombie. And then the ending kind of falls apart.
Apparently Peytraud was keeping all the souls he collected in magic jars in his dank torture basement, and just as he’s about to chop of Marielle’s head for a dark sacrifice, revolution hits the streets (a weird mix of political statement and horror) and Alan arrives to save her, burn Peytraud to death, and eventually release all the souls by breaking the jars.
There are more than a few disconnects—is Peytraud dead or not? How is his burning body able to leap through walls a la Fred Kreuger? Hallucinations and reality blur together during the last few moments, but all ends well with Alan, Marielle, and all of Haiti free from the tyranny of their voodoo tormentor.
Despite some script flaws, there’s a lot of really fascinating imagery here, and I’m still haunted by the possibility that the potion and Haitian zombies might actually be real, so nostalgia is a big part of why I still have big love for this film.
Definitely on the list of “must-sees” for Craven fans.