It was round 1990 that posters of a pale-faced man with a red cross on his forehead, lying in a coffin and captioned: “Don’t bury me, I’m not dead”, started showing up everywhere at local video stores. It was a fantastic poster and it captured my attention immediately. But I was way too young for what appeared to be a terrifying film (notwithstanding that my parents probably would have allowed me and my sister to rent it had we really wanted to!), so I put it on the back burner.
The film was still lurking in my subconscious when I put together my 2011 list of 25 Films That Scared the Crap Out of Me When I Was a Kid as an honorable mention (just from the poster) even though I had never seen it.
Last week, and 25 years after I first saw the poster, horror master Wes Craven passed away. In the many tributes to the man who brought us iconic franchises such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, I read that one of his more notable solo efforts was The Serpent and the Rainbow. I was a little stunned because, first of all, throughout all these years I never realised that it was Craven who directed it. And secondly, I finally discovered that the terrified face on the poster is actually a young Bill Pullman!
Anyway, as a tribute to Craven, I decided to track down a copy of The Serpent and the Rainbow to put my childhood nightmares to rest. I don’t know what I had expected, but it certainly wasn’t the weird and trippy experience I was treated to last night.
The film was advertised as “inspired by a true story” and is actually based on a non-fiction book by Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who decided to chronicle his experiences in Haiti researching an alleged case of a man who had died and been brought back to life as a zombie. To turn it into a horror film, however, Craven and screenwriters Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman changed things up completely so that only basic elements of the true story remained.
The protagonist in the film, played by a surprisingly handsome young Bill Pullman, is a Harvard ethnobotanist and anthropologist named Dennis Alan. At the request of a pharmaceutical company, he heads to Haiti to research this alleged zombie case in the hopes of discovering some lucrative new form of anaesthetic. Once there, however, Alan is pulled into the world of voodoo and must fight local authorities who want him to stop digging into their affairs.
It sounds like an intriguing premise with abundant potential for horror, though The Serpent and the Rainbow never ends up really taking advantage of it. The vast majority of the film has a strange documentary-like feel with Alan going from place to place trying to track down whatever it is that can turn people into zombies. Prior to the final act, the only true attempts at supernatural horror come in the form of dream sequences and hallucinations, and the most frightening scenes actually have more to do with brutal Haitian authorities than anything zombie-related.
The “climax” — which begins roughly when the scene from the poster takes place — turned out to be rather farcical and full of images that are more fantastic than horrific. I suppose I have to consider it in the context of the late 80s and the tackiness of horror films from that era, the lower budgets and less advanced special effects and so forth, though even taking that into account I can’t say I was particularly frightened or impressed.
It’s also a shame that the film doesn’t go deeper into the whole voodoo versus science debate. It touches upon the subject at various points but fails to grasp the question of whether there are some things that science simply cannot explain.
It would be unfair to say there are no scares to be found in The Serpent and the Rainbow. After all those years of being convinced that it must be one of the most terrifying movies I’ve never seen, however, the experience of actually watching it was ultimately underwhelming. In all honesty a film about voodoo and zombies could have and should have been much more scary and compelling. Just shows you should never judge a movie by its poster. As an entry on Wes Craven’s non-franchise filmography, The Serpent and the Rainbow ranks below many others I enjoyed a lot more, include The People Under the Stairs, The Hills Have Eyes and Red Eye. It makes me wonder how I would have received the film had I gone ahead and watched it when I was much younger.
2.25 stars out of 5