Originally Published Wednesday 15th October 2008
The Serpent & The Rainbow
It may seem simplistic but what makes most of us scared is the unknown. We get a fright when something we weren’t expecting jumps out at us and we don’t have time to process the information triggering the animal instinct of fight or flight that gets the adrenaline pumping. Roller coasters and horror films play on this system in us all. More subtle scares come from unknown aspects of our lives, possibilities of what may lurk in the dark corners of our cities and our souls, things that we are unable or unwilling to face up to about ourselves. When setting out to make a horror film it’s easy to play up on that fear of the unknown as so many people are ignorant about so many different things.
The Serpent & The Rainbow is loosely based on a book that chronicles the experiences of an anthropologist in Haiti during the 1970’s and his work on the subject of zombification. In Haiti there’s a strong tradition of voodoo and in the film Bill Pullman plays Dennis Allen, sent to Haiti by a large pharmaceutical company to discover the science behind the zombies. In Haiti, Allen meets a doctor who has been treating survivors of the zombification process. She explains the workings of the country and of the mix between Catholicism and Voodoo. Through her contacts Allen gets to meet Voodoo priests and gets to work with a Voodoo practitioner in preparing the powder used to make zombies.
Along the way Allen has a brush with the law who are led by a Voodoo priest who’s working the dark side of the force. Haiti is in the throes of a revolution and chaos rules in every aspect of island life. Allen gets the secret of zombies but pays a terrible price for the knowledge.
The Voodoo who do what you don’t dare do people!
The Serpent & The Rainbow works as a concept on so many levels. It deals with a religion that I for one know bugger all about really, the science of anaesthesia, and the culture of Haiti. As a film however it has to be said that there are some serious problems. The ending is taken from the Hollywood teen horror handbook, complete with moving furniture and visions of spirits, and is so totally unlike the first two acts of the film that it’s like it was grafted on from some other picture. All the hard work that went into developing atmosphere and creating a real sense of dread was totally wasted, which is an utter shame. Of course, Serpent was directed by Wes Craven and he did write that handbook, so it’s no real surprise that the ending is such a mess.
Bill Pullman gives a great performance, intelligent but wide-eyed and out of his depth at the same time, and his voice-over helps the film instead of robbing from it. The other actors, who you may recognise but will never be able to name, all put in decent efforts too, but it’s the setting and ways of the people that are the real stars. As I watched Serpent & the Rainbow I was intrigued by the subtle way in which the fear of a different race and their traditions can be played up to create an atmosphere of terror without blundering over the subject matter or belittling the people.
So, despite the crap ending, two thumbs up for The Serpent & The Rainbow.