The Serpent and the Rainbow Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review
Written by ZigZag
Blu-ray released by Scream Factory
Directed by Wes Craven
Written by Richard Maxwell and A.R. Simoun
1988, 98 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on February 23rd, 2016
Bill Pullman as Dr. Dennis Alan
Cathy Tyson as Marielle Duchamp
Zakes Mokae as Dargent Peytaud
Paul Winfield as Lucien Celine
Brent Jennings as Louis Mozart
Conrad Roberts as Christophe
Michael Gough as Schoonbacher
Paul Guilfoyle as Andrew Cassedy
Dey Young as Deborah Cassedy
What if I told you that zombies are real? What if I could point to several specific examples in which a person was declared legally dead, only to have that person turn up years later, walking the streets? Cases like this have been popping up in Haiti for a while, and noted anthropologist Dr. Dennis Alan has been contracted by a Boston-based pharmaceutical giant to investigate. It is suggested that this reagent is actually some sort of drug that, if located, could be brought back to the US and studied in hopes of advancing anesthesia medicine and saving countless lives. Dr. Alan agrees and is on his way to a very dangerous environment in hopes of doing a greater good. Haiti, however, is an unstable country enduring the final weeks of the tumultuous reign of President “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
Working with local physician Marielle Duchamp, Dr. Alan is introduced to a man named Christophe, a “zombie” who confirms that a powder was used to “kill” him. From here, the American is led to a benevolent Haitian Voodoo priest named Lucien, who warns of local officials that want to keep the island’s secrets secure. Captain Peytaud leads the dreaded Tonton Macoute secret police force and makes it crystal clear to Dr. Alan that it is in his best interest to abandon his quest and return to the States. The desire to solve the medical mystery is too powerful and soon our hero is invited to participate in the Voodoo ritual to create the mystical powder. Dr. Alan is meddling with things he does not comprehend and will learn a few harsh lessons in his efforts to escape the island nation with more than just his life and sanity intact.
Anthropologist Wade Davis wrote the non-fiction book The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) based on his efforts to track down and study the drug tetrodotoxin, used to slow a person’s vital signs below detectable levels. The patient appears lifeless, but remains mentally aware of his/her surroundings, but unable to react to external stimuli. It is suggested that the powder has been abused by some to take advantage of others, making their victims believe they are zombies that must follow the will of others. Screenwriters Richard Maxwell and A.R. Simoun adapted Davis’ book into something of a thriller, dramatizing certain aspects of the story while maintaining the spirit. Hoping to step out of the pigeon-hole of the horror genre, director Wes Craven (The People Under the Stairs) eagerly accepted the opportunity to tell a serious story with deeply religious overtones, but his success in the industry brought its own baggage. Studio interference demanded re-shoots to the finale that would punch up the supernatural dreamlike elements that had become popular in cinema, thanks in part to Craven’s association with the unstoppable A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.
Bill Pullman (Lost Highway) keeps things grounded as Dr. Alan who, even as his character pursues spirit animals, is prone to hallucinations and suffers nightmarish visions. He provides a voiceover narration that is personable and carries just enough skepticism to keep audiences firmly on his side as the plot grows increasingly bizarre. Pullman shares great onscreen chemistry with all of his co-stars, especially the delightful Cathy Tyson (Priest), who brings an authority to the role of Marielle that suggests she is more than capable of taking care of herself. It is a great treat to see the always-welcome Paul Winfield (White Dog) in the role of the benevolent priest Lucien, a soothing voice of reason in a crazy environment. Zakes Mokae (The Island) is absolutely terrifying as the sadistic Capt. Peytaud, a dangerous man who abuses his power in every way. Mokae’s vocal talents can send chills down your spine without raising his voice above conversational levels.
The most colorful and likable character is Louis Mozart, maker of the magic powder. Mozart brings much levity to the dark tale as played by Brent Jennings (Witness), a man with a million-dollar smile. The supporting cast is equally strong and makes the most of their limited screen time. Conrad Roberts (The Mosquito Coast) is haunting as Cristophe, the hapless victim condemned to walk the earth as a zombie. Michael Gough (Horror of Dracula) and Paul Guilfoyle (Session 9) are Dr. Alan’s scientific comrade and employer respectively. Each helps ground the story in familiar territory as his domestic counterparts. Dey Young (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) has a small but memorable role as Deborah, the wife of Guilfoyle’s character, who delivers a terrifying message from Haiti.
The Serpent and the Rainbow is an ambitious film that succeeds on many levels due in large part to Wes Craven’s talents as a filmmaker. In many movies, Voodoo is generally dismissed as a punchline or relegated to the background of the plot. Given that most audiences fear the unknown, Craven approaches the material respectfully and explores the religion sincerely, examining the rituals and burial rites and the power of suggestion. From the opening scene of men building coffins to the visions of spectral figures and burning funeral ships, death is a palpable presence in this film, and our protagonist cannot escape its powerful shadow. Cinematographer John Lindley captures both the danger and beauty of the island locations with a documentary shooting style that keeps viewers firmly in the middle of the action.
Wes Craven was an incredible storyteller and while not all of his efforts were met with immediate success, his is a legacy that continues to grow. He reinvented and resuscitated the genre on no less than three occasions over as many decades, with titles like The Last House on the Left (1972), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996), launching not one, but two blockbuster franchises. His recent passing caught everyone off guard and his absence leaves a hole not only in the horror community, but in the world of cinema. If you have somehow missed this film entirely or merely not seen it in many years, I encourage you to dim the lights and allow yourself to enjoy one of the master’s underrated gems.
Video and Audio:
Presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, The Serpent and the Rainbow arrives on Blu-ray with a very satisfying picture quality that is sure to make fans smile. This new transfer easily outpaces the previous DVD release and adds much in the way of color strength and overall clarity. The movie looks beautiful and there is not much to complain about given that any shortcomings likely stem from the source materials.
Matching the video counterpart, the DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track is also stronger than expected and offers a nice balance to both dialogue and music. Brad Fidel’s powerful drum-rich score brings the island setting to life and leaves a lasting impression.
Optional English subtitles are included for anyone in need.
Rob Galluzzo (Icons of Fright) interviews actor Bill Pullman about his memories of working on this film, meeting Wes Craven, and the difficult nature of the production. The audio interview is fast-moving and highly informative, but sadly Pullman ditches the session in less than an hour to catch a flight. The 53-minute conversation is a nice score for Scream Factory, but the remaining 45 minutes of the film’s running time are met with total silence. I expected Galluzzo to keep talking or that there would be additional audio segments lined up for the remainder, as Scream Factory offered on their recent release of Wes Craven’s Shocker.
The Making of The Serpent and the Rainbow (24 minutes) is an interesting and informative featurette that covers a lot of ground with new interviews with cinematographer John Lindley, author Wade Davis (via Skype), and father and son make-up effects artists Dave Anderson and Lance Anderson. Segments of the Bill Pullman audio commentary are included as well, but oddly he does not appear on camera. This is a solid piece, but the film could stand a much more thorough documentary.
The original theatrical trailer and a television spot provide a glimpse at how the film was marketed.
A photo gallery (62 images) offers a wide variety of promotional stills in both color and black and white, a few behind the scenes shots and a collection of international lobby cards.