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Oct 22, 2014

October 2014 Horror Movie a Day - Day 21: THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)


I remember seeing The Serpent and the Rainbow when it was first released, and enjoying it immensely. Did it hold up after so many years? Yes, and no.

Based loosely on a non-fiction book by the same name, this picture takes us to remote locations where civilizations rely heavily on strange medicines and mystical beliefs, some that go to very dark places. Bill Pullman plays an anthropologist who after taking a strange concoction experiences visions including that of a friendly Jaguar (his spirit guide), then stumbles his way out of a South American jungle - 200 miles of it. Upon returning to the U.S., he is contracted by a large pharmaceutical company to travel to Haiti and locate a powder that is said to be able to render a human being into a dead-like state from which they rise again perfectly healthy. The term 'zombie' is thrown around glibly by a skeptical exec. They want to harness the power of this medicine to use as anesthesia.

Digging up coffins is a hobby of mine.
The picture opens with a man that we see appearing to die then is buried. As dirt is poured over his coffin a tear runs down his cheek. He appears to be dead, but the tear indicates otherwise. The man reappears sometime later roaming around in a zombie-like state. That is where Pullman's investigation begins with help from an attractive doctor (there's the usual line when he sees that she's an attractive woman how he didn't expect the doctor to look like her...so you know there will be sexual tension between them).

Haiti is a volcano about to erupt into full blown revolution with corrupt government officials everywhere. The worst is a police commander played by Zakes Mokae who doesn't care for Pullman roaming about his country. Pullman recognizes Mokae from his South American vision, and Mokae seems to have some voodoo powers which make him even more dangerous. He also keeps his implements of torture in a wooden coffin in his office - never a good sign.

This is my scary face.
Pullman and the doctor track down the 'zombie' which leads them to a 'witch doctor' who tries to pull a fast one on Pullman. Pullman is clever though and gets the guy to give him what he is there for. Mokae hauls Pullman in and threatens him, then later after Pullman ignores him he is tortured. He still doesn't leave so he is framed for murder and thrown onto a plane and sent back to the States, but the witch doctor manages to slip him a vial of the powder just in time.

The moment all the males in the audience cringe.
Back in the U.S., Pullman finds that the powder's effects make the 'victim' appear dead by affecting a focused section of the brain. However they are able to hear, smell, see and even feel everything that is being done to them - including being buried alive. Pullman has strange dreams involving Mokae, and is worried for the doctor's safety. After a hand comes out of his soup at a dinner party, and the wife of one of the executives tries to murder him in a possessed state, Pullman knows that Mokae will continue to mess with him and heads back to Haiti.

Snakes...why did it have to be snakes.
That is as bad a plan as it sounds and immediately Pullman and anyone who is close to him is attacked by Mokae who has the upper hand. It isn't long before Pullman finds himself under the influence of the voodoo powder, and about to be buried - alive.

Ok you guys told me this wasn't a 'Nightmare' picture, but what is this all about?
Directed by A Nightmare on Elm Street creator Wes Craven, you can see the influence of that successful series here. Pullman experiences many voodoo triggered nightmares, including a fantastic one that has a closet transforming into a coffin. While these sequences do have the vibe of being something that Freddy Krueger would come up with, they have more grounded feel to them being more voodoo inspired rather than the limitless possibilities that Krueger could pull off in the nightmares.

Zombies need love too you know.
Some elements don't work as well as I remembered. I had no idea how Mokae could get into Pullman's mind - especially when back in the U.S. -  and even more so how he managed to take over possession of an American woman's body. Also, why? Pullman has left the country - although you get the sense that Mokae is trying to lure him back but if so, why force him to leave in the first place?

Served extra crispy.
The final half hour goes into full-on horror mode as Pullman is attacked, battles Mokae all while the country is in revolt. That the country is always on the edge of revolt - even though it is mentioned earlier - never comes across as a significant element throughout the picture until the end where it is indeed effective.

Why are they always shocked in these movies when an attractive woman has a serious career?
The movie wasn't near as frightening as I remember it, but I did find the atmosphere and tone to be extremely effective. Same with Pullman's performance. Mokae is truly creepy and the addition of Paul Winfield in a smaller role is always a plus.

Now that I've revisited this, it may be time to go back to Wes Craven's Shocker (1990) which I adore.