The Serpent and The Rainbow (1988) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 18

by Jovial Jay

A living death as a zombie is no way to live!

Films about voodoo are few and far between, but The Serpent and The Rainbow provides a (mostly) realistic look at

Before Viewing

We Craven has had an illustrious career, never relying on just one style of horror film. The Serpent and the Rainbow branches out from the fantastical horror of A Nightmare on Elm Street and tries to ground it a more mystical place. It appears to deal with dead people coming back to life, like zombies. Based on many of the shots it also appears to deal with voodoo, as Bill Pullman (a white man out of his element) becomes embroiled with mystical forces he doesn’t understand. I haven’t seen this film since it was released, and there’s one specific scene involving Pullman’s genitals and a spike that really did me in. It’ll be better this time, right?

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

The Serpent and The Rainbow

The Serpent and The Rainbow title card.

After Viewing

In Haiti, 1978, a man named Christophe (Conrad Roberts) is buried – with no vitals, apparently dead – but awakens shortly after being placed in the ground. Seven years later in the Amazon basin, Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is researching rare medicines with a tribal Shaman and drinks a potion that elicits a strong hallucination which includes a playful jaguar, a mysterious black man, and Dennis being pulled into a pit by corpses. He returns to the States for his meeting with his benefactor, Boston’s Biocorp.

His colleague, Schoonbacher (Michael Gough) has set up a meeting with Andrew Cassedy (Paul Guilfoyle) regarding the mysterious reappearance of Christophe in Haiti. Cassedy asks what Dennis knows about zombification, telling him to find out more about the voodoo drug used by the Haitians to see if it can be used as an anesthetic. Dennis flies into Haiti and meets with Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), who runs a local asylum.

She welcomes Dennis in, but warns him to be wary of Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), who is not only the head of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s secret police, the Tonton Macoute, but a powerful witch doctor. Peytraud is the same man Dennis saw in his vision, and was also the same man seen at Christophe funeral. He claims to be a bokor, which is a voodoo magic man that can steal people’s souls. He warns Dennis to leave the country. Dennis chooses to stay and meets with Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield), a local houngan, who introduces him to Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings), a man who can provide Dennis a sample of the zombie drug.

The Serpent and The Rainbow

Dennis has a vision of Peytraud, a Haitian voodoo priest.

Peytraud’s men catch Dennis and take him back to police headquarters where he is tortured by Peytraud, which includes driving an 8-inch spike through his scrotum. Marielle patches him up and the two go into hiding until the Mozart can finish making the drug, which takes three days. On the morning of the last day, the Tonton Macoute kidnap Marielle and find Dennis, framing him for the death of Christophe’s sister. He is placed on the first plane out of the country.

Before he can leave, Mozart sneaks on the plane and hands him a sample of the powder. Back in Boston, Dennis has dinner with Schoonbacher, Cassedy and Cassedy’s wife (Dey Young). Using black magic, Peytraud reaches out to control Mrs. Cassedy, who attacks Dennis. Realizing he’s no safer in the States, Dennis returns to save Marielle, who he’s come to love. A passerby blows a strange white powder into his face and he is shortly pronounced dead, and buried.

Christophe finds and saves Dennis. Unfortunately Dennis is now under Peytrauds control, having lost his soul to a canari, a jar used by the bokor to hold the victim’s possessed soul. Fighting the control, Dennis summons his spirit animal, a jaguar, which helps him defeat Peytraud and smash his collection of canari, freeing the captured souls to move on. The final battle occurs during the escape of “Baby Doc” Duvalier from Haiti, as the country is liberated from his tyranny. Dennis and Marielle see people celebrating in the street. A final title card indicates that the zombie powder is under investigation, but the way it works still remains a mystery.

Where is the location of the soul? Under the hood? Next to the battery? No, the soul begins and ends with the brain.” – Dr. Dennis Alan

The Serpent and The Rainbow

Dennis Alan meets with his benefactors at Biocorp.

The Serpent and the Rainbow is not your standard zombie movie or even standard horror film. Like many horror films, it’s based on a book. But what makes this film different is the book happens to be a work of non-fiction. The 1985 book is by anthropologist Wade Davis, who investigates the ingredients of a zombie powder in Haiti. Obviously, this is the basis for the events of this film. However unlike the book, the film version moves into a spiritual realm with Peytraud actually being able to steal souls and control people from vast distances. Another difference that The Serpent and The Rainbow has from basic horror films, is that it takes place during actual events, which is rare. Linking the events of voodoo control and abuse by Peytraud in this film to the crimes of Duvalier’s administration against Haiti gives another dimension to the actions. It’s more prevalent for horror films to be based on real events, such as The Amityville Horror or The Conjuring. Most of these films are ghost stories, hauntings, and the like, but basing a film on the theme of voodoo is very rare.

The history on voodoo in film, and even horror film, is so limited as to be counted on two hands. Most modern horror fans no longer equate zombies with voodoo, but with the reanimated dead seeking a meal of human flesh and brains. But at one time voodoo and zombies went together like haunted houses and ghosts. The first film to deal with zombies, voodoo and the possession by a bokor (even if its not called that), is 1932s White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi in a follow-up to Dracula. It’s considered to be a classic in the sense that it introduced the material to the genre – critics are less kind about the acting in this however. Other horror films that deal with the practice of possession and voodoo include the obvious Voodoo Man (also with Lugosi), and Voodoo Island (with Boris Karloff), The Kiss, Child’s Play, and the ever popular Scream Blacula Scream. In fact only 23 films are listed on on Wiki’s “Films About Voodoo” page. Discerning film fans may also recognize its appearances in James Bond’s Live and Let Die, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and of course, Weekend at Bernie’s II. Zombie films obviously changed their make-up (no pun intended) after 1968s Night of the Living Dead and the non-magical reanimation of the dead as rotting corpses.

The Serpent and The Rainbow

Dennis is blessed by a houngan to hopefully prevent the evil spirits from getting to him.

One of the most fascinating aspects, to me, of The Serpent and The Rainbow is its director, Wes Craven. His career has been varied and long, working with many different franchises and types of horror. While popularly known for his work directing A Nightmare on Elm Street (and the returning to the franchise in 1994 with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare), his start was equally important with The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, radically different types of films from Nightmare. His career continued with the creation of a new meta-horror franchise, Scream in 1996, followed by a werewolf film, Cursed, and the thriller Red Eye both in 2005. The Serpent and The Rainbow represents the most radical departure from popular horror motifs for Craven, crafting an interesting and complex film. It may not be scary in a traditional sense, but the horror and terror runs deeper than a common slasher flick.

The Serpent and The Rainbow

Dennis and Marielle witness the release of many spirits stored in the canari.

Assorted Musings

  • Michael Gough had a brief, uncredited role in The Legend of Hell House as a mummified corpse of the sadistic antagonist, whose spirit torments the main characters.
  • A title card indicates that the Serpent represents Earth and the Rainbow represents Heaven. Between the two, all creatures must live and die. But because he has a soul Man can be trapped in a terrible place Where death is only the beginning.

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