The Serpent And The Rainbow marked a major turn­ing point for Wes Craven. He had been try­ing to break into the Hollywood sys­tem ever since the mid-‘70s and, while he had a string of films to show for it, he had often strug­gled with med­dle­some pro­duc­ers and exec­u­tives on films like Swamp Thing and Deadly Friend. Things went a sim­i­lar way on The Serpent And The Rainbow, right down to stu­dio-man­dat­ed reshoots to beef up the finale, but he’d learned enough about play­ing the stu­dio game to make a film that pleased the exec­u­tives while also allow­ing him to do inter­est­ing and unusu­al things on Hollywood’s mon­ey.

SerpRain-posThe Serpent And The Rainbow was adapt­ed from a non­fic­tion book by anthopol­o­gist Wade Davis. The stand-in for the author is Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman), an anthro­pol­o­gist who is dis­patched to mid-‘80s Haiti by a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny in search of a nat­u­ral drug that can be used to trans­form peo­ple into “zom­bies.” Working with local doc­tor Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), he dis­cov­ers this leg­end is very much true. He also runs afoul of Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), the chief of the secret police who is also a pow­er­ful voodoo prac­ti­tion­er. Dennis is deter­mined to bring the drug back to the U.S. but Peytraud will use all meth­ods earth­ly and unearth­ly to stop him.

The result is an intrigu­ing blend of fact and fic­tion where the hor­ror ele­ments are act as the flip­side to the fac­tu­al ele­ments of the sto­ry. The script by Richard Maxwell and A.R. Simoun fea­tures plen­ty of scary sce­nes and some real­i­ty-bend­ing night­mare sequences right out of Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street play­book: there’s an effec­tive, Altered States-esque open­er where Dennis has to par­take of a local drug, a voodoo show that goes wrong due to the inter­fer­ence of Peytraud and a great night­mare revolv­ing around the fear of being buried alive.

SerpRain-01However, The Serpent And The Rainbow doesn’t just use the Haitian set­ting as a spring­board for super­nat­u­ral cheap thrills. The com­mer­cial scare moments often act as an alle­gor­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the real ter­rors of the Duvalier régime: there’s a mem­o­rable scene where Dennis awak­ens from a night­mare to have it clash with real life as he is accost­ed by the secret police and the finale has a voodoo bat­tle hap­pen­ing again­st the back­drop of a polit­i­cal riot. Craven and the writ­ers draw the­se con­nec­tions through­out the film and it gives the scary moments a greater res­o­nance than they would have oth­er­wise had.

It also helps that Craven had built up the chops to han­dle a Hollywood-size project by this time. Craven and cin­e­matog­ra­pher John Lindley do a beau­ti­ful job of cap­tur­ing the visu­al scope of its third-world set­ting, cap­tur­ing the beau­ty of the land and some haunt­ing imagery of voodoo cer­e­monies. He also plays up sur­re­al­ism rather than blood­shed in the hor­ror sce­nes and gets nice per­for­mances across the board: Pullman makes a like­able every­man hero in an ear­ly lead role, Tyson cre­ates a smart and resource­ful hero­ine and Mokae is chill­ing­ly con­vinc­ing as the vicious police chief.

SerpRain-02There are also strong sup­port­ing turns by Paul Winfield as Dennis’s main local con­tact and Brent Jennings as a voodoo priest who shows Dennis the art of the cre­at­ing the zom­bie pow­der (he and Pullman have great chem­istry in their sce­nes). Horror fans will also be amused to see hor­ror vet Michael Gough play­ing a non-hor­ror role as one of the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal execs.

Simply put, The Serpent And The Rainbow shows Craven pulling off the rare trick of suc­cess­ful­ly serv­ing two mas­ters. There are plen­ty of scares and creepy atmos­phere to sat­is­fy the exec­u­tives and the hor­ror diehards but the polit­i­cal themes and the con­vinc­ing evo­ca­tion of tur­moil in Haiti give it a sur­pris­ing depth. Craven would con­tin­ue to have an up-and-down rela­tion­ship with Hollywood after this film but his work shows he had devel­oped the skills to stay in the game. Thus, this film is a neces­si­ty for Craven fans and worth a watch for any­one inter­est­ed in the more unique Hollywood hor­rors of the ‘80s.