October 2, 2007

The Serpent And The Rainbow (Craven, 1988)

"Don't bury me...I'm not dead!"

In my experience (namely through personal conversations, message boards, and reading criticism), amongst those enamored with horror cinema there seem to be two prevailing opinions regarding Wes Craven. He is either a modern master of the genre, or an overrated hack and mediocre craftsman who has managed a couple of good films. Although I must admit to not having seen all of Craven's films, if my own opinion of the man falls somewhere in between those two admittedly extreme positions (albeit tending more towards the former), then his 1988 film The Serpent and the Rainbow certainly reinforces my sentiment.

Craven once again returns to the territory of dreams, a theme quite central to his best work to date (A Nightmare On Elm Street), this time situating his story in Haiti's strife-torn voodoo landscape. Adapted from Wade Davis's eponymous novel (reputedly a true story), the film tells of an American anthropologist (played by Bill Pullman) sent to Haiti by a pharmaceutical company to investigate the existence of a drug that has the ability to bring people back from the dead, to create "zombies."

The Serpent and the Rainbow is a resolutely mature horror film, a slower, story oriented exercise that succeeds precisely because of Craven's refusal to rely on cheap scare tactics. Instead, the horror is derived from Haiti itself. Craven wrings a palpable atmosphere of escalating dread from the foreignness of the Haitian culture and locale. The brilliance of this understated work is that the natural aspects of the story (the brutality of the secret police) are as horrifying, if not more so, than the fantastical, supernatural aspects. This certainly stands as one of Craven's stronger films, a mature work that does not, for the most part, pander to more simplistic horror tastes. It is all the more unfortunate then that the films climactic scenes lapse into cliché, but on the strength of everything that comes before, this can be forgiven.

Film: B/B+
Scare Factor: B+

View Date: 10/1
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #1

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