The Serpent and the Rainbow is a 1988 horror film, directed by filmmaker, birdwatcher and George Carlin lookalike Wes Craven.
Bill Pullman plays an anthropologist sent by a pharmaceutical company to politically volatile Haiti, to research voodoo methods of “zombification”, whereby the dead are seemingly brought back to life using hypnotic drugs – drugs that the boys at big pharma want to commercially mass produce. Think The Wicker Man meets Live and Let Die.
Based on the accounts of ethnobotanist Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow carries a rare authenticity that does justice to this mysterious culture – and makes the film all the more frightening. Blurring the boundaries between nightmares and the waking world, Craven is the perfect choice of director. The hallucinatory sequences are quite unsettling – with the exception of one scene in which Pullman is chased around a room by a chair.
But Pullman is strong, despite being third choice for the role after Kyle MacLachlan and Kevin Bacon turned it down. Believable throughout, he plays Indiana Jones on acid – well, psychotropic powder. His character develops nicely, his corporate cynicism slipping away as he succumbs to the strange voodoo forces surrounding him. Cathy Tyson is a watchable love interest, while the late Zakes Mokae makes a dangerous villain.
The first American feature film to be shot in Haiti, The Serpent and the Rainbow captures the country’s vibrant beauty and menacing underworld. Impressive in its scale, production was fraught with illness, strikes and hallucinations – Pullman claimed to have seen a green cow with TV screens for eyes. But it all paid off, with a film that looks and sounds fantastic.
To promote the film’s release on VHS, the video company thought it would be a good idea to send live snakes to 700 video stores in the UK. It wasn’t. That aside, The Serpent and the Rainbow is an often overlooked classic horror film, which successfully weaves in politics, adventure and romance. Staying admirably true to this dark subculture, the film is anthropologically intriguing, as well as deeply chilling.