The Serpent and the Rainbow
directed by Wes Craven
written by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman
based on the book by Wade Davis
starring Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, Brent Jennings, Conrad Roberts
Loosely based on Wade Davis’s experiences with Haitian voodoo culture, this film tracks the efforts of an American anthropologist to uncover the mysteries inherent in the art of zombification. It starts out promisingly enough but quickly devolves into an absurd parody of itself.
Bill Pullman is Dennis Alan whom as the film opens is ransacked in the Amazon jungle and forced to walk over two hundred miles to escape. He is propositioned by a major pharmaceutical giant who wants to market a drug based on the potion that is used to turn people into the walking dead. He travels to Haiti and soon learns how deeply the roots of this phenomenon go in Haitian society. The film focuses on his awakening after a fashion as he battles a sinister boss of the secret police named Dargent Peytraud (Mokae) and the Haitian military.
Haiti is in tatters having suffered the ill caprices of its tyrannical leader, Baby Doc, for many years. Marshall law is declared as well as a curfew preventing the populace from leaving their homes at night. Amidst all the turmoil there is a fine mixture of Catholicism and Voodoo which are both given equal credence in the territory. Most of the people are Catholics but “110 percent” are Voodoo in the words of Alan’s contact on the island, Marielle Duchamp (Tyson).
Alan is desperate to find the powder that is used in these rituals so he enlists the talents of Louis Mozart (Jennings), a man who claims to be able to manufacture the powder that leads to zombification. After a false start Alan and Mozart work together to find the right mixture of ingredients for creating what Alan is seeking.
Peytraud is presented as a petty tyrant who tortures those who question the efficacy of the state. He carefully observes Alan and seems to possess the ability to transport himself into Alan’s dreams among other things. It is clear that Peytraud is an exceedingly powerful man who is given cart blanche by the government to do what ever he sees fit to protect order and serve the administration.
The people are poor but quite energized by the color and eccentricities of their culture. There are many voodoo ceremonies where persons are possessed by various spirits who are hanging about for the show. Marielle Duchamp herself is a practitioner of Voodoo and she participates in the possession ceremony much to Alan’s amusement and alarm. It seems to turn him on more than anything else because the pair soon find themselves sexually involved in a scene that combines straightforward intercourse with a dash of Voodoo histrionics. The film seems to take a wrong turn at this point and the story becomes increasingly more preposterous as it goes along.
Lucien Celine (Winfield) is Alan’s straightforward guide in this confusing and terribly entrancing world. Celine is the one who sets Alan on his terrible path toward either enlightenment or horror. Celine is a non-believer who is able to provide an outsider’s view regarding the activity pressing on the island.
There is a tremendous amount of energy to the first half of the film as the rich, dynamic Voodoo ceremonies play out in all their opulent splendor. There is a decisive appreciation for the religion as many aspects are demonstrated throughout giving a sense of authenticity to the proceedings. However, it’s most likely only a semblance of what the actual environment during these rituals must be like for those not affixed to the Religious point of view that guides the practitioners. Still, the dancing and shouting combined with the colorful outfits and intensity manage to create a lasting impression on the viewer.
It has been argued that zombification is merely a tool used by the government to rid itself of unnecessary adversaries. In this film, Peytraud is devoted to stealing souls for his own glory and infinite power. He represents a corrupt government that treats its population with disdain, leaving them with nothing save their religion to salve their psychological and emotional wounds. In this respect, Voodoo is presented as a vital force that enables its believers to deal with the great oppression administered by the state. As society crumbles it remains the one constant that can never be effectively stripped away from those who adhere to its tenants.
Alan is portrayed as a typical dumb American who stumbles into a world that he is utterly ignorant of. He’s chauvinistic, careless, and represents the greed and arrogance of the American medical establishment. Still, the powder obtained is in fact used in experiments designed to ascertain its anaesthetic qualities. It is hoped that tremendous breakthroughs will be made to save lives. Nevertheless it all comes down to the bottom line which is the amount of money the drug companies can make from hawking the newly fabled medical miracle.
The clash of cultures is amusing at first but eventually loses its luster as Alan continues to meander throughout Haitian society. It’s a typical fish out of water story but of course Alan eventually gets the upper hand as all Westerners do in such films. The West has all the answers and necessarily gets precisely what it is after because in the end Voodoo is fraught with dangers that are beyond our petty concepts of good and evil and therefore must be decimated or at least ridiculed.
The performances in this film are all quite good. Bill Pullman possesses just enough cocksureness to sell his character’s snide attitude towards Haitian culture in general and Voodoo in particular. He’s also believable when Alan starts to slip down the slippery slope into actual awareness of all of the intricacies of Voodoo. Brent Jennings is a particular standout as he imbues Mozart with a tremendous lust for life that comes through in every scene he’s in. He’s easily the most vibrant and dynamic character in the entire film and it’s a tremendous joy to watch him perform. Cathy Tyson captures the steamy aspect of the Voodoo experience. Marielle is guarded for much of the film until she loses herself in Voodoo or sex. She’s a woman who understands the sexuality of Voodoo and how the connection to the gods can lead to orgasmic revelations that transcend all religion.
Overall, this film has moments of clarity but they are essentially dashed by and ending that is simply too fantastic to believe in. There are many scenes of hallucinations and dreams that seem to set up the final third of the film but when they crash through to reality they becomes less mysterious and in fact pedestrian. It’s all just too silly to work effectively and the mood of the piece is entirely shot. Ultimately, it leaves a sense of the wonderful and terrible aspects of Voodoo but leaves a rather unsavory taste in the mouth once the drama is all sorted out.