FIVE FILMS FROM...1988
The Serpent and the Rainbow
(Directed by Wes Craven)
Of course, the late-and-great genre director Craven is known primarily for "Elm Street", along with "Last House on the Left", "The Hills Have Eyes", and the "Scream" franchise. But this untypical offering from the filmmaker is often unfairly forgotten and is an extraordinarily strong entry in his filmography. It differs from most of his output in a number of intriguing ways; it's based on a non-fiction book, it takes place during genuine events in Haiti, and was the first film Craven managed to squeeze past the MPAA (US Censorship board) without having to make substantial cuts for violence. Even so, his original edit was said to be over 3 hours long and was substantially re-worked to get it to 98 minutes after early test-screenings. The story is VERY loosely based on the book of the same name from real-life ethnobotanist (global plant … 'guy') Wade Davis. Also, a Professor of Anthropology, this IRL 'Indy' wrote the titular book about his time in Haiti and his experience with 'zombies'. And we're talking genuine stuff here, not reanimated brain-eating corpses, but bonafide victims of a herbal concoction created by 'Witch Doctors' which simulates death. Once convinced that they have "died", the unfortunate victims fall in line with superstition and believe they are "Zombies" beholden to their Masters. One of Craven's most expansive (and probably expensive) projects, it was partly filmed in Haiti… until the local authorities let the cast and crew know that things were getting politically 'salty' once again, and they couldn't guarantee their safety. So, the production was moved to the Dominican Republic for the final sequences. That said, none of that background malarkey is really obvious in the movie itself, which contains some gorgeous cinematography and a compelling central performance from Bill Pullman. The actor plays 'Harvard anthropologist' Dennis Alan and is basically a fictionalised version of Davis. Set only a couple of years earlier, the narrative sees Alan travel the world searching for rare herbs and medicines unknown to Western civilisation. Hearing reports about a man who apparently 'rose from the grave', leads him to travel to revolution-struck Haiti to search for a suspected "super anaesthetic". But along with the (real) drug, he also encounters torture and apparently genuine "Vodou" magic.
How you respond to this movie depends on what you're really expecting from Craven, and how he's adapted the source material. In it some respects it's an awkward mishmash of reality and pulp-horror. You also get the impression that the genre maestro probably was probably encouraged by the studio to up-the-horror-content, as regards rubber-reality sequences and "Elm Street" inspired visions. (NB: Wade Davis originally wanted Peter Weir or Mel Gibson to direct). With that, horror fans were treated to unsettling scenes of realistically harrowing torture, performed by the infamous Tonton Macoute and Papa Doc ("I want to hear you scream!"). And we also have out-and-out scare scenes of walking corpses shooting snakes from their mouths, and animal-possessed characters fighting in a supernatural spirit-realm. If you can accept that slightly odd tone… then is an excellent offering from Craven that is much underrated. Ironically, it was probably written off at the time (and even now) for its "Dream" sequences. Truth be told, there is plenty of invention and stuff to enjoy here and some of it really gets under-the-skin. One startlingly original scene (for the time) sees Pullman exposed to the Voodoo Powder ("Don't let them bury me! I'm not dead!" – the image and strapline from most posters). The film switches to his POV, as he's buried alive (with a pissed-off Tarantula) and the screen goes black – for almost a minute until the paralysis wears off and he screams for help. It's an extraordinary scene (especially on the big screen) that exerts strong primal fear. Pullman delivers a grounded everyman performance that really sells the character, especially during his hideous torture scene (that will have male viewers cross their legs in sympathy). Zakes Mokae gives a lip-smacking villainous turn as Dargent Peytraud, a complete bastard on so many levels, and Cathy Tyson is good value as the feisty Marielle Duchamp, although she becomes a bit of a token-damsel-in-distress by the climax. There are some impressively mounted sequences that are somewhat atypical for this type of film; with the revolutionary violence and voodoo ceremonies/processions coming across as particularly striking. Then there's the unsettling "Voodoo Bride", skeletal hands reaching from bowls of soup (!), and plenty of other genre tropes given an effective airing by Craven. The fact that some elements of the medical facets of the story remain quite close to the truth, and that the "real" violence is pretty much on-the-nose, gives it an extra frisson alongside the usual jump-scares and stereotypes. It still has a low rating on RT and gets criticism from various historical and medical sources… but as horror entertainment, it's as solid as it gets. Incidentally, the title knowingly reflects the tone of the film; with The Serpent as voodoo symbolism for the Earth and the Rainbow as Heaven, which means everything in the film balances between the two realms and refers to mixture of horror/adventure and fact/fiction. Who said genre cinema isn't cerebral?
(Directed by Chuck Russell)
One of the nice things about doing retro articles is not only rediscovering gems from the past but also being pleasantly surprised at the large fan-base and reputation that has built up around latter-day offerings. A case in point is this highly enjoyable remake. While it's no Cronenberg's "The Fly", it is an innovative and artistically successful update of an intensely cheesy 50s monster flick. And when genre fans flock/blog together, it generally turns up in Top-10 Best Horror Remakes listings, along with other classics like "The Thing". However, at the time this entertaining monster romp had an opening that was described as "disastrous" by Screen International. It was directed by Chuck Russell ("Nightmare on Elm Street 3", "The Mask"), who also co-wrote the updated screenplay. The other writer was Frank Darabont, who also worked on "Nightmare 3", and would, of course, go on to lauded Stephen King adaptations and "The Walking Dead" TV show. The movie is an unabashed remake of the 1958 Steve McQueen sci-fi horror, where the 28-year old actor played a teenager, who saves the town from a giant alien amoeba-like substance. For this version, the backdrop switched from 50s Pennsylvania to 80s California and was set in the present day. The casting is pretty cool, especially when you consider the genre roles taken by some of the actors in later years. The female lead is Shawnee Smith (Amanda from the "Saw" franchise), and Kevin Dillon is the male lead, in a role that was initially written for Chad McQueen (Steve's son) who turned it down. You can also see genre faves Jeffery De Munn ("The Walking Dead"), Candy Clark ("The Man who fell to Earth"), and even Bill Moseley in relatively minor roles. The narrative does what ALL good remakes do and uses the original material to spin off into new and exciting directions. So, we still have a "meteorite" falling in Small-town USA and encountering a hobo, ingesting the poor sap, and growing to monstrous proportions. But it also incorporates a heavy environmental message and major conspiracy theory that skews the origins of the "alien" menace. It's up to the unlikely pairing of wholesome Cheerleader Meg Penny (Smith) and resident Bad-Boy Brian Flagg (Dillon) to save the day…
If this was remade today (more on which later), then it would obviously be hugely reliant on CGI to send the gooey lump towards its victims. As it stands, much of the entertaining FX is done with practical means and clever perspective tricks done by Tony Gardner ("Zombieland", "Seed of Chucky"). The deadly space-amoeba is often actually just a silk sack injected with a gooey food additive, which was described by the crew as the "Blob Quilt". As you can rightly expect the "blobby" deaths are much more gruesome than the 1958 film, with members of the cast melting all over the set as they are grabbed and mauled by the acidic title creature. Highlights include; the shock meltdown of a lead character with their face sliding off, another character getting squished inside a telephone box, a petting session turning into something more icky, a man forcibly pulled into a sink plughole (!), and a towering column of Blob shooting from the sewer system and crashing a military show-of-strength. But it's not just the cool monster FX that makes it so good. The story has great fun riffing on the original concept (this Blob came from a terrestrial source), includes some snarky humour ("Ribbed!!"), and even some political digs (a brief show of disgust at the American healthcare system). But it's the inventive screenplay and characterisations that really stand out. Russell pulls a "Psycho" by killing the "lead" character incredibly early on and has the guts to off an annoying child character pretty graphically. This allows Smith and Dillon to shine in their roles that go against easy stereotypes, with some neat chemistry and real likeability. Despite some sympathetic characters surprisingly biting the dust, the film is a feelgood update and great entertainment that deserved MUCH more love at the box office than it got originally. The SFX have dated a little but it stills shines today. The only disappointment is that the teased sequel, never had a chance to be filmed. Oddly enough, rumours of a new remake continually resurface in trade circles, with Samuel L. Jackson, Halle Berry, and Simon West ("Con Air") all allegedly attached to it, and an official promotional poster even existing. Don't hold your breath, though. The last update was in 2017…
(Directed by Anthony Hickox)
This offbeat offering from the director of "Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth" deserves a lot of love and credit, if only for the unconventional way it tries to breathe new life into the Horror Anthology sub-genre. It was Hickox's first feature, who also allegedly wrote the script in just three days (?!). It's supposedly based on a silent German Horror from 1924, but this update is basically a great excuse to squeeze multiple genre icons into one film and make a grab-bag of gory vignettes from the whole shebang. Want to see the Marquis De Sade share screen-time with a werewolf and a mummy? No problem. You'll also get aristocratic vampires, black-&-white NOTLD zombies, and The Phantom of the Opera thrown in for good measure. If that sounds like a campy good time in Nutzoid Central… well, that's precisely what it is. It's very much an 80s version of "The Cabin in the Woods" (the plots are strikingly similar in tone if not style). Budding 80s Scream Queen Deborah Foreman (who was dating Hickox at the time) is the female lead, with Zach ("Gremlins") Galligan taking the male counterpart. There are also some gloriously OTT cameos from veteran actors Patrick Macnee and David Warner. The whole story revolves around an evil wax museum that "absorbs" victims into its horror-themed tableaus, creating blood-soaked little sketches and inching its way towards triggering a satanic apocalypse. No, really!
While this is great exploitation fun, the original plan was even more awesome. Hickox originally wanted to have other recognisable icons like Jason Voorhees (!!) included in the wax tableaus. But due to copyright issues (no surprise there), most of the monsters are pretty generic, if recognisable staples of the genre. There are 18 separate "monsters" if you pore over the details, but apart from Jack the Ripper, Dracula, and De Sade, nobody is directly named. There are some blatant rip-offs like an Audrey 2 plant ("Feed me!") and the little tyke from "It's Alive" though. Probably the best element about the whole thing is the gusto-gore SFX, which were done by Bob Keen ("Hellraiser" and many others) and liven up the film with the first few outrageous vignettes. There's somebody pulled in half (length-ways!) by a gnarly looking werewolf, and a terrific head-squishing at the foot of a zombified Mummy. Best of all is the extravagant vampire section with (literally) gallons of blood flying in all directions, and a victim laying on a table with his leg stripped of all flesh. The film gets campier and sillier as it progresses, with Macnee hamming it up greatly as he zips around in a wheelchair during the fiery climax. There are jars in the tone (Foreman's attraction to BDSM seems very odd when compared to the rest of the story), but overall this is superb fun… mainly you're in the mood for silly/bloody exploitation. The film led to a sequel that was even more bonkers and just as entertaining (Zach Galligan becomes a "Time Warrior" to clear his name). An overlooked gem, even if RT and IMDB still give it crappy scores in their indexes. As Mr Lincoln (Warner) often says in the film; "Would you like a closer look?"