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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&