Review by David Carter
Posted on 13 October 2013
Source Universal DVD
Categories 31 Days of Horror X
This country [Haiti] lives on the edge, Dr. Alan.
The above is spoken by Captain Dargent Peytraud to The Serpent and the Rainbow’s hero, Dr. Dennis Alan. Peytraud is a corrupt police official, black magician, and in turn the film’s primary villain. One could make the argument that he is simply a proxy for forces greater than himself. As the leader of the Tonton Macoute, Peytraud is a cipher for the authority of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Peytraud himself does not have authority except that which is derived from his position in Duvalier’s regime. In his role as a “bokor” or black magician, again Peytraud is merely a vessel for the mysterious spiritual powers of Haiti.
Like Peytraud himself, the statement above has two distinct meanings. In the context in which it is given, it is a reference to Haiti’s tenuous political climate. Peytraud uses the threat of political collapse to justify his brutal methods as acts of patriotism and political turmoil in Haiti is the backdrop against which the film is set. The unintended meaning of the statement is far more relevant to the main ideas of The Serpent and the Rainbow, however. Haiti is a country living on the edge between the “real” world of politics and poverty and the supernatural world of voodoo, zombies, and spirits.
Dr. Dennis Alan is a Harvard botanist who has recently found acclaim by retrieving rare herbs from a tribe in a remote part of the Amazonian rainforest. The trip was not without complications, however, as a shaman forced him to take a hallucinogenic compound. The resulting vision was alternately comforting and disturbing, and the staid Alan is deeply unsettled by the experience. Back in the States, Alan is approached by a pharmaceutical company to investigate rumors of a real-life “zombie” in Haiti. A man named Christophe Durand died suddenly and was buried, but reappeared days later speaking of his memories of being buried and his belief that a voodoo priest now has his soul.
Scientist Alan scoffs at the idea of a soul, but it is his scientific curiosity that compels him to accept their offer to investigate Durand’s claims. His Haitian contact and guide is Dr. DuChamp, the caretaker of an insane asylum who assures him that Durand’s alleged resurrection is not unique, yet he is the only one who has had the ability to speak. Alan meets Durand in a graveyard and listens in disbelief as he spins a tale of having a powder blown in his face, then being completely paralyzed but fully conscious at the same time.
Alan and DuChamp begin a search for the mysterious zombie powder and find a source in scam artist and voodoo practitioner Louis Mozart. Before they can procure a sample, Captain Peytraud and the Tonton Macoute begin harassing them, even going so far as to torture and maim Alan to dissuade him from continuing his quest. It only strengthens his resolve, though, and Alan returns to America with the zombie powder and scientifically verifies its powers. Peytraud also proves that his supernatural powers are real and can strike at Alan from any distance, and Alan is drawn back to Haiti to stop his evil once and for all.
Wes Craven employs horror with restraint throughout the film, only progressing to overt scare scenes in the film’s second half. The scene of Alan trapped in a coffin filling with blood — the film’s horrific centerpiece — comes within the context of a dream, making it more an intriguing visual than a source of terror. More of the film is dedicated to Peytraud’s earthly powers than his supernatural ones, thus the film is often a political thriller with horror elements; The Killing Fields meets The Exorcist. When the film makes the transition to horror exclusively in its final act, it does so almost satirically. Direct nods are made to Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and Peytraud’s abilities are quite reminiscent of Freddy Krueger’s, such as his power to enter Alan’s dreams. Peytraud is given his ironic comeuppance by Alan in the slasher-influence finale in a battle that somehow feels less essential that the political rebellion against which it is set.
There is a recurrent aspect of The Serpent and the Rainbow that qualifies it as true horror. Throughout the course of the film, Dr. Dennis Alan is systematically stripped of his belief system, and the institution upon which he has based his life repeatedly fails him. Alan is a true scientist, only believing in what can be objectively proven through rigorous testing. The film doesn’t use the term atheist, but it is clear when Alan becomes angry at the mere mention of the existence of a soul that the unprovable world of the spirit is anathema to him. Alan’s growing disillusionment with science is the film’s most obvious theme and it is only when he finally divests himself of it that he is able to defend himself against Peytraud.
Haiti within the context of the film is depicted as a country where science and reason have no place; Alan is lost there, literally, metaphorically, and spiritually. Dr. DuChamp serves as both his practical guide and his spiritual guide in this new world, one were what he previously dismissed as myths and legends are the day-to-day reality. Peytraud causes Alan physical harm, but it is not until his powers manifest themselves in America that Alan is truly shaken and moved to action. It is in this moment that Alan realizes that his god (science) has abandoned him and he must now accept the existence of other forces in the universe and do battle with them.
Much like The Devils’ Father Grandier, Dr. Dennis Alan is ultimately betrayed by the institution in which he had previously found success and comfort. Stripped of this, he finds himself naked and defenseless, subjected to the powers of those who serve different masters. From a pure horror standpoint, The Serpent and the Rainbow is at times cartoonish and — lamentably — a bit racist in its presentation of the Haitian belief system. However, in its presentation of a man spiritually adrift it is quite poignant and terrifying. Dr. Alan is a man who loses his intellectual and philosophical moorings and finds himself unable to wake from a nightmare world where the lines between life and death are blurred. The film is not anti-science, but rather a cautionary tale warning against holding on to any one belief system completely. This is seen both in Dr. Alan’s journey and the dissolution of the Haitian government. The Serpent and the Rainbow presents a world where chaos ultimately destroys those who attempt to impose order on it by force. Only those who embrace chaos can hope to survive.
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