Sorry about the tardiness on this one. The honest truth is that I had my Starburst column that I needed to finish a bit earlier than the deadline to give me a clear run at the Halloween weekend and the build up.
Before I get stuck in to this write-up, I want to mention how much I’m enjoying this particular Shocktober. I’m revisiting films that in some cases, I haven’t seen for decades. Some of these movies have really aged well and probably play better now than they did when I first saw them. Others, mentioning no names but feature Eddie Murphy, should probably have been left on the shelf.
One of the ones which has certainly stood the test of time in my eyes is Craven’s 1987 offering, The Serpent and the Rainbow. This is as close to a documented true story as the director has brought to the screen thus far.
The basis of the film is Wade Davis’s book. He is a Harvard scientist, ethnobotanist and anthropologist who delved into the dark world of voodoo - or to give it is’s proper spelling vodou - in Haiti. His mission was to investigate the zombie making process. His findings were criticised by the scientific community, but really - ain’t that always the way?
The film is a sometime loose adaptation of the book, and to be honest, is one of Craven’s strongest and most effective, weaving together fact and fiction in a film that’s eerily memorable and steeped in an atmosphere of unease and disquiet.
Bill Pullman plays Dennis Alan (obviously the Wade Davis character) who is tasked by a major American pharmaceutical company to investigate the causes of zombification in Haiti - Haiti being practically the world capital of voodoo (I’m keeping to the more traditional spelling now, with apologies to Mark Jones). The practitioners have a formula for a powdered compound which, when blown into a victim’s face, causes what appears to be a lowering of the metabolic rate, the heartbeat and breathing slow right down and induces what on the outside at least, is an almost catatonic state - except that the victim is actually still awake and feels nothing, yet can’t react to stimulus like pain.
The proof of this is a man who had died and had been buried a few years earlier and yet was still wandering around. Now, if this compound actually exists, and Alan can learn its secrets and bring back a sample, then tens of thousands of lives will be saved every year, as a high proportion of fatalities during surgical procedures occur as a result of anaesthetic shock.
The risk here is higher than infiltrating the secret societies of Haitian voodoo and magic, it’s also set at the time of the ruthless regime of Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier who used the threat of voodoo and the limitless power of his personal militia, the Tonton Macoute to rule Haiti by fear. It has been reported that the Tonton Macoute was responsible for the murder of over 60,000 Haitians. Many of it’s ranking officers were reputedly voodoo priests, and it was this fear coupled with a lack of sophistication which kept the Haitians in check during the rule of both Jean-Claude and his father before him, Charles "Papa Doc" Duvalier.
Before this turns into a lengthy essay of Haitian politics, let’s get back to the film.
It’s effective from the opening sequences where a victim pronounced dead and is buried - but as the first spades of soil hit his coffin lid, a lone tear rolls down his cheek. The authorities keep a close watch on Alan from his arrival, and try to discourage his investigations, but meeting a local witch doctor named Mozart, he watches the compound, composed of various herbs and roots, call carefully and exactingly prepared, being made.
There are, typically of Craven, several sequences set in a dream state as his descent into the darker side of reality becomes more intense and the leader of the Tonton Macoutes Capt Peytraund infiltrates his dreams. Peytraund also inflicts a physical torture with a hammer and a six inch nail which will get every male member of the audience wincing.
One of the things that works best in this film, which I’ve never seen done before, or since for that matter, is that it was actually filmed on location in Haiti. This gives even the more fantastical elements of the plot an authentic feel. All in all, despite the overthrow of the Duvalier regime (also a part of the plot here) - it’s not really somewhere I think I’ll be visiting any time soon.
The zombification drug does actually exist, a sample was really brought back for analysis. However, scientists have yet to determine how or why the drug works, or exactly how the ingredients are prepared, so Davis’s efforts have yet to bear fruit. The secrets of Haitian voodoo have remained Haiti. Native superstition borne of fear and suggestion or a natural force of nature? Who knows?
As a Shakespeare wrote "The are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy".
Great movie, though.
Next up - Deadly Friend (No Amazon link this time I'm afraid. The film is unreleased on DVD in the UK - it's a long story, I'll tell you next time.)
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