The Serpent and the Rainbow Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
A Harvard anthropologist (Bill Pullman) is sent to Haiti to retrieve a strange powder that is said to have the power to bring human beings back from the dead. In his quest to find the miracle drug, the cynical scientist enters the rarely-seen netherworld of walking zombies, blood rites and ancient curses. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
Writer/director Wes Craven was a master at reinventing himself, but every career reinvigoration seemed to stall within a movie or two. After he had made two of the most influential horror movies of the 1970s – Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) – he quietly disappeared into a series of underwhelming, interchangeable B-movies, like Deadly Blessing (1981) and Swamp Thing (1982). Then, shortly after making one of the most influential horror films of the 1980s – A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – he fell into another, albeit much less dreadful rut. By most accounts, he was sick of being pigeonholed as a horror filmmaker, but held the course, because it was the easiest way to score financing. Later, Scream (1996) became his vital contribution to the 1990s, but he began the process of redefining the look and tone of his work with The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).
Craven didn’t exactly resent the genre that made him a star, but, according to his own accounts, he was fatigued by his career as an exclusively horror-based filmmaker. The Serpent and the Rainbow was based on the true-to-life adventures of an ethnobotanist named Wade Davis, who studied the scientific and chemical facts of Haitian “zombies” and had the potential to be Craven’s breakaway from horror work. With a few dramatic tweaks, Davis’ story could be frightening without the genre trappings he was looking to avoid. In addition, the psychedelic nature of the zombie cocktail left the door open to some surrealistic scary scenes that could appease his fanbase. In the end, Craven’s interest in making a serious drama and the studio’s request for another Nightmare on Elm Street means that The Serpent and the Rainbow works in fits and starts, but fails to engage the full feature run-time. While the hallucinations are pretty powerful (or at least genuinely frightening) deviations from the real-world mechanisms of the basic plot, the final act’s head-first dive into straight supernatural horror is a tonal betrayal of the first hour-plus – not to mention really, really silly. Even outside of the horror elements, Craven and screenwriters Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman lose themselves in the tug of war between the travel log view of Haitian culture (which is nice when Pullman isn’t ruining the mystique with his terrible narration), the budding romance between characters (probably another studio mandate), and political intrigue.
I don’t think anyone was entirely happy with the compromise of The Serpent and the Rainbow. Davis certainly wasn’t, as he had sold the rights to his book on the condition that Peter Weir would direct and Mel Gibson would star. Back in the late ‘80s, Craven and Bill Pullman were a substantial step down from that high watermark and it seems very unlikely that Weir and Gibson (who were never involved at all) would’ve made a horror movie. But Craven did come awfully close to making a classy, genre-skewing thriller. Fans can see him, not to mention cinematographer John Lindley, sowing the seeds that would become the slick critical darlings of the ‘90s – movies like Craven’s Scream trilogy and Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), which Lindley shot for director Joseph Ruben. Pullman was certainly thankful for scoring a leading role in a studio movie, but, despite physically, sometimes literally throwing himself into every scene, the dramatic and romantic components of his performance are pretty bland and constantly out-classed by the supporting cast – especially Cathy Tyson, who was fresh off of her star-making performance in Neil Jordan's sublime Mona Lisa (1986). It’s disappointing that her career didn’t take off like Pullman’s did.
The Serpent and the Rainbow has enjoyed regular DVD circulation and previously appeared on Blu-ray via Fabulous Films in the UK, Pulp Video in Italy, and Koch Media in Germany. Scream Factory apparently intended on recycling the same HD image used for their Blu-ray, but delayed this release when they found better materials to create a new transfer from interpositive film elements. Because of this, Scream’s 1080p image outdoes Fabulous’ on most levels. Details are tighter, especially the complex textures of close-up images, lines are better defined, and film grain no longer clumps. The two releases feature similar palettes, though the UK disc has a higher dynamic range and is generally lighter, while Scream’s release is more delicate and neatly separated. Perhaps the perfect color balance lies somewhere between the two. To my eyes, the Scream Factory disc comes out on top, but there is still some room for improvement. Some sequences appear over-sharpened and others feature what might be telecine machine noise (it is, at the very least, snowy at times). Other issues, such as the slightly fuzzy wide-angle details and black edges that bleed a smidge, are likely inherent in the original material. The one place the UK disc comes out ahead is the aspect ratio, since the film was intended for 1.85:1 and there is some information missing on the right and left sides of this disc’s 1.78:1 frame.
For the record, the UK release was also cut by a few seconds while this release features the complete R-rated cut (apparently, the MPAA didn’t require Craven to censor any of the film’s violence to get the R).
The Serpent and the Rainbow is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio and its original 2.0 stereo-surround (the only lossless release other than Koch’s, I believe). The soundtrack has some balance issues between effects, music, and dialogue, with the dialogue losing the battle in most cases (outside of Pullman’s narration). Dialogue-heavy scenes, however, tend to sound just fine. Stereo enhancements are relatively aggressive for a 1988 non-action release, including basic environmental ambience and the more imaginative sound design of the zombie trip-outs and voodoo attacks. Terminator and Fright Night composer Brad Fiedel’s score alternates between very typical Wes Craven scare strings and moody, tribal drum-driven cues (he recycles his original Terminator theme rather shamelessly for the end credits). It is the loudest and most tidily separated element of the track.
Commentary with actor Bill Pullman – This actor commentary is moderated by Rob Galluzzo from Icons of Fright (iconsoffright.com), who treats the track like an occasionally screen-specific interview. Pullman is open to questions, full of answers, and rarely sounds like he’s bored. Galluzzo comes prepared with additional context and historical information to fill space between questions, which, in turn, usually jogs Pullman’s memory and unleashes another behind-the-scenes anecdote. Unfortunately, this only lasts for the first 54 minutes of the film, at which point Pullman excuses himself and the track ends.
The Making of The Serpent and the Rainbow (23:57, HD) – This retrospective featurette verifies most of what I always suspected about the film, specifically that Craven wanted to make a more sophisticated thriller, but was stifled by studio interests. The interviewees – including star Bill Pullman (via audio only), author Wade Davis (via Skype), director of photography John Lindley, and special makeup effects artists Lance Anderson and David Anderson (all via actual on-camera interviews) – lament the horror aspects, but are also sure to credit Craven for his efforts and seem to have generally fond memories. Davis rightfully complains about the fact that the film doesn’t celebrate voodoo, but treats it like another horror movie trope.
Trailer and TV spot
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.