The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

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*. “Inspired by a true story.” That’s one way of putting it. It’s actually based on a non-fiction book by Wade Davis that looked into a supposed case of zombification in Haiti, suggesting that it might have been caused by the use of drugs.
*. Davis wanted the picture to be directed by Peter Weir, and to star Mel Gibson. With Wes Craven on board, things were bound to head in a very different direction.
*. Not that Craven sinks the film. In fact, I think this is one of his better efforts, in part because it’s grounded, somewhat, in reality. The story takes the zombie genre back to its historical and cultural roots, and even the wilder sequences come with an explanation (being the result of psychotropic drugs).
*. It could have done more though. There are actually moments here reminiscent of The Killing Fields or The Last King of Scotland. It would have been interesting to crossbreed the horror genre with a movie that was making a political statement about the real horrors of a police state, but that never quite happens.

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*. Nice to see Michael Gough showing up in a film that must have reminded him a bit of his Hammer days.
*. The ending features one of the most spectacular human fireball effects I’ve ever seen. I mean they really light that guy up good. But it’s ruined by bringing the bad guy back to life so he can be disposed of again. When did this motif — the super villain who cannot be killed just once — become obligatory? Of course Craven knew it well (he’d used it many times before), but here it just seems tired and pointless.

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*. This should have been so much better. At every step of the way you feel a sense of wasted potential. The cast is really quite good and there are places where it should have really come alive, like the torture business at the police station, and especially the Boston dinner party where the lady of the house is possessed and turns into a knife-wielding psycho. But they never come off. There isn’t a single suspenseful, shocking, or scary sequence in the entire film. After a while you’re just waiting for something weird to happen.
*. Was Craven reverting to his creative comfort zone? Or was this a case of the studio trying to make the source material into a more commercial property? I’m not sure who’s to blame, but it doesn’t really work.

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