I plan to watch a lot of horror movies this weekend. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on your point of view—I don’t expect any of them to be very good because I specifically rented the ones that I thought had the highest potential of mockability. (For example, one of said movies is a Uwe Boll film.) So I figured, I should at least watch one horror movie this week that’s actually on my serious To-See list. The movie?
There are some fairly creepsome moments in this film.
Super Anthropologist Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) goes to Haiti in order to investigate zombification, hoping to bring back a drug to America that can be used as an anesthetic, saving millions of lives—-and, presumably, earning millions of dollars in the meantime. But we all know what happens to silly, skeptical American scientists when they’re thrown into the mystical unknown: crazy voodoo shit. Lots of it.
1. I think—like most white girls—I’ve always wanted a spirit guide. You know? When you’re a kid, it’s all about a fairy godmother—and okay, I could still stand to have one of those, because I’d like someone who can just transform the ugly rags I’m wearing into a beautiful blue dress that fits me properly—but as you get older, you want a more spiritual experience, right, and the more movies you watch about vision quests and magical juju potions and the like, well, you get to thinking that it all just sounds so much more exotic and significant than whatever the hell it was you did that day. Like you could be balancing your budget and eating canned chili and watching yet another rerun of NCIS on USA, or you could be finding your spirit animal. Which would you rather do?
The thing is, while I’d love to have a spirit animal, I’m not really interested in taking any hallucinogenics just to figure out what it is. That’s always the problem with these scenarios. You always have to be drinking the shroom juice. And while I’m aware that many people have had all kinds of positive spiritual experiences with shrooms and the like, you know I’d take that shit and see stuff like this:
I guess I’ll stick with the lame OkCupid tests.
2. And maybe you’re thinking, Wow, that’s awesome, Carlie, I will now forever associate you with dirty rodents, that’s sweet, but what exactly does that have to do with the MOVIE? And the answer is . . . not much. The Serpent and the Rainbow introduces our Super Anthropologist in the Amazon for no real purpose I can see other than . . .
A.) Show he’s brave enough to drink beverages with untested hallucinogenic properties.
B.) Show he’s awesome enough to survive the Amazon rain forests all on his own.
C.) Give him a spirit animal which ultimately serves no real function in the movie. Okay, it helps out near the end, but it still feels kind of thrown in and silly. (If you’re curious, Dr. Allen’s spirit animal is a jaguar. It’s always a jaguar. Or a wolf. Never a mouse.)
D.) Say that a storm’s coming. (Surprisingly, no one actually says these exact words. But that’s the general message. Doom on you! Doom on you!)
And as far as Bill Pullman goes as a Super Anthropologist . . .
. . . well, I don’t know if I entirely buy him as a scientist and man-of-the-world, but he’s okay. I’ve seen worse. He actually makes for a pretty decent horror movie victim, though. Pullman has to scream and look terrified a lot in this movie. He does it well. (You may say this isn’t much of a feat, but I would have to disagree. Some people really don’t know how to sell fear.) So I’ll give Mr. Pullman props for that . . .
3 . . . before I knock him for the flattest, most poorly delivered voice over I’ve heard since Kevin Costner and Dances With Wolves.
Here’s what I think happens: a director gets this idea that an actor needs to narrate as calmly and objectively as possible—especially if he’s supposed to be reading notes or letters or, I don’t know, journal entries or something. I think what the director’s striving for is a narration that will give the story a sense of realism, authenticity, validity.
The problems with this aspiration are as follows
A. Objectivity shouldn’t equal lack of inflection.
B. A character trying for objectivity isn’t necessarily going to actually be objective.
C. A character talking about evil spirits in the same tone of voice that you or I would talk about fabric softener isn’t going to strike anyone as authentic, just bad acting.
That’s not so hard to understand, is it? If a protagonist is talking about some strange supernatural phenomena he’s encountered, he might sound a little spooked. If he’s recounting this horrific genital torture he’s endured, he’s probably going to sound significantly more bummed. The pancake-flat narration is so common in so many films, and it here it easily the worst part of The Serpent and the Rainbow.
4. Despite this, Bill Pullman does actually deserve some kudos before I finally start talking about the actual story. See, The Serpent and the Rainbow was made way back in 1988, when CGI didn’t really exist, and actors were forced to work with real animals. While a couple of special effects are a little painful to watch due to their aged quality—and really, the worst one probably would still suck today because it’s hard to make insubstantial jaguar spirits not look hokey—it’s still kind of a joy to watch Pullman interact with animals that look real because they are real. In this movie, he’s up close and personal with an actual jaguar, viper, and fucking tarantula. I’m not saying I’d do it, but you know, mouse spirit animal. Dying for my art is definitely for other people.
(Although I do love how IMDb trivia is quick to point out that the animals were all raised in captivity and were thus “relatively tame”. When you’re wrestling in the jungle with a full-grown jaguar, I don’t think “relatively” is the modifier you want to hear, asshats.)
5. One of the things I really enjoy about this movie: just how many moments or scenes actually made me squirm. Cause, I mean, I’m not going to win any Hardcore Chick Awards anytime in the near future, but I like to think it takes a bit for a horror movie to really bother me—particularly since my default response to gore is, apparently, laughter. But there are some great creepy moments and visuals in this film. To name a few off the top of my head (and without giving away too many plot details):
A. The blood coffin scene.
B. The decapitated woman scene.
C. The eating glass scene.
D. The torture scene.
E. The scene with the tarantula.
6. On the other hand, I have a few problems with, oh, things that seem to make absolutely no sense. Or maybe I just didn’t catch the explanation for these scenes. I’ve missed stuff before. It happens to the best of us. But . . . I kind of don’t think so, not for all of them, anyway. Of course, I’ll be more explicit in the Spoiler Section, but here are a few concerns of mine:
A. The pilot in the beginning of the movie. I mean, what the hell?
B. A woman gets possessed, even though I don’t understand why she should even be affected at all.
C. A bad guy, seemingly very dead, comes back for another round . . . how exactly?
I also wouldn’t mind a touch more character consistency. Dr. Alan announces from the outset that he’s not a superstitious man. Except, of course, for when he totally is. His willingness to believe in the supernatural doesn’t seem to be something that grows or develops with his experiences. More, it seems like something that changes to fit whatever the scene demands of him at the time. It’s not a huge beef, but it could be done better.
7. The Serpent and the Rainbow has a decent supporting cast.
Haitian Psychologist. Also, love interest. She plays the part with a certain amount of feistiness that I enjoy . . . although as the movie continues, her role seems to diminish more and more until she’s basically just Female Victim. Marielle does make an incredibly stupid decision at one point, though, which should merit her character an instant death sentence just for showing such an incredible lack of common sense.
The guy who poisons goats probably isn’t supposed to be your favorite character, but I like Mozart. He’s funny. Jennings plays the role with a great deal of energy, and I think he adds a nice balance to the film.
I mostly know Mokae from a small role in Outbreak, actually, so it was fun to see him in something very different. Mokae plays the villain here. There is nothing ambiguous about this. He doesn’t hold back from playing Gleefully Evil. That’s not the approach to take for every movie, but I rather like it here. He’s wonderfully sadistic.
This character, on the other hand, is much more ambiguous. He seems to be generally on the side of good, but he has no problem possessing women against their will . . . not generally a positive character trait. There’s nothing about Winfield’s performance that exactly stands out as amazing or atrocious, but I think he does a pretty good job with it overall.
Paul Guilfoyle and Michael Gough are also in this movie, but they have very limited roles, Michael Gough especially. I did crack up when I saw Guilfoyle, though. Brass was blond! Like, really blond!
8. Working in a hospital certainly doesn’t make me a medical expert, but this zombie powder that Dr. Alan is looking for? It seems like a terrible idea for an anesthetic. I’m not saying the whole venture is useless and that they shouldn’t research the compound or anything . . . just . . . at one point, people are acting like this is going to be the holy grail of medicine or something, and . . . if you’re looking for something to keep patients from dying of shock on the table, maybe you don’t go with the drug that so completely paralyzes you that people shove needles under your eyes just to see if you’re dead . . . and then are actually fooled into believing that you are dead. Did I mention you were conscious for all of this?
9. Also: when you’re hallucinating decaying hands coming out of your soup, it’s time to make excuses and leave the table. I don’t understand why characters suffering from horrific hallucinations always feel the need to try and make it through whatever event or function they’re attending. These things are so easy to get out of. All you have to do is say, “I feel like I’m going to throw up.” Sure, it’s not the best table manners, but you know what no one wants at a dinner party? A dude vomiting all over the filet mignon. Your host will usher your ass out of there so fast your shoes will catch fire. Then you can go home and hallucinate in the privacy of your own home.
But no. Just bug your eyes out and twitch uncontrollably in your seat. I’m sure nobody will notice.
10. Then again, Dr. Alan is kind of incompetent. Sure, he can make it through the Amazon with only his spirit animal to guide him, but do you know what he massively sucks at? Hiding. An evil paramilitary leader with voodoo powers is coming after you, and you . . . what? Stay in easy to find places? Walk around the streets openly? This movie is 98 minutes long, and I think Dr. Alan gets captured, like, three or four times. He’s kind of useless.
11. Did I mention that The Serpent and the Rainbow is inspired by true events? Don’t you love that word, inspired? It can really mean almost anything you want it to mean, can’t it? Actually, the movie’s based on this nonfiction book by Wade Davis, and the book looks kind of interesting. Also, I’m fairly certain that it’s hell and gone from the plot of this movie. Which . . . shocking. I mean, I can see why the guy himself was upset about it, but I’ve read some reviews from people whining that the book was so much better than the movie, and my immediate thought was, You’re really even going to bother comparing the two? Seriously? The movie’s directed by WES CRAVEN. Of COURSE it’s not anything like the book.
12. Finally—and really apropos of nothing—but do you ever chill by yourself late at night, watching a horror movie on your computer, drinking some water and maybe eating a S’more Pop-Tart, when you find yourself suddenly watching a ridiculously slow-motion sex scene and have to turn around because you’re sure that someone else in the house has just woken up and is standing right behind you, eyebrows raised, arms crossed, judging you for watching Haitian porn?
Oh. Just me, then.
Okay, so this dude, Cristophe, is really dead, and we know he’s really dead because he isn’t breathing, has no pulse, doesn’t react to any external stimuli, i.e., a doc inserting a needle directly under his eye. (BTW? First EEEEP of the night.) But after they bury him, tears start sliding down Cristophe’s face while he lies, motionless, in the coffin. It’s a good start to the film. Being buried alive is such a primordial fear, you know?
Anyway, forget Cristophe for a moment. Dr. Alan is somewhere in the Amazon, and unfortunately for us, Dr. Alan starts narrating about being in the Amazon. He feels a sort of dark juju brewing, and the local shaman feels it as well. He wants Dr. Alan to drink a tasty beverage of his own making so that Dr. Alan can be prepared for what is to come. Dr. Alan’s pilot friend and translator’s like, Dude. BAAAAAD idea. But Dr. Alan is an anthropologist, no, he’s a Super Anthropologist, and he isn’t scared of anything. So he drinks the concoction, which leads him to playfully wrestle with his spirit animal for a while. It also, of course, leads to him to have visions of being dragged beneath the earth.
As you might imagine, Dr. Alan’s a bit perturbed when he wakes up. Finding everyone gone and his pilot like this doesn’t make him feel much better:
You may be wondering what the hell happened. Well, the VO tells us: “Something much more evil and powerful than the shaman or his men has killed my pilot. I know this as clearly as I feel the darkness and the cold closing in on me.” (Also BTW? Not five minutes ago, Dr. Alan assured us that he isn’t a superstitious kind of man. Well, I guess one night wrestling with a leopard will change things.)
Anyway, that’s all we ever hear about the pilot. No, seriously, that’s it. Some evil dark force has killed him. Who? Don’t know. Why? Don’t know. Presumably we’re foreshadowing the evil dark force that this movie is actually about . . . except that this movie is, primarily, set in Haiti. Now, I’m sure I’ve mentioned that geography isn’t my strong suit before, but I don’t believe Haiti is anywhere on the Amazon because Haiti is in Central America, and the Amazon is in South America. I mean, it’s not Kansas and Egypt, exactly, but still. The two aren’t close. So . . . are the Haitian zombies supposed to be spreading? Did they . . . swim? Is the Haitian zombie master so powerful that he can kill random pilots in the Amazon—if so, why—or are there special Amazonian zombies? I really don’t understand how this ties in with the plot at all.
Okay, well, anyway. Dr. Alan makes it through the Amazon, thanks to his spirit jaguar. He’s home for a whole week before he is promptly hired to go to Haiti and investigate this Christophe character and see if he can acquire whatever drug makes zombification possible so that the pharmaceutical company can turn it into an anesthetic. He goes because I’m apparently the only person in the whole universe who understands the concept of vacations, and meets up with Marielle, the lovely psychologist that he will later fuck in a cave that’s next to a sacred lake full of healing water. Bet that sounds better than that NCIS rerun, huh?
Christophe was Marielle’s patient, but he’s run off somewhere, so the two have to track him down. Dr. Alan’s just starting to get really pissy about it, accusing Marielle of making up the whole thing for money, when they find Christophe in a graveyard. Dr. Alan tries to convince Christophe that he isn’t actually dead and, more importantly, that he needs to come back to town for more tests, but Christophe refuses. He says he’s being forced to do evil things. Then he runs away for most of the movie.
Who’s forcing Christophe to do these evil deeds? That would be Peytraud (Zakes Moake), the leader of this paramilitary group. (This story takes place in 1979 during a big revolution, I guess? I apologize, but I know I absolutely none of the politics that I couldn’t glean from the movie itself, and I’m not feeling like research at a quarter to six in the morning.) Anyway, Peytraud can and has been turning people into zombies . . . I believe to punish people for speaking out against the government? It does seem like an effective deterrent.
But Peytraud is not the only one who can make the zombie powder. Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings) can too, although he tries to scam Dr. Alan at first into simply buying rat poison. Thankfully, Dr. Alan is not fooled. They strike a bargain to make the real potion, which is complicated and takes some time. Meanwhile, Peytraud isn’t happy about Dr. Alan asking all these questions and getting involved in things that don’t concern him. The first time he picks Alan up, it’s a friendly warning that he can do whatever the hell he wants to Alan down here (including give him horrific nightmares). The second time, Peytraud really means business and hammers a giant ass nail through Dr. Alan’s scrotum.
I’m a girl, and this scene made me hurt.
Maybe you’re wondering how Dr. Alan was abducted in the first place? Maybe you’re not, but I’m going to tell you anyway. After a night of making dirty zombie potions, Marielle brings Dr. Alan home (or maybe to her father’s home?) to get a clean shirt. Now, I like me a fresh shirt, I do, but when the officials are after you . . . you don’t go home for laundry. I mean, really? Really?
Anyway, Dr. Alan is released to sob his little heart out. Marielle tells him he needs to leave Haiti, but he won’t, not without his zombie powder. So he and Marielle hide out in this little cabin that I’m assuming belongs to her because it’s too cute and clean to be some abandoned shack. He has some creepy ass dreams (drowning in a coffin filling with blood, for example) and wakes up to find a dead woman in bed with him. Never fear. It’s not Marielle. It’s actually Christophe’s sister, who we saw for like a minute towards the beginning of the film. Her head tumbles off her body as Dr. Alan moves in the bed. Eeeep. And you thought waking up to a bucket of water was harsh.
So, yes. Peytraud has captured Dr. Alan again. If I were Peytraud, I’d probably just kill the bastard and be done with it. But Peytraud decides to forcibly put him on a plane back to America instead. Mozart sneaks on the plane and gives Dr. Alan the completed zombie powder, even though Dr. Alan can’t pay him as promised. (He likes the idea of Dr. Alan telling everyone back home his name, of being famous. I guess you can call that pride, but he’s just so enthusiastic about the whole thing. It’s kind of cute. Anyway, he’s not totally altruistic. He does take Dr. Alan’s very nice watch.)
Dr. Alan flies home. End of movie? Yeah, not quite. Dr. Alan is still suffering from nightmares and hallucinations because Peytraud is not a very nice guy. Also, Peytraud seems to have discovered—somehow—that Dr. Alan got his zombie powder, and he’s a little teed off about it. When Dr. Alan goes to a small dinner party, Paul Guilfoyle’s wife suddenly starts chomping down on her glass (ow) and trying to kill Dr. Alan. I really don’t understand how this works, either. I get how Dr. Alan could still be affected. I get how Peytraud could have power over anyone he’s met, anyone whose souls he owns, even anyone who’s in the same country . . . but he can possess some random American lady that he’s never met and presumably knows nothing about? If Peytraud has that kind of power, why the hell isn’t he, like, ruling over the whole world?
Anyway, Dr. Alan decides to go back to Haiti because this will never be over until one of them is dead. (Also: he’s worried about Marielle.) He flies back and gets picked up the second he gets off the plane (naturally), but this time it’s by friends, specifically, Lucien (Paul Winfield). Lucien gives him a necklace (off his own neck) to protect Dr. Alan . . . and then promptly keels over, dead.
See, Peytraud has captured Mozart and killed him (wah!) as punishment for making the zombie potion, I think? He catches Mozart’s blood in a bowl and starts drinking it. As he does so, Lucien starts choking on blood. He basically drowns in it and dies. Then, for good measure, a creepy giant scorpion crawls out of his mouth, too.
Lucien seems to know it’s going to happen—I’m assuming that if he kept the necklace on instead of giving it away, he wouldn’t have been killed. His sacrifice, unfortunately, doesn’t go quite as planned. Remember that watch Mozart took from Dr. Alan? Well, now Peytraud has that watch. So, that’s bad. Also, some dude blows zombie powder right in Dr. Alan’s face. That’s pretty bad too. Dr. Alan starts staggering around, trying to get help, and when he realizes what’s happening to him, he tries to tell the townspeople that he doesn’t want to be buried. Then he collapses.
Well, the townspeople are useless. Peytraud buries Dr. Alan alive. Furthermore, he throws a big ass tarantula in the coffin with him. You know, just cause being buried alive wasn’t torture enough. The tarantula crawls over Dr. Alan’s face as he watches it, paralyzed, and . . . oh . . . my . . . God. Admittedly, I’m a bit of an arachnophobe, but Jesus. That’s just creepy.
Eventually, Dr. Alan breaks free of his paralysis, but you know, there’s still that whole stuck-in-a-coffin thing. He screams for awhile, as he should. (Well, technically, he shouldn’t—I’m pretty sure that’s a waste of oxygen—but please. You’d be screaming too.) Is all dire for our Super Anthropologist? Well, of course not. Christophe—remember Christophe?—saves him, telling him that he’s alive. Then he disappears again for the rest of the movie. Admittedly, Christophe haunts graveyards, so his presence isn’t so implausible, but . . . you know, last time we saw him, he seemed pretty sure that he was dead and a servant of evil. Now, he’s . . . over that? And gone again? I feel like his character could have been handled a little better.
Anyway, Dr. Alan isn’t exactly all better now. He’s pale and weak and, well, pretty much a zombie. He stumbles to Peytraud’s place, where Peytraud is about to kill Marielle. He’s stopped when news of an uprising sweeps through and the townspeople start rioting. (He’s also gone very suddenly gray, it seems? Is that like a ritual thing, or is he actually supposed to have gone gray because of the revolting?) Eventually, Dr. Alan makes it and they fight a bit. The tide turns when Marielle smashes a jar. The jars, see, contain the souls of all of Peytraud’s zombies. Dr. Alan and Marielle know this because, earlier in the film, Peytraud showed them what and where they were. Bad guys always screw themselves over.
Anyway, Marielle smashes one of the jars, and Alan’s jaguar spirit pops up and seems to give him strength or something. Alan smashes all the other jars and Peytraud pretty much bursts into flames and falls on top of his giant pile of skulls. (Side note: must purchase giant pile of skulls for living room. IKEA, maybe?)
So you’re thinking . . . happy ending now, right? Well, no, not quite. Marielle and Dr. Alan start to leave, and Dr. Alan runs into the chair that he was tortured in. He decides he isn’t leaving Haiti with that thing still in one piece. He starts to go after it with a nearby hammer when the door to the room slams shut and charred Peytraud comes flying through the wall, tackling Dr. Alan. (Marielle is nowhere to be seen.) Peytraud says that he’s going to drag Dr. Alan back to hell with him. Dr. Alan responds by suddenly and unexpectedly becoming a complete badass. Seriously, he’s like flinging Peytraud around the room like a rag doll. Then he straps Peytraud into the torture chair—telekinetically—and skewers his man-parts with a giant nail. Peytraud sinks screaming into the floor—and then Marielle pops back up, like, dude are you coming or what, and there’s no evidence any of this ever happened. They leave.
There. That’s the end.
Now about that last fight scene—I’d like to hear from those of you who’ve seen this movie and aren’t just cheating cheaters who cheat and read the spoilers regardless, Mekaela. Did that whole thing even happen? Was Peytraud real? Did his spirit come back, or was it, like, some part of him that still had control over Dr. Alan’s mind (even though Dr. Alan’s soul-jar was already smashed). I’m generally a big fan of revenge scenes, and I like the look of not-entirely-sane vindication on Dr. Alan’s face as he tortures Peytraud, but . . . this whole scene seemed entirely unnecessary. It felt like an add-on, like someone was worried that the hero didn’t kick-ass enough during the film. And admittedly . . . he doesn’t really. He’s not exactly much of a badass. Then again, he shouldn’t really need to be. He’s an anthropologist, for God’s sake, not Bruce Willis. But I feel like the movie wants him to be the Indiana Jones of anthropology—hence the Super Anthropologist snarks I’ve been throwing out the whole review—and he’s really not. Even if you wanted him to be more kickass, shouldn’t examples of this have happened earlier in the film? This whole scene feels tacked on and clunky.
Fun, creepy movie with decent acting and great visuals. Some plot elements that seem to make little to no sense. One of the worst voiceovers I’ve ever heard. Enjoyable back-to-voodoo-roots zombie story—I’d like to see more of these. I want to give this a B+ for the sheer number of times the movie made me wince or cringe, but I think there may be too many plot holes and inconsistencies for that. Still, even though I knocked The Fog a couple of weeks ago for similar problems—good atmosphere, but too many plot holes—I felt more satisfied with this one.
Besides don’t go to Haiti? Or if you’re going to go, learn how to hide from the authorities properly? Hmm. How about this: if you capture men’s souls and stick them in little jars, maybe you shouldn’t show them off to people who want you dead? You know? Particularly, when you’re completely powerless and/or a corpse if said jars are all broken. I understand you want to take pride in your accomplishments and all, but bragging is not a virtue, buddy, and you know what that means, right? Yup. Someone’s going to the Hot Place.