THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)
**½/**** Image B Sound B+
starring Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield
screenplay by Richard Maxwell and A.R. Simoun, based on the book by Wade Davis
directed by Wes Craven
**/**** Image B- Sound B-
starring Michael Murphy, Peter Berg, Cami Cooper, Mitch Pileggi
written and directed by Wes Craven
THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991)
***/**** Image B+ Sound B+
starring Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J. Langer
written and directed by Wes Craven
by Jefferson Robbins The three late-'80s/early-'90s films gathered in Universal's DVD set "The Wes Craven Horror Collection" are far from the director's best, but they show him gathering his powers for the satirical play of the Scream franchise. It's as if Craven careened into the ditch a few times trying to talk about Big Topics before finally deciding that what he was best suited to talk about was slasher movies. That's not to say these pre-emptive excursions have no value, it's just that he had to scout the territory thoroughly before drawing a definitive map. He had to shed some dependencies, too--most notably, given his legacy from A Nightmare on Elm Street, his fondness for dreams as an interface with horror.
The Serpent And the Rainbow bears so little resemblance to Wade Davis's non-fiction book of the same name that Craven was compelled to tack a lengthy disclaimer onto the end of the picture. Davis seemed as divorced from the movie as Craven was from the book; when he lectured at my college, Davis mentioned a screening of the film he'd hosted the night before and said, "If you came and saw it, I apologize." He was speaking of the movie's characterization of Davis's research into "zombie potions," concocted by voodoo houngans in Haiti and said to shove victims into deathlike comas for later revival. Bill Pullman is ethnobotanist Dennis Alan, a scientific forager who samples native drug stews in addition to collecting them for medical science.
This quest, which takes him from the drug-soaked discovery of his totem animal in the Amazon to Haiti just prior to the 1985 uprising against the "Baby Doc" Duvalier regime, would compel more if it weren't indifferently narrated in noir-ish voiceover. Alan wants the zombie powder for potential use as a powerful surgical anaesthetic, but his arrival coincides with Duvalierist commander Peytraud (Zakes Mokae) reasserting his authority over the local voodoo community by means of torture both physical and metaphysical. Secular Alan has to have his skepticism ground away by repeated supernatural abuses at Peytraud's hands, not to mention undergoing what looks at first like a physical gelding in a state-run torture chamber. (That particular scene gave teenaged me, and every other male in the theatre, a pretty good squirm and groan.) He has to be oriented to the realm of magic--here, as in the Elm Street movies, represented as a malleable dreamscape that can be shaped by willpower. "I am no longer free! He sends me into people's dreams!" screams Christophe (Conrad Roberts), an agitator rendered undead by Peytraud's tinctures.
It's a tightrope walk not only for Alan to win against occult odds, but also for the film to position voodoo as the source of the threat without resorting to racially questionable ooga-boogaism. Craven knows this: Mokae as Peytraud ridicules Alan's status as a white tourist in a black culture, and the scientist is referred to throughout by the pejorative "blanc." The screenplay, by Richard Maxwell and A.R. Simoun, does a fair job of explicating the hybrid voodoo religion as I understand it, mostly with Alan's local liaison Marielle (Cathy Tyson, she of Mona Lisa) as its guide. The Serpent and the Rainbow is notable for many gutsy choices. Craven shoots in a nervous handheld fashion for several takes, while Alan's mad dash through the rainforest is one of the first sequences I ever saw shot with the actor-mounted SnorriCam, later used to great effect by Darren Aronofsky in Requiem for a Dream. Find also the only love scene I can recall in a Craven joint, between Alan and Marielle--and it's quite a lovely one at that, notwithstanding the fact that, as has been the way in Hollywood, the white man makes love to a black woman who's significantly lighter-skinned than her peers.
After he's poisoned and buried alive by Peytraud, Alan's disinterment leaves him staggering through the chaos of revolution, a white zombie of revenge, seeking to overturn the ruling black regime. That's sticky (Haiti's "spiritual" rebirth precipitated by a white man), but then, Peytraud is not represented as key to Duvalier's national authority, but rather a local warlord who has coattailed and zombified his way into power. Craven cleverly echoes the Godfather movies in Alan's discovery of a corpse in his bed and in a series of voodoo "hits" by which Peytraud disposes of his enemies. David and Lance Anderson's practical makeup F/X, by which corpses spit snakes and scorpions, are executed almost seamlessly, and the way Craven and cinematographer John Lindley shoot their locations (in Haiti and the neighbouring Dominican Republic) sets the atmosphere perfectly. Electronic guru Brad Feidel offers a percussive, Terminator-redux synth score, well aided by the late West African drummer Babatunde Olatunji. The Serpent and the Rainbow is a relic in many ways, nodding back to Craven's exploitation roots, and it probably couldn't get made today. But it also shows the director addressing politics and their human cost, and spiritualism as a source of strength--for the enlightened individual and for the misguided state.
There's a satirical drive at work in Craven's next film, Shocker, in which he attempts to simultaneously build a new pun-happy, Freddy Krueger-style antihero and critique the media culture from which such creatures arise. He does each only half-heartedly, alas, and the two elements ultimately chafe against one another. Here again, the director's dramatic choices run counter to established horror tropes, but they don't serve the story as well as he'd hope. High-school football hero Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg) has precognitive dreams about the murderer who's been stalking his hometown. These eventually lead Jonathan and his police-detective father (Michael Murphy) to TV repairman Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi), a game-legged psycho who gets his jollies carving up entire families--including Jonathan's, whom Jonathan arrives too late to save. On the eve of his execution, Pinker strikes a black-magic pact with the forces of darkness, which lean out of a television screen to transform him into a Being of Pure Energy--in his case, electricity. From there, Pinker proves able to hop from body to body beyond death, seeking to finish off Jonathan while wearing various human skins.
There are intimations, never fulfilled, that Pinker is Jonathan's true father, his bum leg a legacy of the boy's attempts to save his birth mother--Pinker's first victim. And after Pinker slays Jonathan's beloved but chaste girlfriend Alison (Cami Cooper, looking astonishingly like Nicole Kidman, pre-Cruise), she returns in spectral form to help Jonathan dispatch Pinker with a magical locket. In Shocker we encounter all the hallmarks of the Elm Street movies: dream landscapes at first indistinguishable from reality, where hero and villain do battle; a dark past; a psychic rapport; aid from beyond. This time, however, it mostly adds up to silliness, with threads like Jonathan's parentage and Alison's ghostly status never resolved or explained. It positions the hero rather oddly, too--you expect teen horror protagonists to be a little on the fringe of their student body, but Jonathan is a star athlete, dating the prettiest girl in school, and calling upon the entire football team for backup in fighting his tormentor.
It may be trying to say something about the transmission of violence through wounded family lines, as well as from victimizer to victim. (Pinker's body-jumping, for instance, is carried out via a process that looks a lot like molestation.) In the film's second half, Pinker learns to transmit himself via electrical sockets and finally TV transmissions, and it's then that Craven's satirical sense goes off the rails, with no Kevin Williamson to channel it. Pinker and Jonathan crash through various programming cycles--interrupting news anchor John Tesh and televangelist Timothy Leary and occasionally spilling out into average folks' sitting rooms--in a weak inquisition of the television landscape. The backdrop actually subtracts from the tension of a well-choreographed, sufficiently brutal fight without balancing the loss as comedy. Berg, whom I've always liked as an actor but who's scored greater success as a director, is probably too plainfaced to stand out as a leading teen, though Pileggi, in a significant departure from his gruff, reserved Director Skinner on "The X-Files", offers up a giant and welcome serving of ham. Shocker also throws up part of the reason I was surprised by the lovemaking in The Serpent and the Rainbow: Craven's total output expresses a deep unease with consensual sex. At one point, Jonathan's hot girlfriend is naked in his bath while he works out in his bedroom, well after it's made clear that they've never done the deed. Would sex have somehow disempowered the hero, or rendered Alison unfit for angelhood?
In The Last House of the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, Craven earned his bones on mad-eyed family units haunting the backroads and deserts. The People Under the Stairs transplants that dysfunction to the city and inverts its place in the class structure--"Mommy" and "Daddy" Robeson (Wendy Robie and Everett McGill, "Twin Peaks" alumni engineered for malevolence) are mad, inbred oligarchs straight out of a Southern Gothic or Flowers in the Attic, using money and the courts to forcibly gentrify the black-occupied housing development they own. One of their potential evictees, a young boy nicknamed Fool (Brandon Adams), agrees to go along on a burglary of their massive home masterminded by Leroy (Ving Rhames), hoping it will pay for suitable housing and medical care for his ailing mother. This is, in part, Craven tackling race more explicitly than B-horror can usually withstand. "We build a nice, neat, condominium," Mommy ruminates about their eviction plans, "we get clean people in there." Not long after that, Daddy drops the N-word. The Robesons are obsessed with crafting the perfect (white) family, adopting foundlings as their children and then mutilating and confining them to a locked corral in their cellar when they disappoint. Trapped, after the burglary goes awry, in this sprawling funhouse of booby traps and blinds that draw themselves, Fool encounters the couple's latest attempt at a "daughter," Alice (A.J. Langer). The two join forces with Peter Pan-ish cellar-dweller Roach (Sean Whalen) to try to overturn the Robesons' racial and economic supremacy.
Fool is more than just an interloper in the Robesons' sick business: in their minds, he's a sexual threat, despite being barely pubescent. They're convinced Alice "did it" with Fool. Mommy is visibly repelled whenever she has to deal with a person of colour, and when the entire local black community shows up on her manicured lawn in a sort of #OccupySlumlordHouse movement--with Fool's sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) reading Mommy a list of economic grievances on her front doorstep--it's more than she can stand. The People Under the Stairs is gory, yes, with Rhames sawed into mincemeat and dropped into a cistern (by a guy who favours a leather-and-zipper gimp suit, three years before Pulp Fiction), but a lot of the violence has a slapstick, Home Alone flavour to it. Daddy gets repeated forehead clobberings, groin kicks, toe stompings, and bricks to the skull courtesy of the clever black kid.
Wrapping social protest in vaudeville is one way of making it "safe" for mass consumption--another is to embed it in a horror picture, so Craven is double-layering here. If some aspects come off heavy-handedly, as catering to a demographic, that doesn't lessen the chutzpah of the effort. The People Under the Stairs is as much an act of expression as it is entertainment, and it makes me miss A.J. Langer, whose defection from acting once she married a British lord was a great loss to...well, me personally. (Meanwhile, McGill appears to have exited the cinema for his own reasons, which is a far greater loss.) There's a note of ambiguity, though, as the white basement trolls and the black working class are simultaneously freed from the Robesons' yoke. The ghetto residents are showered with their oppressors' ill-gotten gold, so their future seems assured; the abused, disabled prisoners of the family dungeon are turned loose with no visible community, no knowledge of the world, and no offer of help beyond an open door. Liberation is not the same thing as unification.
The Serpent and Rainbow and Shocker share a single-sided/dual-layered DVD in this two-disc package from Universal. Both films are sourced from relatively clean prints but look a bit rinsed-out, the latter more so than the former. There's appreciable grain in each 1.85:1, 16x9-enhanced presentation, as to be expected, but Shocker is memorably wan, not helped by a palette that favours blues and greys. Still, while The Serpent and the Rainbow, with its celebration of one of the Western Hemisphere's most colourful religions, is more poised to pop, its reds and golds remain sadly muted. As for the audio, Serpent is in Dolby 2.0 Surround and Shocker gets the Sensurround treatment in Dolby 2.1 (a remnant of the film's Ultra-Stereo recording), but Serpent sounds the better of the two in Pro-Logic. The rear channel really opens up Fiedel's score, sorting percussion of different timbres for room-filing effect. All else--dialogue, action, atmospherics--tends to come off kind of papery. On the second platter, The People Under the Stairs (1.85:1 anamorphic, natch--the director didn't branch out into 'scope until the Scream movies) features comparatively rich depth of colour and shadow--lots of shadow, considering the setting. Likewise, it parcels out Don Peake's score throughout the DD 2.0 soundscape, although it's sad to spot portions that would have benefited from a discrete multichannel remix. Daddy's hunt for Roach and the noise of the titular cellar detainees, for example, should come from everywhere at once. There are no extras for any of these titles, not even a lousy trailer or an EPK. Originally published: October 26, 2011.