Walking into Violet Crown Cinema’s series event Scream Screens, I expected the Thursday showing of “The Serpent and the Rainbow” to be campy at best. And at 60 percent on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer, why should I expect differently?
Directed by Wes Craven, notorious creator of the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” films with Freddy Krueger, this ‘88 piece was a smorgasbord of static characters, predictable plot lines and social justice no-no’s. It was equal parts campy and terrifying. But not for reasons one might expect.
Starting off with a white savior complex premise, we meet anthropologist Dennis Alan, who is played by Bill Pullman. Note: If “The Serpent and the Rainbow” takes place in the same universe as “Independence Day”, Alan later becomes Mr. President, and when the world almost ends, gives one of the greatest speeches in film history — but not a better speech than Idris Elba when the world almost ends again in “Pacific Rim.”
Fanny pack and white scientist cargo shorts intact, the sexy ‘80s scientist is sent on a mission to Haiti during a time of political upheaval because, well, why not? There, he searches for a mysterious Voodoo powder, which pharmaceutical companies back in the States lust after for its alleged ability bring the dead back to life.
15 minutes in, we meet the doctor’s only contact on the island and soon-to-be-lover, Marielle Duchamp. A fellow researcher, Cathy Tyson’s character earns Alan’s trust as a fellow Ph.D but does little to contribute to science other than continually rehabilitate and look after the health of Alan.
An embarrassing amount of hugging and babying goes on between the two of them, most of which is justified after the Haitian secret police interrogate Alan and bludgeon his scrotum. (I hid my eyes during this part, but since the director really wants us to feel Alan’s pain, the scrotum injury is mentioned aloud several times, so I heard all about it.)
Many scenes in the film take place in caves, sort of an unnecessary yonic setting if you ask me, and just when you start questioning a potential inherent symbolism in Craven’s horror flick (perhaps Mother Haiti is attempting to push out white foreigners?!) someone’s scrotum gets stabbed again. But worry not, this time it’s Alan bludgeoning the police chief’s scrotum.
By the end of the film, Alan pretty much figures out the mystery of what the powder is and how it works. But not before he himself is “zombified” Haitian-style, stumbling around like a rich foreigner idiot throughout the town square.
Meanwhile, the locals, who could give a rat’s ass about Alan, erupt in joy and merrymaking as news that the nation’s tyrannical government has been overthrown. In the end, it doesn’t matter if Alan was or was not in Haiti looking for this powder. His life is inconsequential and he adds nothing to the film, despite being the protagonist.
Aside from a few jump scares, most of the “horror” of the film takes place in random dream sequences where Alan fears for his life. The real horror of the film is how easily an American can bust into your party (I mean this figuratively and literally, Alan busts in on several Haitian hang-outs), only to distract and have premarital cave sex with the village’s only medically-licensed physician, get a few people killed and then bring back to the U.S. some ritualistic Voodoo death powder as a tourist keepsake.
Craven’s adaptations of horror side by side, capitalist-fueled western imperialism wins out on Freddy Krueger and his little striped sweater every time. Just to be clear… I would not recommend this film and I have no earthly idea why the Violet Crown chose it.
Tickets for Violet Crown Cinema’s next Scream Screens are available for a showing of “Halloween” featuring Michael Meyers on Tuesday, Oct. 31.