As much as I love Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, it’s one of those films that revolves around an issue in a black community (in this case, voodoo and political turmoil in Haiti), but examines it through the eyes of a white protagonist. This is a sub-genre I like to call “white plight.” While not as bad as, say, A Time to Kill (in which Sam Jackson was just a means of bringing strife on Matthew McConaughey), The Serpent and the Rainbow does play out through the eyes of botanical expert Dennis Allen (the ever-limp Bill Pullman) and is more concerned about his attempts to find a zombification powder than the plight of the citizens living under the ’80s dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his army, the (apparently voodoo-practicing) Tonton Macoute.
Still, there is an adequate sense of repression conveyed, which serves only to heighten the anxiety of the film. I mean, pick your poison here: voodoo spells, having your soul stolen, not being in control of your dreams, the claustrophobia of being buried alive (with a tarantula to keep you company), the thought of being paralyzed but able to feel and know what is being done to you, the horrific visions (given that special Wes Craven touch) and last but not least, a torture scene that would make Jack Bauer cringe. Holy scrotum, Batman!
Zakes Mokae is at his creepy best as Tonton Macoute chief Peytraud, his sneering gold-tooth smile evoking both the uneasiness of being trapped in an unpredictable, autocratic Third World nation and the outright terror of being targeted by a sadistic voodoo priest. And tell me your blood doesn’t run cold when he utters that line no one wants to hear pre-torture: “I don’t want money…I wanna hear you scream.”
Marielle Douchant (Cathy Tyson, who bears a striking resemblance to Jaye Davidson from The Crying Game, sans penis) meanwhile is Allen’s local love interest because A) she’s a doctor, and B) she’s two shades lighter than any other Haitian person shown onscreen. She’s also a spirit slut who gets possessed at the drop of a hat. Boo-schwing!
For all of its fantastic elements, though, what makes The Serpent and the Rainbow so frightening is the gritty realism of the zombification (not really “living dead”) and the surroundings (it was based on a non-fiction book, after all — albeit very loosely) that make the supernatural elements feel all the more plausible. That is, except for Bill Pullman having a penis. That’s just absurd.