DIRECTOR WES CRAVEN, who has Nightmared us twice on Elm Street, takes a left off Elm, heads for the airport and flies to Haiti, where he finds dripping red, living dead and a voodoo archlord called Peytraud.
Peytraud (played with supreme villainy by Zakes Mokae -- previously the helpful priest in Richard Attenborough's "Cry Freedom") happens to be head of the Ton-tons Macoutes, the Haiti secret police. He's got a torture chamber and voodoo can-do to deal with pesky leftists and nosy Yankees. It works like this: He puts the hex on you and steals your spirit. You die temporarily. They bury you deep. You wake up in a coffin with dirt in your mouth. And once you're topside again, you're his slave the rest of your life. It's a little like working for a living, except zombies in Haiti have no unions.
Apart from moments of conventional schlock (the ending included), "Serpent" twists with expertly drawn menace. The editing's snappy, the images visceral, and Craven's Haiti is a craze of blood ceremonies and political rioting -- it's set during the fall of "Baby Doc" Duvalier. You can also be sure Craven visits his favorite resort -- the Nightmare Inn.
All-American anthropologist/hero Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is sent by profit-minded American medicine manufacturers to find the ingredients of the zombification mixture. Alan meets Helpful Local Girl Marielle Ce'line (Cathy Tyson, the call girl in "Mona Lisa") and her good-voodoo Dad (Paul Winfield). They help Alan against Peytraud and also help him locate the elusive Voodoo Death cookbook. Peytraud tortures Alan and uses hex powder on him. Luckily, in previous anthropological travels in the Amazon, Alan has been given an antidote. He still ends up in a coffin but -- well, we're getting buried in the plot.
Things speed towards an "Omen" finale, via some stunning dream sequences. People get thrown against walls, objects move around. Then, the Hollywood Emergency Ending Team rushes in. And you breath a sigh of relief because you realize there was no evil to worry about, it was just Special Effects all the time.
It's a pleasure, for the most part, to see Craven mature. After a movie like "The Last House on the Left," a disgusting and tedious exercise in prurient sadism, Craven deserved never to work in films again. But in "Serpent" his characters are older (possibly because he has killed off all the teen-agers in previous movies) and he seems wiser and more story-conscious -- but thankfully still full of the same surprises. Look out for women at dinner tables and pay heed to the female in a wedding veil. She's no blushing bride.
THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (R) --
At area theaters.