Take a powerful, revealing nonfiction book, sift through it for its most cliche'd elements and turn it into a terror film and you've got "The Serpent and the Rainbow."
The book, about the culture of voodoo in Haiti during the era of "Baby Doc" Duvalier, was written by Wade Davis, a scientist with an adventurer's spirit and a doctorate in ethnobotany.
The film is directed by Wes Craven ("A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Last House on the Left," "The Hills Have Eyes").
Not surprisingly, something was lost in the translation.
"The Serpent and the Rainbow" -- the movie -- reduces Davis' insightful study of a misunderstood and maligned religion to an inelegant question frequently asked in the lower depths of filmdom: Are you now or have you ever been a zombie, and if so, how did you get that way?
Sure, there's a little bit of scriptic mumbo jumbo about the duality of good and evil and the outer banks of reality, and there are some powerful and colorful tableaux of the houngans (voodoo priests) at work. There are even some shocking (though not particularly frightening) dream/hallucination sequences, a Craven speciality.
But mostly there's a threadbare plot and Bill Pullman. Craven is obviously moving toward a new level of seriousness -- this film has B-plus written all over it -- but he's shot himself in the foot with Pullman, the actor best known as "the dumbest man on the face of the earth" in "Ruthless People." Here he portrays a Harvard anthropologist who gets mixed up with those wild and crazy zombies, and it's hard to tell the difference. Harvard should sue.
What Craven should have prayed for (or maybe paid for) was a William Hurt to turn his "Serpent" into an "Altered States." But Pullman -- whom the Haitians refer to as Blanc, appropriately enough, because he's apparently the only white man in the entire country -- comes off as a stupid, arrogant, bumbling wimp. Since Anglos always rush in where fools fear to tread, he's soon knee-deep in a search, with a big American pharmaceutical company, for a zombification drug, hoping it can be used "to save lives."
There is a supporting cast, including the unfortunate Cathy Tyson, no longer the "Mona Lisa" call girl but a Haitian-born psychiatrist with a voodoo background, and the ever-enlarging Paul Winfield as a "good" voodoo priest. Zakes Mokae, the veteran South African actor, turns in the only memorable performance as Peytraud, the evil priest and chief of the Tontons Macoutes, Duvalier's dreaded secret police. He doesn't get to say much, but he's delightfully menacing and malevolent.
Whether by design or by attrition, it's Craven's effects that are the stars of "Serpent," and he delivers some visceral psyche punches. A couple of his hallucination sequences will cause shudders, particularly the one in which the world seems to cave in on Pullman, turning a house into a claustrophobic coffin.
The film concludes with the overthrow of the Duvalier regime and the resurrection of the zombie Pullman. Unfortunately, in Craven's movies, it's hard to keep a dead man down, and this one ends like a cross between "Scanners" and "Firestarter."
When he's not saddled with shooting the inept Pullman, cinematographer John Lindley captures the swirl of Haitian street culture (the film was shot in Haiti and the Dominican Republic). In fact, the brilliant colors, the pulsating music, the mystical trappings and ceremonies of the voodoo church, and the gregarious bustle of the people could have made for a intriguing documentary. But people probably wouldn't pay to see that, while there is an awful lot of money to be made with a Wes Craven film.
You think that's what they meant by voodoo economics?
The Serpent and the Rainbow, opening today at area theaters, is rated R and contains some shocking effects and some nudity.