There may be no horror icon whose reputation I feel is less deserved than Wes Craven’s, and that’s frustrating. Not just because I wish I could see what everyone else saw in his films, but because there’s so obviously a rich talent there, so obviously great capabilities…and time and time again, Craven blows up his own films with bad choices or an inability to do what he needs to do. Whether it’s the grotesquely poor efforts at comic relief in The Last House on the Left, the terrible third acts of Red Eye and New Nightmare, the reach exceeding the grasp of the original Nightmare on Elm Street, or the great idea quandered by insanely bad execution of The People Under the Stairs, there’s not a single Craven film that I’ve seen that works all the way through. (The one major Craven horror film I haven’t seen, for what it’s worth, is The Hills Have Eyes, which I know is a hole in my horror viewing; that being said, my mixed feelings on Craven have undeniably played a part in getting me to see it. And, no, I didn’t forget his other big accomplishment; let’s not even get me started on the Scream films, which are so intent on being smarter than everyone else that they forget to be scary and/or good.)
Now comes The Serpent and the Rainbow, which feels like you’re watching a third of a great movie, but one that’s been cut to ribbons by someone without the confidence that the film would be well received. Now, had that been the studio, maybe I could see defending Serpent…but when you find out that the cause of the shredding was Craven himself, who didn’t think his audiences would handle the “talky” version of the film, well, it’s hard to have much sympathy.
The Serpent and the Rainbow doesn’t have a bad premise, per se – while the idea of getting into the “science” behind voodoo zombies doesn’t feel groundbreaking, Serpent sets up some interesting dynamics, plunging into Haitian independence, the fall of “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and the role of the secret police in the country, all of which gives some queasy and interesting impact to the story. And even if the rational approach to zombification isn’t exactly virgin territory, there’s still always something engaging to it – I mean, where would Matheson’s I Am Legend be without the way it slowly, scientifically examines vampires? But The Serpent and the Rainbow wants to have its cake and eat it too, diving into a rational grounding for zombification while also playing with all kinds of mystical evil, trapped souls, dream sequences, and more. And while a good film might play with that unease between science and belief, Serpent doesn’t really do much other than shrug at the contradictions and wander off, bored. Nowhere does this become more clear than in the film’s climax(es), where chairs move on their own accord and unleashed souls wreak vengeance.
Mind you, there’s plenty more wrong with The Serpent and the Rainbow. There’s Bill Pullman, woefully out of his depth in a role that requires the appearance of knowledge, and which Pullman plays like a bored surfer. There’s an interracial romance that feels hilariously tacked on. There are numerous characters who come and go, clearly having had more fleshed out roles at some point, but who here impact the plot far more than we have reason to assume they will. Indeed, that’s the main issue with Serpent and the Rainbow – it just doesn’t make any damn sense at all half of the time. (Probably more.)
In other words, once again, my frustration and irritation at Craven wins out again, as once again, he takes an interesting movie and tanks it through his own choices – this time, for not having the patience to actually tell a story, and instead, stringing together a bunch of scenes that feel like “the best bits” of what could have been an interesting movie.