Thursday 13 April 2017

We Don't Go Back #43: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1989)

Two things about today's entry: I have been privileged to have spent the week in London, enjoying the kind hospitality of Jon and Gina, and it's been lovely, a time to catch up with some of the people I know in London, but sadly not all because there are only so many people you can see in three days. Anyway, the second thing is that one of the many highlights of this week has been the chance to accompany Jon to BFI South Bank to see a showing of Wes Craven's 1989 film The Serpent and the Rainbow, so if there's a scarcity of screenshots, that's because you can't put one of the National Film Theatres into your laptop.

It was a fine evening, but up front, the best bit was being in the BFI. We both found the film pretty disappointing.

The Serpent and the Rainbow is based on a supposedly factual book by Wade Davis, and it's interesting to note that it's given as "inspired" by the book, not based on it. By all accounts Davis wasn't at all happy with what the studio had done to his book, and I'm given to understand there's not a whole lot of the original text remaining.

Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman), having escaped from a psychedelic ordeal in the Amazon, gets sent by Boston Biocorp to Haiti to investigate rumours of dead men walking. Yes, the original zombies of the voodoo myth, dead men turned into tormented servants of the bokor. Meeting up with Haitian psychiatrist Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), Alan quickly gets way out of his depth while trying to find the drug that creates the real "living dead", not reanimated corpses but people enslaved by drugs and superstition.

It's anchored firmly during a period of unrest, about the time where Baby Doc Duvalier lost his grip on Haiti, and the political element is represented by the Haitian secret police, the Ton Ton Macoute, led by Captain Dargent Petraud (Zakes Mokae), who is every possible cliché of the corrupt and vicious local police captain, and also the chief zombie-master of the region. Dennis and Marielle make an ally of local good guy houngan Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield) who fixes them up with dodgy occult pharmacist Mozart (Brent Jennings, the best performance in the movie), who in turn inducts Alan in some of those voodoo secrets.

Petraud, wishing that the secrets of voodoo remain, you know, secrets, does the whole Evil Foreign Secret Police thing, so there's plenty of gratuitous murder and torture in rooms with bloodstains on the wall, including one particularly wincing nail-through-the-ballsack moment, and it's then that Petraud utters the immortal line "I don't want money. I just want to hear you scream."

And the fact that this is the best line in the whole film is sort of an indictment of the whole thing. Craven's got an amazing eye for an image, and there are some parts of the film that are stunning in how well they're put together and how great they look, but oh my, the script. Not written by Craven this time, the kindest thing you can say about it is that the scriptwriter has a tin ear for dialogue. Every line is obvious, clunky, and didactic, telling rather than showing; Pullman's voice over narration adds nothing to the story, and although everyone in the film does the best with what little they're given, Pullman is frequently acted off the screen by his supporting cast (and by the way: I love that they got Diamanda Galás to supply, as per the credits, "voices of the dead"). Although there are some effective set pieces and the sense that you never really know whether Alan's experiences are real or not, some stuff is just plain stupid, and the whole thing crosses the line from creepy to flat out daft at about the point in the third act where Alan is chased across a room by a chair (really).

Worse than the technical flaws of the script though is the way in which Alan's journey is framed. Basically, this is Lonely Planet Horror.

OK, obviously I have to unpack that. So. I remember how back in the 90s, when it was affordable, people on their year out before university used to go on backpack tours of the "real" India or wherever, and that "wherever" is important, because these places they went to were basically interchangeable. They were still tourists being sold a guided tour of the developing world thanks to the Lonely Planet guide, and the USP was capital A Authenticity. But it was still a guided tour you consumed, and the limitations of this approach become apparent the moment you step off the trail (for example: try looking for Moradabad, a city of 3/4 million people in the Lonely Planet book for India). And this is what The Serpent and the Rainbow is doing. At the beginning of the movie, Alan has a shamanic experience in the Amazon that presages the events of the film, and that gets called back in the climax, but that just highlights the problem with the whole Lonely Planet horror enterprise, because the takeaway from that is that Native Amazonian shamanism (and note that we don't get to find out the tribe, or even the country because the scriptwriters don't think that's important enough to bother with, so they're just generic Amazonian people) is something that goes with voodoo. Because they're both native superstitions which have some relationship with psychoactive drugs, right? Right?

If that bothers you, then you probably would have found The Serpent and the Rainbow as irksome as I did.

Because it's – deep breath – a bit racist. And that shows itself in obvious ways, so you have a Creepy Haitian Butler who's implied to have poisoned his white employers' soup, and Paul Winfield dies because of a white person (and it's sad that this is the one thing I can tell you about Paul Winfield – he's the guy who dies for white people in movies), but it also shows up on a more fundamental level.

The Serpent and the Rainbow throws the limitations of folk horror as a notional genre into sharp relief. Because it's absolutely folk horror: a rational man from the city goes to a remote place and butts heads with local beliefs that may or may not have something to them, and something weird happens. This is exactly folk horror, but it's the place where folk horror breaks down, because in this case these are the beliefs of an Other that is represented by, you know, Black people. And suddenly you're getting capitalism and exploitation and imperialism and colonialism mixed up with your folk horror.

Because when it's English villages or Scottish islands, that's a fertile ground to explore issues of history and class, right, but when you're going to Haiti, which is ultimately fucked up because of colonialism, and then layering on the corruption and the torture and the juicy voodoo stylings, then suddenly the whole thing becomes an exercise in "look at the brown people and their backward ways" and that's creepy in the wrong way.