The Serpent And The Rainbow
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(May 04, 2015)
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Wes Craven (Scream) directs this terrifying story of one man's nightmarish journey into the eerie and deadly world of voodoo.
A Harvard anthropologist is sent to Haiti to revive a strange powder that is said to have the power to bring humans beings back from the dead. In his quest to find the miracle drug, the cynical scientist enters the rarely seen nether world of walking zombies, blood rites and ancient curses.
Based on the true life experiences of Wade Davis and filmed on location in Haiti, it's a frightening excursion into black magic and supernatural.
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The film stars Bill Pulman and Cathy Tyson. Bill Pulman plays the part of Dr. Dennis Alan, who having survived a frightening hallucinogenic trip (in more senses of the word) in the Amazon jungle, is approached by a Boston pharmaceutical company to consider going out to Haiti, and to gather evidence of what substances are being used by the locals that can seemingly bring back the dead to life! Along the way Dr. Alan experiences first hand what it is like to go on these drug fuelled trips and the nightmarish sense of reality that befalls him. Mixed in with this is the head of the local police that is shown to be a nasty piece of work played by Zakes Mokae, and in his spare time practices voodoo rituals and threats of "I can get in your head, wherever you are," which Dr. Alan understands only too well when he is back in Boston having a meal with his friends.
The Blue-ray release certainly enhances the colours of the film and if you want to be entertained and have a spare 90 minutes or so then, give this film a try.
Dr.Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman of Independence Day) is an adventurous Harvard anthropologist who after a nightmarish research expedition deep in the Amazonian rainforest is asked by a pharmaceuticals consortium to head a trip to the volatile Caribbean island of Haiti in order to research an unknown powder drug which is allegedly used to create zombies that they believe could be utilised as a powerful anesthetic. To validate their claim they relate the story of a man called Christophe who after dying under suspicious circumstances was found very much alive wandering through the very graveyard he was buried in with a bad case of amnesia. On arriving at Haiti Dr.Allen is met by his island contact Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson of Mona Lisa) who works at an overly subscribed local psychiatric hospital and who was also responsible for alerting the presence of the zombified Christophe after treating him at the hospital. Marielle introduces Dr.Allen to Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield of The Terminator) a proud Haitian Vodou priest who runs a black magic themed tourist bar who passes on information to the whereabouts of witch doctor Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings of Witness and Red Heat) who despite his bravado is a powerful medicine man capable of making the zombie powder Dr.Allen requires.
Unfortunately the commander of the Tonton Macoute, Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae) doesent take too kindly to a inquisitive white American snooping around his island and sends a warning to the good doctor (that will make any man squirm) advising him not to meddle in things he doesent understand and to leave Haiti and her secrets behind.
Based extremely loosely on a non fiction novel of the same name by real life ethnobotanist Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow was something of a step up and a breakaway from straight horror compared to Craven's past semi exploitational movies (The Last House on the Left, Swamp Thing) or wider in scope and more adult than his blackly comic teen horrors (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Deadly Friend) creating a memorable mixture of culture clash horror and polital thriller all held together by a strong sense of atmosphere and feeling of impending doom. Indeed Craven's picture could be looked upon as a hark back to the walking dead pictures of old recalling the films of the 30s and 40s that dealt more with the mysticism and folklore of the zombie myth compared to the flesh hungry ghouls modern day audiences would have been more accustomed to and it is this approach that gives the movie it's charm and identity whilst at the same time feeling like a fresh take on an age old story. There are many aspects which make The Serpent and the Rainbow tick most notably the gorgeous cinematography of the exotic locales of Haiti which perfectly capture the authentic sights of a country steeped in religious and superstitious beliefs whilst at the same time possessing a dark, suspicious and corrupt intent with what feels like danger at every turn. From bustling street markets, nightclubs and gambling dens through to a deserted nighttime graveyard and a candlelit pilgrimage (with what seems like a cast of thousands) the movie has an exquisite look with images of pure fairytale beauty that often dissolve into all out terror. The film is also rampant with scenes of exceptional strength that are powerful enough to unsettle whilst never having to resort to all out gore with a simple pin through the eye of a comatose victim or the feeling of being buried alive with a live tarantula whilst not forgetting the coffin of blood or the image of the resurrected zombie bride. Followers of Wes Craven's previous pictures will immediately notice his recurring dream motif running throughout with often hallucinary and terrifying results which constantly blur the line between nightmarish visions and reality and the music score by Brad Fiedel (The Terminator) adds immensely to the spirit of the movie immersing the viewer in the world of black magic and voodoo with a mixture of familar string and synth led horror movie cues and interspersed with pounding tribal percussion. If one thing were to let the movie down it would be the far too Hollywood ending featuring a climatic battle with Dr.Allen and Commander Peytraud (possibly included at the insistence of the studio as was maybe the love interest) that falls into far too many familiar supernatural horror movie clichés with Zakes Mokae's character turning into an unkillable Freddy Krueger type villain who comes back one more time scarred and burnt only to receive his comeuppance at the hands of the very torture device he had used on so many others. The inclusion of this sadly lessens the mystique and atmosphere that had been so skillfully created over the first hour or so and despite being undeniably well mounted a less is more approach to the final denouement would have suited the overall tone more respectfully. Thankfully this is only a minor blip in what is a superior slice of late 80s horror from one of the best in the business and remains one of my favourite Craven movies to date.
The Serpent and the Rainbow is revived on Blu ray with a pleasing AVC encoded MPEG 4 1080p transfer and framed at 1.78:1. I had previously owned the Italian release from Pulp Video (which was fine visually but featured lossy mono (!!?) audio) but this new transfer courtesy of Shout! Factory was struck from better quality materials hence it's delay. The opening credits look a little dull and smudgy but once into the movie proper detail and textures are readily apparent with close ups that reveal intricacies in faces and clothing and long to medium shots easily pick out the general dingyness of the Haitian locations and the surrounding flora and fauna of the Amazon set opening. Some softness does creep in (which was maybe down to a deliberate cinematography choice) and depth is never that noticable but this is far better defined that DVD and looks mostly solid and dimensional.
Colours get a major boost with some eye catching primaries from the blue of Dr.Allen's shirt through to the reds of blood and voodoo themed attire and the kaleidoscope of colours as the camera pans through a busy Haitian market are reproduced magnificently. The jungle greens during the Amazonian segment also look incredibly healthy and natural as do the eathern brown hues and skin tones appear true.
Contrast looks ever so slightly dark often casting a misty greyish tone over the image even in scenes of broad daylight (the Italian BD on the other hand looked too bright) but black levels are for the most part strong which is essential for the many nighttime set excursions and shadow detail is generally solid.
The interpositive used for this new transfer looks to be in excellent condition meaning your going to have to strain your eyes hard to find any real age related print problems and the grain structure appears intact and filmic coming across fine and organic (although on a handful of occasions this can look noisy especially on overcast skies) and to my eyes compression is surprisingly good making this the best way to see this Wes Craven classic.
It is worth noting that this was released in the UK from Fabulous Films. I haven't seen this edition but I would imagine it utilised the same transfer as the Italian BD (and maybe the German Koch Media release too although i cannot be certain on either of these statements) and most importantly is missing a few seconds down to the BBFC's involvement to remove a brief cockfight seen as Dr.Allen and Marielle enter Louis Mozart's establishment.
Scream! Factory remain authentic to source and present The Serpent and the Rainbow in it's original two channel stereo delivered in lossless DTS HD Master. For the record I played this utilising a DTS NEO 6 decoder as I always do for stereo only tracks. From the outset I was more than pleasantly surprised with the audio accompaniment as this featured an incredibly wide stereo soundstage across the front channels with many pans and effects coming through clearly and well prioritised. Dialogue was clear and well centred but could have projected a little stronger but foley effects were strong and robust even possessing some depth and aggression. Brad Fiedel's wonderful score is possibly the best element in this uncompressed track and sounds rich and full bodied with an enveloping stereophonic spread with breaths easily into the rears for a completely enveloping experience. For a stereo mix I was often taken aback at how much the surround channels were utilised from general environmental sounds of busy streets and fauna rich jungles through to nails being hammered into coffins or the frantic digging sounds as Christophe hurries to rescue Dr.Allen from his grave. I would go as far to say this sounds as active and as full of life as some true 5.1 mixes of similar 80s era movies. Low end too is commendable adding punch to the score and higher energy scenes and dynamic range was befitting of a horror movie from this period. There was maybe a few balancing issues with the music being that little bit louder in the mix resulting in as already mentioned the dialogue getting ever so slightly lost but this remains the best I have ever heard The Serpent and the Rainbow sound.
While nowhere near as stacked compared to previous Collector's Edition titles from Scream! this does at least provide two new and exclusive extras even if they are far from perfect.
First up is an audio commentary with star Bill Pullman which is relatively engaging and amusing with the actor talking openly (once the questions come flowing at any rate) about the production and providing many anecdotes. Sadly this only last around 54 minutes with Pullman excusing himself and leaving the track meaning that the remainder is just dead air. It is very odd and even more so disappointing as I'm sure he could have found the extra half hour or so to see this through to the end but it is what it is and good whilst it lasts.
Next up is a 24 minute 1080p featurette featuring imput from author Wade Davis, DOP John Lindley, special effects team of David LeRoy Anderson and Lance Anderson and again star Bill Pullman. This does feel slightly uneven and haphazard with Bill Pullman contributing via phone and Wade Davis appearing on what looks like Skype in a small picture-in picture frame in the corner of the screen but does cover how Craven intended to produce a more serious thriller instead of a straight horror but got bamboozled by the studio bosses and as to be expected Davis expresses his disappointment in the finished movie. Sadly this is of course missing Wes Craven's involvement and i'm sure he would have been more than up for talking about this movie (and would have kept the commentary track alive for the duration).
To round things off are a trailer and short TV spot both presented in 1080p and a poster and stills gallery. My copy came with a slip cover featuring (extremely colourful if a tad tacky) newly commissioned art work and the Blu ray sleeve is reversible if you prefer the original theatrical poster design.
As this is without a doubt one of my favourite Wes Craven pictures I have been patiently waiting for this Collector's Edition to emerge. I must say I am more than happy with the AV qualities with the extremely natural and filmic picture transfer and rich lossless soundtrack. Sadly the extras are not up to the collection's usual standard but at least they are provided making this a better acquisition than the European releases (of which the Italian BD is one to avois down to it's mono English soundtrack). The movie itself is indeed very special (even if the studio's interference is blatantly obvious especially in the finalé) and plays out as an exciting and taut mixture of political thriller interlaced with classic horror tropes that works superbly thanks to it's authentic locations, solid atmosphere and unnerving score cementing that Wes Craven was indeed a master of his craft. Recommended.
What I like about it is the way it mixes-up dreams with reality: While getting buried alive is an undeniably physical experience, at other times it's unclear where the borders of reality and unreality lie for Pullman's character especially when the waters are muddied by Voodoo ritual, illicit substances and the very distracting Cathy Tyson, who's the "love interest" of the story.