(Wes Craven Double Bill) The Serpent and The Rainbow and The People Under the Stairs
The Serpent and The Rainbow directed by Wes Craven is inspired by the book of the same name written by the Harvard educated ethnobiologist Wade Davis. In it he details his experiences in Haiti as he investigated the effects of tetrodotoxin, a supposed zombification poison and the case of Clairvius Narcisse, a man who was seemingly transformed into a zombie by a bokor or sorcerer, which involved being administered the poison and buried alive before being dug up! Craven distinguishes this film from the outset as a serious work grounded in a sense of realism that is offset by highly effective hallucinatory sequences which provide a number of significant future plot points. The opening dream sequence is particularly striking in this regard when Dennis Allan (Bill Pullman) sinks into the ground and sees Dargent Peytraud’s (Zakes Mokae) head emerging from the earth. The film is excellent in exploring the original Haitian origins of the zombie. Other examples are the corpse bride scenes which are genuinely unsettling. The visual effects are superb in these sequences and really skin crawling, which is helped in no small measure by some excellent sound fx. Put it this way, you may not look at a bowl of soup in the same way again.
The film might be too slow paced for some people although it’s quite evident that it is based in the tradition of cumulative horror that you might find for example in H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. One criticism I would make is that despite the theme of the psychological aspects of voodoo being made prominent throughout the film and the fact that the final battle between Allan and Peytraud is meant take place in the mind, what we are essentially given is a fist fight with some elaborate imagery intended to represent their individual fears, hopes and drives. I felt the climax could have been handled better in this sense with more nuance but it was entertaining nonetheless. At certain points the film can also seem a bit like a travelogue when it explores Haitian cultural practices. Generally the settings are well chosen from scenic locations to dingy environments like the interrogation cells.
The characters were generally well fleshed out though I couldn’t really identify with them. Pullman puts in an adequate performance but his character behaves like a bit of an arrogant American jackass. Cathy Tyson’s character is somewhat interesting in embodying the political aspect of the film as someone who is the product of the cultural overlap that occurs through Western colonialism. Even though she is an avowed Christian she believes herself to be possessed one night while dancing in accordance with Haitian traditions. Furthermore, the disparity between her Western influences/education and her faith is even more pronounced given that she is a doctor who believes in medical science. Peytraud is a bit more one-dimensional, though Mokae plays him with a kind of theatrical swagger that prevents him from ever being boring. The Serpent and the Rainbow is evidently a highly polished work which takes a rather novel route for a horror film in exploring voodoo, insanity and the real origins for the zombie myth in a rather serious, almost anthropological tone which reflects its source material.
The People Under the Stairs is partly a social critique of ghettoization, economic inequality and the evilness of landlords, a theme that might be pertinently relevant in today’s accommodation market as rental prices soar. This critique is not in any way subtle but brought very much to the fore though it’s managed well enough not to become preachy. Although billed as a comedy and despite the fact that it has some genuinely funny moments, the film’s subject matter is incredibly dark. Basically the diabolical duo of an evil stepdad and stepmother played by Everret McGill and Wendy Robie, who incidentally play the Hurley couple in Twin Peaks, have abducted children from the ghetto properties they own and have imprisoned them in a dungeon beneath their house, raising them to become feral cannibals. To add to this they are in fact a brother and sister so there is also the matter of incest. There is a clear social allegory here for the poor white underclass unaware of their common cause with their non-white counterparts under a system of economic imprisonment enforced by the elite. This is conveyed by the fact that these children are incredibly pallid having been kept in the dark for their entire lives. The ‘kept in the dark’ motif plays back into the film’s interrogation of class relations as the working class have the wool pulled over their eyes by their societal masters. Into this world enters Fool (Brandon Quinton Adams). Fool is a poor black kid who agrees to Leroy’s (Ving Rhames) proposal to burgle the house of their landlords to retrieve valuable gold coins, which will pay for cancer treatment for Fool’s mother and his rent.
During the film Fool meets Alice (A.J. Langer) who has also been abducted. Unlike her male counterparts she is kept above board in the house and is routinely abused by her adoptive parents who mislead her into believing she is their biological daughter. The film deals with some pretty serious issues regarding child abuse and brings to mind certain abduction cases in recent years. The fact that the couple maintain a seemingly civilised, respectable exterior when the police come calling can be taken as a further commentary on the nature of child abuse, economic privilege and racial profiling; because they are white, well off and seen as pillars of society as landlords, the police presume they’re innocent.
While the film may very much be grounded in social polemic it is also written in the manner of a fairytale. This might be seen to parallel the conflation of the surreal with realism in The Serpent and the Rainbow. Some of the dialogue has the rhythm and rhyming schemes of what could be found in folktales. Moreover, we have two evil step parents, a hero who must rescue the princess, in this case Alice, hidden treasure in the form of gold coins, monsters in the basement, tenants oppressed by their wicked landlords and so on. There is also something uniquely terrifying, nightmarish and brutal about a man in a gimp costume stalking the darkened corridors of the labyrinthine house whilst wielding a shotgun.
The set design is where this film really comes into its own. This is the domestic design equivalent of a creature feature, the house is in a sense the star of the show with its multiple trap doors, hidden areas and passageways. Of course this is to emphasise the fact that the brother and sister are hiding a grotesque and sordid secret life from view but the actual work that went into building the sets displays a great deal of imagination.
McGill and Robie have a good onscreen chemistry; in fact Robie’s draws upon her theatrical background which McGill plays off to heighten the comic dimension to the film. Brandon Quintin Adams and A.J. Langer also put in remarkably strong performances while Ving Rhames manages to come across rather convincingly as a somewhat cowardly though likeable burglar with a hint of authority, which he would later employ to maximum effect as Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction. Speaking of which one might posit that this is the film where Quentin Tarantino got his inspiration for the infamous ‘bring out the gimp’ scene in Pulp Fiction, when we consider that Ving Rhames is shot dead by the stepdad in aforementioned gimp attire.