It's a bittersweet thing for me to continue to revisit the films of the great Wes Craven when I know there will never be another one. I'm not sure if that colors my take on them or not, but it is hard to remain unaffected by that fact. Though I did not hold him in quite as high regard as some, he certainly was a man who had an impact on my love of cinema. I do credit horror movies for pulling me deeper into a love of film and I've talked to many others that have a a similar experience with them as a "gateway drug". NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET took hold of me in a way I never could have predicted in that it was truly one of the scariest things I'd seen at the time. This had a lot to do with the fact that it was about dreams and thus felt like it could reach beyond the confines of being just a movie and stick inside my head for later night terrors. It did do that a bit if I recall. That was an experience, like so many I had in the VHS days, that left me hungry for more. Horror was "forbidden fruit" when I was in late middle school and early high school. Not that my parents were incredibly hardline about it, but they themselves didn't care for horror so it was not something we would look for as a family at the video store. Horror was relegated to sleepovers and other such late night viewings and that only made it all the more enticing.
My wife and I often talk about television commercials from our youth and how so many of them have stayed with us for twenty years or more. She herself has vivid memories of how she was scarred by TV commercials for both ROSEMARY'S BABY and MAGIC when she was young. I have similar memories of commercials for THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW. The now famous bit of dialogue from Bill Pullman, "Don't let them bury me. I'm not dead!" has remained in my brain all this time and may never go away.
I can't say that commercials for movies back then were necessarily scarier, but I sometimes feel like they really pushed the boundaries a bit more and were less concerned with possibly screwing kids up. It may have had to do with when they were running them (well before 9 or 10 pm) that made a lot of the difference. I felt like I even saw some occasionally during afternoon syndicated programming. Anyway, it was from these commercials that THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW began its journey to becoming something more than just another movie from "the mind of Wes Craven". It freaked out my friends and I when we first saw it on VHS and would go on to become a scary movie to be passed on to others when they wanted some solid fright. In my days at the video store (*cough* - in the 1990s), THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW and THE CHANGELING (with George C. Scott) were two of the staff's go-to recommendations for hair-raising horror. I hadn't seen the film for probably fifteen years though...
In rewatching the movie, I do believe that a lot of its scariness comes from Bill Pullman being the lead. He's just such a mild mannered guy and he seems so grounded and normal that once he is pulled into the dark world of voodoo, magic and hallucination - it feels all the more terrifying. There are a couple elements at play though. There's the dark voodoo stuff -which would be frightening enough by itself - but there's also a "MIDNIGHT EXPRESS factor" here too. By that I mean a fear that comes from seeing a character in a foreign country where the police and authorities (and medical facilities) are not nearly as protective for an outsider as they would be in the United States. In this case, Pullman's character is in Haiti and made to feel like he is on very shaky ground from early on in the film. You see, he has heard tell of a powder that some locals have been able to create that gives the appearance of death, but the victims are not actually deceased. Thus, some people have been seen to have "come back from the dead" and Pullman's character (a bit of a skeptic) just wants the powder so he can give it to a pharmaceutical for potential use as a new anesthetic. The Haitans are not excited to have one of their secrets stolen, so they are more than intimidating and straight out threatening. The fact that some serious hallucinatory substances are at play here makes for a great nightmare playground that Wes Craven is well suited to orchestrate. He creates a bunch of very iconic horror images here though the use of practical effects of the time. I feel like even the most jaded young viewer will come away with some unsettling images from this movie. I showed it to my seventeen year old son and though he didn't find the film as scary as I'm sure I did back in the late 80s, I could tell from his reactions to certain scenes that he was at least momentarily taken aback. I find that to be a fun test nowadays. Rewatching old horror movies for my own re-analyzation, but also sharing them with a younger person to see what their impressions are. THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is an enjoyable revisit for sure. It has its dated moments and dead spots (no pun intended), but overall it is still a memorable entry in Wes Craven's illustrious legacy of terror.
This is one of Scream Factory's more tricked out "Collector's Edition" sets, so it has a healthy amount of nice supplements:
-An Audio Commentary With Actor Bill Pullman. (NEW)
-"The Making Of The Serpent And The Rainbow" Featuring New Interviews With Actor Bill Pullman, Author Wade Davis, Director Of Photography John Lindley And Special Effects Artists Lance Anderson And David Anderson.
-Original Theatrical Trailer And TV Spot
Also - the transfer looks pretty good. It's a new HD transfer from interpositive film elements (according to Scream Factory).
The Blu-ray can be purchased here: