Collins’ Crypt: Wes Craven’s Death Made Me Appreciate SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW

BC revisits THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW in the wake of Craven's passing and finds more to like.

Last year, I did a piece on Scream Factory's dedication to John Carpenter's filmography and my best guesses for which ones we'd see next (I was almost right! Village of the Damned was my #2 pick and that's coming soon), and it was a fun way to pipe dream my way through an article. I planned to do the same for Wes Craven a few months later, especially when Scream announced THREE of his titles to join their existing two (Swamp Thing and Deadly Blessing), and penciled in the release of The Serpent and the Rainbow as the time to do it. It was a practical decision; obviously I'd never skip an excuse to talk at length about Shocker, and People Under The Stairs was one I had wanted to revisit anyway. But I was not a fan of Serpent when I saw it for the first time only a few years ago, and figured my opinion wouldn't change much. Given my increasing lack of time to get through these discs, I figured I could skip it for now and use its release as the springboard into my new batch of release theories.

Unfortunately, on August 30th of last year, any such plans were killed for good when Wes passed away at age 76, from cancer of course (fuck cancer). This resulted in Serpent's disc being delayed some, and at some point in between then and now Scream announced that the film would likely be the last one they ever put out from Craven, due to the unavailability of the other titles for acquisition. It makes sense; most of them have perfectly good editions anyway, and with Wes no longer around it probably wouldn't make much sense to pursue the titles that didn't, like Deadly Friend - only his participation could possibly interest anyone who didn't have it already. Plus, it'd make for a weird situation for a movie like that - it's no one's favorite, certainly, and no one would want to speak ill of the dead, so you'd end up with this fake appreciation from its actors/crew, for a movie that wouldn't exactly be the best place to salute Craven's talents. No, as much as I'd love to see SF discs adorning more of the Craven section on my shelf (yes, I group movies from my heroes together, shelved chronologically), unless New Line or Lionsgate wanted to let them at Nightmare on Elm Street or Scream, I think it's best if they let these five releases be it.

So I made time and revisited Serpent and the Rainbow after all, and walked away a bigger fan than I was before, with some of its bonus features confirming my suspicions that the more traditional horror elements in the third act were, indeed, studio-mandated reshoots. As was often the case for Wes whenever he tried making things that weren't full-blown horror, the studio wanted something a little more "Wes Craven-y" for their film to market it around, which is why, as Bill Pullman explains on the commentary, you end up with piles of skulls and guys on fire. I suspect that was part of my reason for not loving the film the first time around - I sat down for a Wes Craven voodoo zombie movie and got what's mostly more of an adventure/drama blend with some mysticism thrown in. Genre stuff makes up very little of the runtime, and most of it is hallucinations or nightmares, with very few full-blown terror sequences. Even the live burial scene is rather quick (Pullman would probably disagree), and when the film DOES dip into those more traditional waters, it seems out of place. My initial reaction to these moments was "Finally!" (and, in turn, "too little too late"), but now it's more like "What's this doing here?"

Indeed, knowing it's not a traditional horror movie helps out with one of the biggest hurdles - Pullman's narration, speaking of these events in the past tense, lets us know that he will be survive this ordeal (with most of his scrotum intact!). But when you watch the film knowing it's about his journey into strange territory and living to tell the tale, as opposed to a horror story where his survival was a question mark, the VO is far less intrusive. The film was allegedly nearly three hours long at first (cut down by Craven himself, not the studio), so I suspect the narration was used to smooth over a few narrative holes caused by excising so much footage. I would assume the political uprising subplot, which is simmering throughout and comes to a boil in the final reel, was probably among the things that got whittled down, but in a way I kind of like that - as we're seeing the film through Pullman's eyes, he probably didn't know the situation all that well either, so we shouldn't be well versed in that's going on or why the people are in conflict with their government. There's enough there to get the gist, but for the most part it's just (accurate) flavoring for his more personal struggle.

But ultimately, what made this viewing more resonant for me was the bittersweet feeling I had throughout its runtime, as it concerns the "real" powder (Tetrodotoxin) that may hold the secret to immortality, in a story directed by a man who I would have preferred to be with us forever. While I've always considered John Carpenter my ultimate hero, Wes' impact on my love of horror can in no way be overlooked - whenever someone asks how or why I got into horror, a Wes Craven film will get name-checked almost instantly. As I've said before, Scream was the reason I got back into horror full force after letting my love slide during the early to mid 90s, and that love first blossomed with Freddy Krueger during the late 80s (while Freddy would ultimately be my least favorite of the "big three", I saw Dream Warriors before ever seeing a Friday the 13th or Halloween film). At the age of 70 he came to my first ever midnight New Beverly screening, the success of which paved the way for dozens more. Hell (and forgive me if this seems like a plug), even the cover of my book is a parody of the Shocker poster - it kills me that I couldn't tweet the damn thing to whoever runs his Twitter account in hopes that they'd pass it along to him.  

And speaking of passing things along, Wes made one final impact in my life the day before he died - my son (then only 15 months old) was going through this phase where he'd only fall asleep if I was holding him while watching TV, and since he was too young to really understand anything he was seeing I'd usually put on "my" type of stuff, which wouldn't likely engage him (i.e. not Sesame Street) and just give him (and me) a focal point to help him drift off. On one such occasion, I put on Nightmare on Elm Street via Netflix, and while he had already "watched" other scary movies in the past with no problem, he got legitimately terrified at Freddy making his glove in the opening credits sequence (in a much more humorous example, you can also hear the Shocker bonus features in the background of the video of my OTHER pride and joy taking his first steps). As bad as I felt, I couldn't help but feel charmed that I had inadvertently introduced him to the work of Wes Craven in such a memorable way, leaving a story I can tell him eight or nine years from now when we sit down to watch it for real.  

The movie ends with an epilogue via on-screen text, telling us that Tetrodotoxin was still being studied to see if it could actually be used to reanimate the dead (with presumably less terrifying results than the ones depicted in the film), though apparently all claims that it could were dismissed in the '90s. Like time travel and invisibility, I'm pretty sure such real life zombification is never going to happen, which is probably for the best. Still, I'd be lying if I didn't momentarily get hopeful that they figured it out in the 28 years since the movie's release and could use it to give Wes back to us, even if only for long enough to thank him for everything he's done for us horror fans. I was a bit worried that he'd be left out of Sunday's "in memoriam" reel at the Oscars, as they traditionally skip over horror folk (indeed, Gunnar Hansen and Angus Scrimm were left out, to no one's surprise), but they stunned me by actually starting the tribute off with him - and I was very grateful for that. If they put him near the end, after I was already getting emotional due to the reminders of so many others that we lost last year (Melissa Mathison, David Bowie, Alan Rickman... ALL due to fucking cancer), I would have lost it. Not that all of his films were masterpieces, and I'm sure his best days were behind him, but that's irrelevant now as it was when he was alive - when you saw "A film by Wes Craven" in those titles, you knew you weren't going to get any anonymous or forgettable tripe - good or bad, it'd be something worth talking about after. And I thank the likes of Scream Factory for ensuring that even though he won't be adding to his impressive roster, future generations will get to see these movies for the first time and keep those conversations going.