November 5, 2012

THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW: Wes Craven, The Matchmaker

Starring Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Paul Winfield. Directed by Wes Craven. (1988, 98 min.)

I have fond memories of this one, even though it's one of Wes Craven's shittiest movies. And considering the guy has made a lot of shitty movies, that's saying something. He's not a bad filmmaker, but he is extremely overrated.

Craven is like a MLB power hitter who manages to make the highlight reel on ESPN by knocking a game-winning, grand-slam homerun out of the park, but we never see his previous walks and strikeouts. If the occasional well-timed homerun is all you're really famous for, then maybe you ain't such an awesome ballplayer after all. Still, fans may love you enough that you might think you're more important to your team than you really are.

As a filmmaker, Craven has hit a few out of the park as well. Though it's a little overpraised, 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street was so huge it saved a studio and had folks dropping Craven's name among horror's big guns, like Carpenter and Romero. But really, Craven hadn't done shit until then. Anyone arguing in support of Craven's first film, The Last House on the Left, either hasn't watched it lately or has a fucked up idea of entertainment.

Craven also directed Scream, arguably the first slasher movie since Halloween most legitimate critics liked, mainly because it was a straight-faced satire. As with most horror film franchises, Scream 2, Scream 3 and Scre4m naturally followed. All were directed by Craven, and because of the self-aware nature of them, he actually became somewhat respected in Hollywood on a level Carpenter & Romero never were.

But the thing is, he also made a slew of dated, schlocky shit nobody remembers or talks about (Swamp Thing, Deadly Friend, Shocker, The People Under the Stairs, The Hills Have Eyes II, Cursed, Vampire in Brooklyn, etc.); you know, the strikeouts in between homeruns. There's also been a few truly good Craven movies nobody talks about either, which could be considered RBIs (Wes Craven's New Nightmare & Red Eye, which, in my humble opinion, are his two best).

Then there are the 'foul balls.' Those misguided swings that, while technically considered strikes, at least got a piece of the ball. These would be the Craven movies where he a got the bug up his ass to take himself seriously. His lone attempt at straight drama, Music from the Heart, is the most obvious foul ball (like a decent hitter facing a superior pitcher from a different division).

Which leads us to 1988's The Serpent and the Rainbow, a foul ball in more ways than one. First, it was Craven's attempt at a 'serious' horror film, one which should not have been lumped in with the slice & dice flicks he was renowned for, but his name was used to market it to the same teenagers who made A Nightmare on Elm Street a hit. Second, and more importantly, The Serpent and the Rainbow is the most boring movie Wes Craven ever made. Until this one, no matter what Craven's overly ambitious intentions were, at least his other movies moved.

The Serpent and the Rainbow, based on Wade Davis' non-fiction book about an ethnobotanist's adventures in zombification, is a turgid, slow-moving affair, so wrapped up in its own pretention that it forgets horror movies are supposed to be entertaining. This movie had to be an unpleasant surprise for Craven fans at the time, and although I wasn't necessarily a Craven fan, I liked A Nightmare on Elm Street enough to give this one a shot, especially since I was dating at the time.

This was in 1988, about a year since my divorce from my first wife. The reason for my divorce was irreconcilable differences, which, roughly translated, meant we got married way too young. Anyway, after four rough years, I was a free man for the first time since high school, but hadn’t matured a hell of a lot since then. So I more-or-less nailed anything that moved, mostly without involving the ritualistic courting required for any long-term relationship. Eventually, though, I met a girl I actually liked beyond her physical attributes. This meant, of course, if I wanted any chance with her, we’d have to go on an actual date, not just get hammered in a bar and sleep together.

I had two problems with this. First, even though I was 23 at the time, my definition of a date was the same as when I was 17, buying pizza and going to a horror movie. Second, I was in the process of flunking out of college, with no personal income to speak of; most of my discretionary cash came from shoplifting VHS movies and selling them to a pawn shop. Still, this girl seemed impressed enough to take a chance and go out with me (but since I had no car - just a skateboard - she had to drive).

A few days prior to our date, I managed to steal enough videos to afford a movie and dinner at Red Robin afterwards. In my state of stunted adolescence, I chose the only horror movie playing at the time, Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow. Chicks dig horror movies, right?

Bill Pullman is forced to rewatch Independence Day.

That may or may not have been true, but I wouldn’t have known it from The Serpent and the Rainbow, which was more like a long-ass travelogue than a horror film. Yeah, there were a few cool scenes (one involving spiders, the one creature most likely to make me piss myself), but nothing like the cheap thrills I hoped my date would enjoy. The movie ended up being a dull, unintentionally-funny, badly-acted snoozefest, made by a guy who obviously wanted to be taken seriously as a filmmaker, but didn’t yet know how.

And thank God. It gave me and my date a lot to talk about during dinner afterwards. I still wasn’t used to going back into the dating game; before we went out, I was pretty nervous, praying there wouldn’t be any dreaded stretches of uncomfortable silence where we struggled to engage in small talk. Thanks to the pretentious shit that was The Serpent and the Rainbow, I didn’t need to worry; we had a lot of fun at the movie’s expense, something I do not think would have happened if we watched a good film.

We both laughed a lot that night and had a great time, and I eventually ended up marrying this girl, even after she informed me she doesn’t like horror movies at all. 

So maybe I have Wes Craven to thank for my current marriage, now going on 24 years. Who knows...if The Serpent and the Rainbow was actually a good movie on par with The Exorcist, me and Francie might have been forced to create phony conversation about other subjects during dinner, then gone our separate ways. But because Serpent sucked hard, we had a lot of fun stuff to talk about on that first date, and we got a feel for each other’s sense of humor, not to mention our quirks and interests.

Now that I think about it, maybe The Serpent and the Rainbow, despite how shitty it is, is another homerun...just one that’s hit during Spring Training, when it only matters to those watching that game at that time. Such a homerun may not matter to most fans, just like horror films don’t matter to my wife, or most Wes Craven films don’t matter to me. But at one moment in my life, this one mattered.

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