“In the legends of voodoo the Serpent is a symbol of Earth. The Rainbow is a symbol of Heaven. Between the two, all creatures must live and die. But because he has a soul’Man can be trapped in a terrible place where death is only the beginning.”
This pre-title card offers a hint, not merely of what the movie is going to be about, but of how it will be structured, making it for the most part unique as a film.
Now, the plot itself is a more or less anchored on Campbells Journey of a Hero. That is it’s framework, as it is of many fantasy movies (although rare in the horror ouevre.) Mind you, Director Craven takes liberties with the formula, as the primarly point along the way lead more into horror than fantasy (the death and rebirth part of the film is most definitely horrific.) And amonst this the several genres the film plays with engage in a tug of war. How you say?
Reality and Fantasy: Significant parts of the film are filmed in an almost documentary fashion (alluding to the non-fiction aspect of its origins). Scenes where we are introduced to Haiti, Voodoo and other aspects of reality are often bookended with surreal scenes of mysticism and horror. And that is played out time and time again throught the course of the film. And unlike what we often find in other films, this one pays voodoo complete respect from that opening text almost to the end of the film. It’s that respect that ultimately sells the progression of the storyline.
Mysticism vs. Science: As with a similarly excellent horror film from the 80′s (Candyman) scientific research plays the instigator role in pushing the protagonist (Dr. Allen the botanist played by Bill Pullman) from the beginning it is bound to lose out. While the science does play out, it is only a fraction of the reality being played out. It’s voodoo mysticism that is the over arching battleground that is played out in the context of Haiti’s revolution. And ultimately Pullman (and his jaguar spirit-guide) get to be the representation of mystical good that defeats mystical evil, freeing the enslaved souls even as the Haitian’s free themselves from tyranny.
At times, the mixing of the various elements of the story seems forced and glossed over. Sure, this isn’t the best film ever made. But It is the only one ambitious enough to attempt the combination of SF, horror, fantasy and religion set up as a mirror to a revolution that was happening at the same time the film was being made. Just for that it deserves acknowledgement. The only main fault I see is the ending, which sadly adheres to the American Horror tradition of requiring either a ‘joke ending’ or the fulfilment of ‘revenge fantasy’ to provide a more or happy conclusion. But hey, complex endings are hard to sell, especially in Hollywood, where amused and/or revenge-satiated keeps the money coming in.
Anthropoligist Wade Davis, who’s non-fiction (primarily scientific) inspiration started the ball moving, has said it was “the worst film ever made in the history of Hollywood”,but Max Beauvoir, the Pope of Voodoo loves it, (as noted in this recent interview). So there you go.
Last Thursday: Intro
Next Thursday: Zombies!