Behind him Craven has Frankenstein and Godzilla, before him Wind Across the Everglades. In one hand he has the DC Comic, in the other Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Thus armed, he gives a patient exposition. Early on, his intercutting between opposing forces shows the swamp incidentally as the spacious place it is. There’s a government project to cultivate food supplies, the image is “a vegetable cell with an animal nucleus.” The formula is explosive, and so, when the lab is raided by an enemy who would withhold the result for power, Craven sums up the introduction with an image from The Devils, the scientist in flames leaping into the swamp, the girl left behind in the ruins.
Now comes the superhero’s fight against the adversary’s army, and to enlighten the girl with the beauty of the place, which the cinematography reveals.
A film obviously misunderstood by its critics (Vincent Canby) and some of its admirers (Roger Ebert). The score by Harry Manfredini complements a secure basis of art.
This satire of the Lucas/Spielberg school is mainly built around the R2-D2 robot, here in an earlier avatar, set in the suburban milieu of Postmodernism and Doogie Howser, and meticulously laid out for maximum effect.
The girl next door has dreams of being accosted by her father at night (she stabs his chest with a long-necked vase, which spurts blood all over her as it protrudes from him), from which she wakens with the odd bruise. The boy genius has his own robot, shotgunned on Halloween by a mad old woman out of To Kill a Mockingbird, but its brain chip is saved, sentimentally, and implanted by the mournful boy into the murdered girl.
Thereby making a wrathful zombie. Nerdhood is a singularly graceless estate, doubtless its own comeuppance, all told.
The Serpent and the Rainbow
The main structure is derived from Altered States on the basis of a correct analysis as artist vs. academia, which leads by way of Poe to Dreyer’s Vampyr and Halperin’s White Zombie (and Hamilton’s Live and Let Die). There are a number of local allusions stunningly realized in a few frames, but Russell, Poe and Dreyer are the keys. It’s typical of Craven in this film to improve on his models by dint of the law of art which says that once a thing’s been done it needn’t be done again, unless it can demonstrably be improved in a way commensurate with the knowledge of the work intervening (thus, by extension of this law, for a play to be considered great it must be better than Shakespeare by four hundred years). Craven treats Altered States successfully as a predecessor laying the essential basis, which can now be extended into a fully conscious study of the more objective aspects of the conflict. And this is the key to the sometimes criticized final scene, that it is a fully analyzed and yet theoretical development of Craven’s study after Russell, which is why you see a photograph of Einstein on a wall in an earlier scene, for the reason that he conceived structures in mathematics as building bridges into a void that later proofs would answer tangibly.
Some of the allusions have been remarked, such as The Godfather, and there is the torture scene (and beach recuperation) from One-Eyed Jacks, Peytraud’s look of fear at the close summing up The Emperor Jones, the reaching arms from Repulsion (by way of La Belle et la BÍte), the vertical prison stairway set construction making a nightmare from 2001: A Space Odyssey (and pointing out again a debt to Cocteau), Peytraud’s leap into frame out of Wait Until Dark and characteristically repeated with improvement as he crashes through a wall, and a strong evocation of If... in the destruction of the dungeon articles and curios, among other films.
The point of all this is to treat the material from every aspect, which in itself produces the kind of awe you find in Dreyer. Slavery, subjection, drug addlement, you name it, it’s here, along with reflections of each aspect in the opposite sense, and all the levels of humbuggery and imposition in between.
In short, this is a masterpiece of the first water, standing head and shoulders alongside its predecessors, which include De Palma’s The Fury for that last scene, and Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander as well.
All of the acting goes far beyond one’s expectations even from this cast, and shows in every frame how rigorously Craven’s technique is worked out. The successive dreamlike crests and troughs of surreal images probably can be traced to Welles’ The Trial, another of Cocteau’s progeny.
Craven shot this on Hispaniola, and it’s worthy of the place. His vision of Haiti has also the joy of its “happy, happy, happy” populace without affectation, among other things.
His skillful invocation of antecedents is simply a function of his technique. The hero’s return by air ends with an open airliner cabin door and the camera at an unobtrusive angle making out the terminal with its sign reading Port-au-Prince Airport, and this is enough after what has gone before to establish a sense of dread like the opening of Glenville’s The Comedians.
The first hallucination, wrestling with a playful jaguar, has a sense of cinema’s pure capabilities, as a long shot reveals the creature to be entirely imaginary, after a close-up of it in the flesh.
The murders are said to have begun even before the start of the film, motivated with a sort of grand simplicity. A student kills his father’s mistress, a married woman, because his mother has therefore left him. The mistress’s supposed lover is falsely convicted by dint of erroneous testimony from her daughter.
The bloodbath is conceived to frame the mistress’s husband, who is supposedly unhinged at her loss. The daughter, also a student, undoes the plot.
“It’s the millennium,” says a jaded video clerk, “motives are incidental.” The lacerating satire of movie buffs has been interpreted as a critique of the genre, notably by Variety.
The gross condiment is put on the table like Romeo and Juliet, Act V, Sc. 3, to begin with.
Then the delicate application of it to the feast of Cockaigne, such foods these morsels be, as the saying goes.