“By the way, Doctor Allen … what did you dream about this afternoon? A woman in your arms? The sea at your doorstep? Nooooo! You dreamt of me … and of the grave. I know because I was there. And I can be there every time you close your eyes. The pain I cause you, in the room upstairs, is nothing to the pain I can cause in your own mind. Remember that, Doctor Allen.” — Dargent Peytraud, The Serpent and the Rainbow
The underrated classic The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) is surely one of the more overlooked films in Wes Craven’s canon. Bill Pullman does a solid job as the film’s lead, providing that relatable everyman quality that allows you to put yourself in his shoes as he gets subjected to some truly horrific visions and experiences. Cathy Tyson, Paul Winfield, Badja Djola, Brent Jennings and Michael Gough all lend strong secondary support with their characters, and Wes Craven manages to keep the film moving, expertly crafting a genuinely spooky and unnerving film that is deep in voodoo culture and memorable, frightening images that stay with you long after you’ve seen the film.
One of the film’s main strengths is that it possesses an undeniable feeling of authenticity, one that would most surely be attributed to the fact that the film was shot on location in Haiti. It’s an effective little tale and based very loosely on the nonfiction book of the same name. The mysticism gets a little goofy in the film’s last act, but thankfully it doesn’t hamstring the rest of the film, which, again, is rife with some pretty creepy stuff and great character performances.
That being said, I’d be amiss if I didn’t single out the character of Dargent Peytraud, played by the late Zakes Mokae, as being the film’s shining gem. Peytraud, as played by Mokae, is an unchecked force of evil, a man who excels at fucking with you not just physically but also mentally. A senior officer in “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s Tonton Macoute (which in reality, wasn’t too far removed from Hitler’s own paramilitary organization, the SS), Peytraud has the resources and the manpower to keep the denizens of Haiti in check. Couple that with his expertise in the voodoo arts and his penchant for sadistic torture, and you wind up with a dangerous antagonist who is one of the more frightening baddies to come from the horror genre. From the moment we’re first introduced to the character, you just know that he’s a bastard. Just that sly smile coupled with those cold, unsmiling eyes of his are enough to unsettle the viewer.
There’s a scene partway through the film where Peytraud pretty much earns Hall of Fame status in one fell swoop. It’s the scene that most people remember from the film, if not exactly with fond feelings. Peytraud has Bill Pullman’s character tied naked to the kind of seat you’re used to seeing in other films as an electric chair. There’s some light interrogation and a bit of scare tactics with an unlit welding torch. Not exactly fun times, but that’s not even the best bit. You see, shock treatment isn’t the order of the day here. Not for this guy. If there’s anything to be learned from this scene, it’s that nothing hammers a message home like the threat of a nail through the scrotum. And whether you’re a man or woman, it goes down as one of the most harrowing scenes in a horror movie ever. I’m convinced that Pullman didn’t have to dig too deep into his own psych for that scream he lets out. That shit came from the heart.
And really, while it’s bad enough that Peytraud is into the sadistic physical stuff, the fact that he can get into your dreams and make them the stuff of nightmares is the real point of contention here. The man employs everything in his arsenal when on the assault, using claustrophobia and your own personal fears to break you down and reduce you to a literal wreck. Admittedly, it is material that Craven has obviously covered before with his earlier A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it’s still as effective here as it was there, so no complaints. What I love most about this character though is the simple fact that even when he’s not on screen, you can still feel his presence. A key to making a truly effective heavy is to make the audience completely unaware of what he or she is going to do or even when they’re going to appear next.
Peytraud sinks his claws in and never leaves your mind throughout the course of the film, getting into your brain the same way he does with the characters in the film. When he appears, it’s usually where you don’t expect and in a way you’re guaranteed not to like. Full credit has to go to Mokae for his work here. Dargent Peytraud is a truly nasty piece of work and one of my favorite horror movie villains. He’s also the latest and truly deserving addition to the ever growing Cult Spark Movie Villain Hall of Fame.