Bill Pullman

The Serpent And The Rainbow

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Universal Pictures

Directed by Wes Craven

Produced by Doug Claybourne and David Ladd

Written by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman

Based on “The Serpent and The Rainbow” by Wade Davis

People who know me and know what I look for in horror movies say that I’m way too critical and demanding of them. Maybe so. But I’ve never been one of those who excuse the downright stupidity of the majority of horror movies simply because my friends say I’m supposed to turn off my brain and stop thinking while watching. The best horror movies and the ones I enjoy the most are the ones that do engage my brain and encourage me to not only feel but think about what’s happening up there on the screen.

The horror movies of Wes Craven are among some of my favorites. Although he has made some hideously bad movies such as “Shocker” “Vampire In Brooklyn” and “Cursed” he has also made some spectacularly good ones as well. The original “Nightmare On Elm Street” “The People Under The Stairs” the “Scream” series and what is probably my favorite Wes Craven horror movie and one people just don’t mention a lot and that’s a damn shame they don’t; THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW.

Anthropologist/Ethobotanist Dr. Dennis Alan makes a good living going into remote jungles and coming back with rare herbs and ritual drugs from native tribes that he then sells to American pharmaceutical companies. He’s extremely good at his job which is why he’s asked to go to Haiti to investigate the voodoo society and see if there’s any truth to the myth of there being some sort of secret powder that creates zombie. Alan’s mentor Dr. Schoonbacher (Michael Gough) thinks that this could lead to the secret of where the soul is located. Andrew Cassedy (Paul Guilfoyle) the head of Boston Biocorp thinks it could be the ultimate anesthetic. Cassedy claims to have proof of a man in Haiti who was poisoned with this powder, buried alive, dug up and revived as a zombie.

With the assistance of the gorgeous and brilliant Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson) and voodoo priest Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield) Dr. Alan attempts to find out if this powder does exist and if zombies are actually real. His quest brings him into conflict with Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae) the head of the feared Tonton Macoute who is also a voodoo practitioner of frightening power. As Dr. Allan goes deeper and deeper into the truth behind the zombie legend he has to navigate between the political unrest and civil turmoil of a Haiti ruled by ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier and the horrendous hallucinations tearing his mind apart placed there by the power of Peytraud. Hallucinations so overwhelming that he can no longer distinguish what is real and what isn’t.

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There are a whole lot of reason why I love THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW and why I always recommend it.  Along with “The People Under The Stairs” it’s one of the few horror movies with a predominantly African-American cast that is believable and treats the characters as human beings and not plot devices to be killed off to make the Caucasian heroes look good. Cathy Tyson is a wonderfully beautiful actress who isn’t in the movie just to fall in love with the hero. She has an interesting backstory of her own as well. There’s a really nice scene where Mareille talks about how she does not divide her faith and her science but makes them work together.

I also like the political subtext in the movie. Set during the reign of ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier there’s always the threat of the secret police in the background, always reminding us that not all of Dr. Alan’s enemies are supernatural. Ah, but are they? I think it’s masterful how Wes Craven plays not only with Dr. Alan’s head but ours as well, challenging us to figure out what is real and what isn’t. Is Dr. Alan hallucinating or is what is happening to him actually happening? Is Peytroud a black magician or just really good at messing with Dr. Alan’s head?

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THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is also excellent at showing voodoo as a legitimate religion and way of life for the people of Haiti. There are a lot of scenes that are almost documentary in nature, such as the wonderful scene of a pilgrimage where a huge image of The Virgin Mary is taken to a holy grotto. Now, don’t get me wrong…I’m no expert of voodoo but I can’t think of another horror movie where voodoo is treated with the respect of it being a religion/way of life as it is here.

And the hallucination/dream images in THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW are just as good as anything Wes Craven did in his “Nightmare On Elm Street” movies. And the scene where’s he’s buried alive is without a doubt one of the most frightening in horror movie history.

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The acting is top notch. Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson and Paul Winfield are all nothing less than believable. Zakes Mokae is an appropriately formidable bad guy while Theresa Merritt as a voodoo priestess and Brent Jennings as a con man who may or may not know how to make the zombie powder do solid work as supporting characters.

So should you see THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW? Absolutely. It’s that rarest of creatures I always look for and treasure so much when I find it: a believable horror movie. The motivations of the characters make sense and they don’t act like idiots who are plainly being manipulated by a brain dead scriptwriter more concerned with his plots twists than telling a story. THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW makes a great double feature with “Angel Heart” in that for me, they are both horror movies in which the main character seeks the solution to a mystery that ultimately turns out to be more horrifying than the mystery itself.

98 minutes

Rated R

Zero Effect

1998

Columbia Pictures

Directed and Written by Jake Kasdan

Produced by Lisa Henson

“TV pilot on steroids” is a phrase you’ve probably heard me throw around either here at The Ferguson Theater or on an episode of Better In The Dark. But just in case you haven’t, here’s what I mean by that. Sometimes I watch a theatrical movie and the way the situation and characters are presented and constructed feels like the filmmakers are  setting up a television series. You know what I mean. How many times have you seen a movie in a theater and thought “That would be a great TV series!” Too many times to count, I bet.

That’s the way I felt after having watched ZERO EFFECT recently. I remember watching this on VHS years ago and appreciating it as being a really ingenious and unique variation on the concept of a modern day Sherlock Holmes. The mysterious and brilliant Daryl Zero is a character that would be right at home on the USA network along with the other offbeat characters headlining their popular shows.  I discussed this movie briefly on the BiTD Facebook page and was made aware that there actually was an attempt to turn ZERO EFFECT into an NBC TV series starring Alan Cummings as Zero but it didn’t catch on. And that’s really a shame as ZERO EFFECT has tremendous potential as a series. I’d certainly watch it every week.

Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is the world’s most private private detective. He never meets with his clients, preferring to deal with them through his legman/assistant Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller.) And that’s a good thing because Daryl Zero is…well, nuts. He’s horribly inept in social situations, downright rude and mean, lives on a diet of canned tuna fish, methamphetamines and Tab while writing truly terrible folk songs (although truth to tell, I actually kinda like “Let’s Run Off And Get Married.”) But give him a case to work on and he suddenly transforms into a coolly confident, smooth, totally fearless professional investigator whose courage and near superhuman gift of observation while maintaining a emotionless objectivity toward his client and other people involved guarantees that he will solve the case.

His latest one seems very simple and Steve Arlo doesn’t even think it’s worth their time. Millionaire Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal) has lost the key to a safety deposit box and it’s vitally important that he find it as it’s linked to a complicated and elaborate blackmail scheme. And indeed, Daryl Zero figures out that the blackmailer is Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens) an EMT who works out at the same gym as Stark with ridiculous ease.

Arlo figures that wraps everything up but not so. Zero is intrigued as to why Gloria is blackmailing Stark and continues his investigation. This forces him to interact with Gloria and threatens to compromise his cherished objectivity as he finds himself strongly attracted to Gloria.  In the meantime, Arlo is resisting Stark’s repeated attempts to pressure or bribe Arlo into betraying Zero and giving Stark the name of the blackmailer so that Stark can have that person killed. He also is getting pressure from his girlfriend Jess (Angela Featherstone) who wants him to quit working for Zero and start working on them getting married.

Now before The Spoiler Police starts in on me because I revealed the identity of the blackmailer, let me explain that who is doing the blackmailing is nowhere near as important as why Stark is being blackmailed and that turns out be the real mystery that has to be solved. That and the mystery of his own emotions as Zero finds himself doing some very unexpected things contrary to his nature as he gets closer and closer to Gloria, irresistibly drawn to her as she’s the only person he’s ever met that can get into his head.

Bill Pullman is really amazing as Daryl Zero. Pullman is an actor who for years has danced on the edge of being a major star but never could seem to find that one role to put him over the top. When we first meet Daryl Zero he seems like such a weirdo it’s impossible to imagine he could be the kind of detective Steve Arlo describes to Stark as being so brilliant that in one hour and without ever leaving his home he locates a missing man the FBI hadn’t been able to locate for eight months. But once he’s on the case he turns into a totally different man and Pullman sells the transformation.

Ben Stiller is one of the most frustrating actors I’ve ever seen on screen. When he’s cooking on all burners he can be excellent. But when he’s bad he stinks like a houseguest who doesn’t know when it’s time to go home. Fortunantly we get the former Ben Stiller here. Steve Arlo is continually frustrated by Zero’s bizarre, manic mood swings and method of operation but he also cares for him and is fascinated by the man’s personality. Stiller does an excellent job here and I think gives one of his all-time best performances.

Since the plot of this movie is loosely based on “A Scandal in Bohemia” you can kinda guess where the relationship between Gloria and Zero is going to go and you’d be right. Kim Dickens is absolutely charming as Gloria and during the course of the movie I grew more and more to understand why Zero is becoming intrigued with this woman. In recent years I’ve been wondering why Ryan O’Neal is slowly morphing into William Shatner and I believe it may have started here. There are scenes where O’Neal’s mannerisms and way of delivering his lines are uncannily a lot like Shatner’s. He even looks like Shatner at times.

So should you see ZERO EFFECT? If you’ve never seen it and if you’re a fan of characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Adrian Monk, Jacob Hood and Gregory House then you’ll enjoy ZERO EFFECT, trust me. Enjoy.

116 minutes

Rated R

Lost Highway

1997

October Films

Produced by Deepak Nayar, Tom Sternberg and Mary Sweeney

Directed by David Lynch

Written by David Lynch and Barry Gifford

The word genius is thrown around far too often for my taste but in the case of David Lynch I would say it’s used in a legitimate fashion.  If David Lynch had done nothing else except for “Twin Peaks” he’d be a genius in my book.  “Twin Peaks” was a television show so far ahead of its time that it took 20 years for the rest of television programming to catch up to what Lynch was doing.  “Twin Peaks” was a landmark achievement in terms of storytelling, acting and cinematography, as “Twin Peaks” didn’t look like a regular TV show but a weekly feature film.  And it told its story as a season long story arc.  It’s a narrative technique that just about every major hour-long drama on television utilizes now but back in 1990 it was innovative and daring.  It’s a series that is still being debated and argued about today and with good reason: it was just that damn good.

Mr. Lynch’s film career has been just as baffling as his television show.  When he’s good, he’s very good.  Movies such as “The Elephant Man” “Wild At Heart” “Dune” “The Straight Story” and “Blue Velvet” are superior examples of what David Lynch is capable of when he steps on the gas.  And then we have those movies of his that leave you scratching your head and saying; “Okay, so what the hell was that all about?” and that leads us to what is one of the most baffling movies I’ve ever seen: LOST HIGHWAY

Successful jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is awakened one morning by his front door intercom buzzing and answers it.  The message is cryptically horrifying in it’s simplicity: “Dick Laurent is dead.” Fred goes to the window and sees no one.  We’re introduced to his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) and it’s obvious that the Madisons have problems in their marriage that are complicated by Fred’s growing suspicions that his wife may be having an affair with a sleazy underworld type named Andy (Michael Massee).  Even more puzzling are the videotapes being left on their doorstep every morning.  Videotapes of the inside of their house and plainly show that somebody has free access since their mysterious visitor tapes them while they’re sleeping.   Fred and Renee contact the police who don’t seem very interested in the case but who promise to investigate.  The Madisons attend a party at Andy’s house where Fred meets a Mystery Man (Robert Blake).   He’s a bizarre character with a dead white face and jug ears.  Fred and The Mystery Man have a really crazy conversation where The Mystery Man gives Fred his cell phone and tells Fred to dial his own house.  Fred does so and apparently The Mystery Man answers, which is flat out impossible as Fred maintains that a person can’t be in two places at the same time.   Fred and Renee leave the party and go home and the next day Fred finds yet another videotape.  This one shows him in their bedroom sobbing over the dead and dismembered body of Renee.

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Now if LOST HIGHWAY had followed in this vein, we might have really had a truly memorable film.  But wait.  It gets weirder still.  The next time we see Fred he’s on Death Row apparently for the murder of Renee and waiting his turn to Ride The Lightning.  Fred is suffering massively painful headaches, accompanied by seizures and during one of them appears to physically transform him into another man.

In Fred’s place is auto mechanic Peter Drayton (Balthazar Getty) who has no memory of how he got in Fred Madison’s cell.  The police have no choice but to let Peter go since he’s obviously not Fred and Peter resumes his life, living at home with his parents (Gary Busey and Lucy Butler) and working at a garage owned by Arnie (Richard Pryor).  But the police still have a watch on him and they notice that Peter seems to be pretty chummy with a local gangster named Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) but one of the cops points out that his real name is Dick Laurent.  Mr. Eddy has a drop-dead gorgeous blond bombshell of a girlfriend named Alice Wakefield (Patricia Arquette) who immediately is attracted to Peter who returns the attraction many times over in the roadside hotels they meet in for wild and prolonged bouts of hot sex.   The situation becomes more volatile when Mr. Eddy appears to have found out that Peter and Alice are sleeping together and that The Mystery Man knows Mr. Eddy and apparently is helping him.  Alice tells Peter that they have to get away and they need a lot of money to do so.  She cooks up a plan where she’ll seduce a guy she knows…a guy with a lot of money in his house…a sleazy underworld type named Andy who likes sleeping with other men’s wives…. she’ll keep Andy busy with plenty of horizontal exercise while Peter sneaks into the house and they’ll rob Andy.  But the plan doesn’t go the way Alice says it does and if you thought LOST HIGHWAY was bizarre up to this point then hold onto to the top of your skull because it gets even weirder.  “Is such a thing possible?” I hear you ask.  This is a David Lynch film; dear friends and it can always get weirder in a David Lynch film.

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Whether you want to see LOST HIGHWAY or not depends on how much of a David Lynch fan you are.  LOST HIGHWAY explains nothing and only leaves a maddening trail of clues that will either cause you to lose sleep trying to figure it out, kick in your TV screen in frustration or go watch reruns of“Roseanne” just to give your brain a rest.  The most popular theory I’ve heard is that the entire movie takes place in Fred Madison’s mind and he’s got multiple personalities as he’s trying to escape his guilt over murdering his wife but there’s too much evidence that Fred really does transform into a different man who has a different life.  I dunno.  I’ve seen LOST HIGHWAY three times now and it baffled me just as much the third time as the first.  Maybe the best way to watch the movie is to just sit back and watch the performances.  Balthazar Getty barely registers on the screen but Bill Pullman and Robert Blake are absolutely riveting to watch.  Patricia Arquette plays a role that basically requires her to appear nude most of the time and participate in some fairly graphic sex scenes.  Robert Loggia has the most fun with his role as Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent, especially in a scene where he gives a tailgater a profane and violent lesson in the proper rules and etiquette of the road and if you’ve even been tailgated then you’ll probably cheer like I did.  This movie also has Richard Pryor in his last film role but if you turn your head to pour yourself more soda or beer, you’ll miss him as his part comes and goes just that fast.

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So should you see LOST HIGHWAY?  I’d recommend it to David Lynch fans, sure.  It’s his movie all the way, filled with the symbolism and dream-like imagery that Lynch fans love.  There’s a story in here somewhere and if you’re the type who enjoys debating for hours with your friends about a movie’s hidden meanings then LOST HIGHWAY is your huckleberry.  For those of you who enjoy a more straightforward movie with a plot you don’t have to burn up valuable brain cells trying to figure out what it’s all about, I’d stay away.

Rated R

135 minutes