It is interesting to think what could have been of this movie. What we get is almost worthless but with enough to actually imagine it in better hands.
The original story, reportedly based on facts, about a white man’s encounter with a strange, exotic culture and how small and ill-prepared he discovers himself to be in the density of that jungle calls for a mystical gaze, an earnest way of accepting worlds beyond. The author of that story wanted Peter Weir for the project, for good reason. Instead he got Wes Craven, who probably qualified based on the nightmares he concocted for the Elms Street movie but who is completely out of his depth here.
The result is an overkill of garish voodoo ceremony and hysteric hallucinations inside coffins. Craven piles so much frenzy upon it that whatever serious intentions existed behind the material are completely lost in it.
There’s a political commentary with some bite to it; about the chief of secret police who is also a voodoo priest, making sure that people remain prisoners of their bodies inside their own minds, frightened, subservient drones. Like the military regime he serves.
The rest? The rest is impossible to take serious. The finale is particularly stupid, with people flying out of walls and a fistfight.
The situation has promise. A way of shutting people off inside their own minds, removing them from reality so that they see without seeing. Which may be conditioned superstition or more, about communion with something beyond. And about the American disbeliever eventually succumbing to this. Interesting things to play around with.
Peter Weir could have made something great with this, the movie seems tailored to his world. Perhaps he did already with The Last Wave, about white man’s encounter with a mystical Aboriginal culture which, shuttering his safe notions about reality, brings him to the yawning brink of apocalypse.
I love Weir but he has his limitations. Sometimes his visions of that otherness are too tawdry, or wistfully naive. Noble savages and magical gnomes abound. The other filmmaker I would love to see make this movie is Werner Herzog with his Wagnerian romance about tragic monomaniacs battling vast, inscrutable natures. A brief glimpse of the cosmic as a revelation of individual madness and folly.
Skip this and go straight for The Year of Living Dangerously or Cobra Verde, where the encounters with the other reveal things. Or if you’re specifically interested in the voodoo zombie, go further back for I Walked with a Zombie.