Previews, Recuts and the Art of Darkness

It happened after the third disastrous sneak preview of "The Serpent and the Rainbow."

Exec producer Rob Cohen, producer David Ladd and director Wes Craven sat around, trying to drown their sorrows in bourbon. Then they took to talking over their pic's problems--and listing suggestions for changes on a napkin.

One month and $500,000 worth of alterations later, they were at preview screening No. 4. And. . . .

"We made it," Cohen told us. "You could feel it from the first frame, as if it was a plane taking off. The audience was with us. And they liked what they saw.

"It goes to show, you should never give up on a movie."

The $10.5-million picture ($10 million in its pre-sneak days), opening Feb. 5 in more than 1,000 theaters, is based on the real-life horrors uncovered by anthropologist Wade Davis, who discovered a nightmarish situation in Haiti involving voodoo and zombies. Filmed there before the current political mayhem, it revolves around the country's bloody dictatorships (based on the real life Duvalier father-son regimes)--and their use of voodoo to intimidate the populace. Tactics included the administration of powerful, ancient poisons that left victims zombie-like.

But back to the film's revamping. . . .

With the blessing (and money) of Universal, Cohen, Ladd and Craven added narration to better define the central character, played by Bill Pullman (the Han Solo-ish rogue of "Spaceballs"). They tossed out one music score and added one by "The Terminator's" Brad Fiedel. Stars Pullman, Cathy Tyson ("Mona Lisa") and Zakes Mokae ("Cry Freedom") redubbed their parts, while Paul Winfield's work as a voodoo priest remained the same. They also did a "massive recut" and changed the ending.

"Our original ending was inconclusive," said Cohen. "After everything Bill Pullman goes through, after the way he's punished and punished, audiences didn't want to leave feeling down."

At the last sneak--held earlier this month at the Universal City Cinemas--the film got an 83% positive score from a research-recruited audience, up from an initial 52%.

Now comes the marketing challenge for a picture that Cohen calls "a film about horrors that are real. You could call it a magical mystery tour behind the heart of darkness."

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