Heck of break there, folks. I'm three weeks into my Master's degree and teaching English 101 and raising a rambunctious seven-month-old son, so the last few weeks have been crazy. But enough about me; let's talk about 1988.
As far as horror movies go, 1988 was the year for cult movies. In other words, movies with a dedicated fan base and which may have spawned a franchise but ultimately are not appreciate outside of the genre and are often pointed to as examples of why horror movies are bad for you.
Look, I love Killer Klowns from Outer Space; Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Friday the 13th Part VII; Halloween 4; A Nightmare on Elm Street 4; Pumpkinhead; Child's Play; and Waxwork just as much as you do. I might actually like Waxwork even more than you, but none of those can really be called the best horror movie of 1988. For that honor, we have to go to a movie based on an academic work, one based on a true story...
In 1985, enthobotanist Wade Davis published The Serpent and the Rainbow, a book about his investigation into the botanical (that's plants, son) causes of Haitian zombies. During his time there (and after) Davis pissed a few people off.
We here at Warning Signs love Craven's early work and it would be easy to say that The Serpent and the Rainbow is probably his best movie. Pullman plays his role (now named Dennis Alan) well: he looks and acts like an academic when that persona is required and he looks and acts like a man scared shitless when the time comes for that.
As Alan, Pullman gets closer to the world of zombies that he was investigating than he would have liked. Without spoiling too much (you can guess where this is going) Alan learns the hard way not to fuck with Haitian voodoo or the Tonton Macoutes who ran Haiti in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Pullman really stretches himself in the role and shows he's been a decent actor for quite some time.
And Craven showcases his chops, too, setting up the nightmare-like feel of the events early when Alan encounters a jaguar spirit in the Amazon. Craven truly is the director here, manipulating the surroundings and the cast for the best effect. It's a shame that some of Craven's bombs (and all the crap that Dimension Films put his name on as executive producer--except Dracula 2000, that movie is awesome) have overshadowed his best but lesser known works. If someone asks you for a scary movie that they haven't seen, The Serpent and the Rainbow should be one of your first suggestions.
On a side note, Beetlejuice came out in 1988, too, but I think I've given enough space to horror-comedies in this series. Plus, Beetlejuice isn't scary and that's a requirement.