When Richard Stanley appeared in 1990 with his first film, the cyberpunk splatter flick Hardware, the buzz was hot. While Hardware was surprisingly successful, it wasn't a great film. But it did have a unique style and color that suggested Stanley was only to move onto bigger and better projects. The fall was almost guaranteed.
What happened to Stanley's career (and in particular the sorry fate of his existential sophomore effort, Dust Devil) is a story of almost diabolical circumstance and cold corporate brutality. For a filmmaker like Stanley, starting his career with a genre picture was a fatal misstep but one that couldn't be avoided. Hardware set him up. When U.S. distributors Miramax saw that Stanley had delivered a follow up that was an art film more akin to the work of Alain Resnais than Tobe Hooper, they flipped. Cut from 120 minutes to a trifling 86 minutes, Dust Devil was butchered into incoherence. The British company funding the film went bust and everything went to hell. The cut version (or versions) of Dust Devil were dumped unceremoniously onto a paltry number of screens and quickly relegated to the video graveyard. Richard Stanley limped on, buoyed by a cult fan base, only to see his dream project descend into the creative nightmare that was 1996's The Island of Doctor Moreau.
After 14 years in limbo, Dust Devil makes a dramatic stateside appearance in this five(!) disc collector's edition from Subversive Cinema. Filmed in the primordial deserts of Namibia, Dust Devil is an oblique tale of South African myth and modern murder. It's a film that relies almost solely on visual and editing artistry. The actors, the dialogue, the plot -- all are in a sense secondary to the haunting images of the desert. Where Dust Devil succeeds brilliantly is in its least commercial aspects -- its audacious style and apocalyptic worldview.
The film follows the bloody trail of a stranger, Hitch (the underrated Robert John Burke), as he wanders the barren African desert and kills lost souls. Police investigator Ben Mukurob (Zakes Mokae), a beaten man haunted by the death of his son, comes to the conclusion that Hitch is not only a merciless serial killer but he's also a shape-shifting demon drawn to torment. Racing against time and the supernatural, Ben hopes to stop the dust devil from killing his latest "pickup," weary Wendy (Chelsea Field), who has left her husband and is headed across the desert for the sea and a new life.
Despite the salacious serial killer thread, Dust Devil is not your traditional thriller. It's a slow moving, almost hypnotic, film that relies much more on sensation that it does on shock. There is a hallucinatory quality to the picture (manifest most profoundly in several outstanding sequences that break the fourth wall -- the image rips itself free of the film's continuity, a mirror retreats into a void and the dust devil grasps and rips air) and the measured pace will either put you to sleep or lull you into a beautiful sort of trance.
Many viewers will not like Dust Devil. The plot is weak. Much of the serial killer angle is played in low taste. And many sequences drag on. And yet there's something just so damn intriguing about this mélange of Spaghetti western iconography and African spiritualism. It's a challenging picture to watch. You actually have to wrestle with it, struggle with it, to fully enjoy it. Dust Devil is a film that you need to return to frequently or watch in small bouts to fully appreciate. Stanley -- an intelligent and interesting character in his own right -- peppers the film with anthropological minutia, Dust Devil is as much a movie as it is a dissertation on magic and myth. It's what you'd expect if you asked National Geographic to film the latest entry in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series -- a horrifying visual tone poem.
Subversive Cinema's Collectors Edition has not only the "final cut" (director approved) version of the film but it's also got an extended work print, a soundtrack CD (Simon Boswell's ethereal score) and DVDs of Richard Stanley's three documentary films made both prior to Dust Devil and after. Voice of the Moon, chronicling Stanley's journeys across remote Afghan wilderness and The White Darkness, about voodoo, are the better films. The longer documentary, The Secret Glory, weaves an intriguing web but is hampered by poor editing and a bombastic and entirely inappropriate score.