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DUST DEVIL

Richard Stanley more than made good on the promise of HARDWARE with DUST DEVIL, a veritable epic of gore and magic set in the deserts of Namibia, Africa.  It has its flaws (unavoidable considering the extremely troubled production history), but it’s a stunning film nonetheless, a work of unique integrity and audacity. 

The Package 
     Richard Stanley’s premiere feature, the horror/sci fi low budgeter HARDWARE (1991), was a big moneymaker for England’s Palace Productions, and on the basis of its success they agreed to finance DUST DEVIL, Stanley’s far more ambitious follow-up.  The calamitous shoot (as recoded in Stanley’s published diaries, which can be found in the British anthology PROJECTIONS 3) was a nightmare, but postproduction was an even bigger ordeal.  Apparently Palace Productions went bankrupt during the process, leaving the film unfinished.  The co-financier Miramax created its own 87-minute cut, which was released on video in the US in 1993.  Thankfully Stanley, using his own money, managed to buy back the negative and create a 103-minute director’s cut in 1994 that remains the definitive version of DUST DEVIL--and yes, I have viewed both versions and so can say that with certainty!
     In the years since, alas, Stanley has been curiously silent.  His struggles in bringing a new ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU to the screen have been well documented (he was fired a few days into the production and John Frankenheimer brought in to complete the film, which was a disaster in every respect), but other than that the man has yet to make another feature.  Correction: apparently a new Richard Stanley directed horror movie, entitled VACATION, is at last on the horizon.  I for one will be watching out for it. 

The Story 
     In a vast desert somewhere in South Africa, a mysterious hitchhiker, known only as “Dust Devil”, appears at the side of a road.  He’s picked up by a young woman who takes him back to her home.  He has sex with her then snaps her neck, mutilates her body and burns down her house, after which the Dust Devil again hits the road.  His next stop is the depressed town of Bethany, where, it turns out, a headstrong white woman named Wendy is also headed.  She’s just walked out on her geeky husband Mark, and through the window of a rundown bar spots the Dust Devil conversing with his next victim, the comely driver of an RV.
     Ben is a black police inspector assigned to investigate the Dust Devil’s first victim.  He also happens upon the mutilated corpse of the abovementioned RV driver and notes a connection between the two killings.  He visits an old friend conversant in the ways of magic, who fills Ben in on the true nature of the Dust Devil: it seems the DD is a shape-shifter trapped on the material plane, and the only way he can return to the spirit world is by killing faithless people and devouring their souls.  Shortly after this Ben’s superiors abruptly take him off the case, but he continues to pursue the elusive Dust Devil.
     Wendy, meanwhile, picks up the hitchhiking Dust Devil and strikes up a relationship.  In a hotel room, however, she discovers his mementos, which include the severed fingers of one of his victims, and flees into the desert.  Ben, it seems, is hot on her trail, having been alerted by her desperate husband Mark, who’s determined to “take her home.”  All end up in an eerie ghost town half buried in sand, where a final confrontation with the Dust Devil awaits. 

The Direction 
     Richard Stanley’s HARDWARE was a fairly impressive piece of work, but DUST DEVIL (in its director’s cut, at least) surpasses it in every respect, being an artful and compelling film with a style and ambiance unlike those of any other.  It’s impressively rendered in bold, Sergio Leone-inspired compositions and has excellent music by Simon Boswell that incorporates animal sounds and African chants (if it ultimately sounds a bit like the score for Jodorowski’s SANTA SANGRE, that shouldn’t surprise, as Boswell composed that film too).
     The film’s windswept, sun baked African locations make for a haunting setting redolent of myth and prophecy, serving as, perhaps, the true central character.  Stanley grew up in South Africa and shows a real feel for its deserts and waste lands. 
     But Stanley’s grand ambitions don’t always serve him well.  The special effects are strictly of the B-movie variety, and fail to gel with the whole of the film, which despite its modest budget is A-list material all the way.  The lead actress Chelsea Field is competent, but not up to the demands of her complex role (she was forced on Stanley by the production company, having just appeared in THE LAST BOYSCOUT).  Thus DUST DEVIL isn’t quite the masterpiece it aspires to, but is still a film that demands to be seen, and more than once. 


Vital Statistics

DUST DEVIL
Palace Pictures/Miramax Films 

Director: Richard Stanley
Producer: JoAnne Sellar
Screenplay: Richard Stanley
Cinematography: Steven Chivers
Editing: Jamie MacDermott, Derek Trigg, Paul Carlin (director’s cut)
Cast: Chelsea Field, Robert Burke, Zakes Mokae, Rufus Swart, William Hootkins, Marianne Sagebrecht, Terri Norton, Russell Copley, Andre Odendaal, Luke Cornell, Philip Henn, Robert Stevenson, Peter Hallr, Stephen Earnhart
 


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