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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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