Cast: Robert Burke, Chelsea Field, Zakes Mokae
Extras: Commentary Tracks, "Work Print," Interviews, Documentaries, Still Galleries, and Much More!
South African director Richard Stanley has had quite the peculiar career. Having directed only two feature films since 1990, he has managed to stir up a strong cult following among horror aficionados. His "Hardware" (1990) was a modest hit but drew unfavorable comparisons to other sci-fi thrillers that sufficiently dropped it off the mainstream radar. His 1992 follow-up, "Dust Devil," was pretty much doomed from the beginning. With a small budget and a cast of actors who did not fully understand his point of view, Stanley embarked on a difficult venture to complete the film. When Miramax heads Bob and Harvey Weinstein saw the finished product, they immediately called for changes, fearing it would not appeal to mainstream audiences. A crudely truncated 87-minute version was ultimately released to dismal box office and Stanley's chagrin. After fourteen years, Stanley's "Final Cut" of this lost work is allowed to see the light of day thanks to Subversive Cinema.
Near the barren landscape of the Namib desert, Wendy Robinson (Chelsea Field) leaves her husband and sets off for an unknown fate. Along her way, she picks up a brooding hitchhiker (Robert Burke) who seems just as aimless as she is. What she does not realize is that he is in fact a shape-shifting, otherworldly being who preys on and kills hopeless humans in an attempt to achieve spiritual transcendence. On the trail of his string of gruesome murders is Officer Ben Mukurob (Zakes Mokae), a black man who through his relationship with a shaman learns the nature of the supernatural force he is following.
Complicating matters further is the fact that the hitchhiker, who is trapped in human form and burdened with human emotions, begins to develop a strong emotional connection with Wendy. He is a difficult character to assess. He is not truly a villain because he only kills those who are about to kill themselves, in essence granting them the freedom from their troubles that they desire. If the person begins to regain his or her will to live, as Wendy periodically does, he backs away. The irony is that he delivers to others what he cannot achieve for himself—spiritual transcendence. He is much like a vampire, a being who can only come into one's life if he is invited in and laments his own inability to move forward to another realm of being.
Drawing inspiration from such eclectic sources as Andrei Tarkovsky, Dario Argento, and Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, Stanley infuses his film with a slow, dreamlike essence that puts it on another level apart from mainstream horror films. It almost doesn't seem to be a horror film at all, focusing more on the characters and their states of spirituality than on blood and gore, though the film does have its share. It is indeed a gorgeous film to look at. Every shot is meticulously composed and lit in such an evocative manner that it seems to elevate the often confusing material to a much greater cinematic intensity. Simon Boswell's haunting score is reminiscent of Ennio Morriconne's best work, beautifully accentuating the artful imagery.
What is so frustrating about "Dust Devil" is that Stanley cannot seem to settle on one path to follow. At first the film appears to be a meditation on spirituality and the significance of it in our lives. Then it shifts to a social commentary on the state of racial attitudes in South Africa, which were extremely tumultuous at the time the movie was made, personified in the film by the ongoing tension between Mokae's black police officer and Wendy's white husband (Rufus Swart). At the same time, there are the standard horror film conventions, with the title character appearing and disappearing in various nightmarish manifestations. On top of all of this there is apparently a budding romance between Wendy and the hitchhiker. The film is just so cluttered with so many ideas that few of them are sufficiently developed and none of them are ever resolved. Granted, I don't think Stanley had any intention of drawing any definite conclusions, but by the end of the film the viewer is left feeling overwhelmed and deeply dissatisfied.
Another major problem is the overly artistic approach that Stanley takes to the material. Although it is mesmerizing to look at, the sumptuous photography and deliberate pacing do more to bog down the story than effectively tell it. Even at a reasonable running time (the "Final Cut" runs 108 minutes), the movie feels like it lasts much longer, and that is not a good thing. The film is almost obsessively beautiful. It's a bad case of too much for its own good.
The cast probably suffers the most for all of Stanley's pretension. Robert Burke tries his best to make the Dust Devil a well-rounded, believable character, but he has little to go on in defining him. Zakes Mokae is excellent as Mukurob, perhaps the only character who comes across with a relatively comprehensible backstory. Poor Chelsea Field bears the brunt of the burden on her shoulders. An American actress with no prior experience in the deserts of South Africa, she pretty much found herself in the middle of a land that she was not familiar with among people she could not relate to and had to affect a South African accent for her role, one that Stanley admits she was not his first choice for. I must say that she does a commendable job under the circumstances, but a feeling of neglect also comes through in her performance that I don't think she was intentionally projecting.
In spite of the movie's failure to fully captivate, Subversive Cinema has given it a DVD release that is almost too good for it. In one of the most thorough, above-and-beyond releases I have seen in some time, they have created a 5-disc limited collector's edition that features two different cuts of the film, a trio of documentaries directed by Richard Stanley, and over five hours of commentary from Stanley himself in the form of audio commentary tracks and on-camera interviews. I don't think I am stretching when I say that this may be the best DVD for an almost completely obscure movie this year.
The film is presented in a 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that looks nothing short of amazing. Clean and crisp with no visible dirt or artifacts, the bold picture can be beheld in all its glorious splendor. Deep, solid blacks offset the range of warm colors that appear throughout, especially in the desert scenes. Orange skies, yellow sand, and brown canyons pop off the screen with rich texture. Some good, filmic grain brings out the intentionally rustic appearance. From the darkest night scenes to the brightly lit, monochromatic finale, the visuals are brilliantly rendered in Subversive's transfer.
Audio comes by way of Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 English tracks. Both succeed very well. The music score reigns supreme here, gushing over the arresting visuals with good clarity. Dialogue is a bit on the soft side, but sound effects and ambience are distributed well around the front and back channels for superb surround experience. I detected no distortion or background hiss. Now if only Subversive would start including subtitle options, this would be absolutely perfect. The South African accents are sometimes difficult to understand (at least to my Texas ear), and English subtitles would have been very helpful.
The first bonus feature on this disc is an audio commentary track with Stanley and Subversive Cinema's Norman Hill. The commentary is structured as an interview, with Hill asking questions through the course of the feature. Stanley is certainly at no loss for words and explains a good deal about his inspiration, the actual production, his disillusionment over the compromises he was forced to make with Miramax, and even his background in African spiritualism. This last aspect is in fact the most fascinating part of it and prepares us for what is to come in this set.
Next is an on-camera interview with Stanley and composer Simon Boswell. Stanley again provides a wealth of information, some of which was covered in the commentary. Boswell only appears briefly toward the end. In all, this segment lasts 35 minutes.
Following this are 18 minutes of "home movies" filmed during the production of the film.
The next two features actually concern a 16 millimeter version of "Dust Devil" that Stanley filmed as a student in the early 1980s. We first see a series of scrapbook photos taken during production. The second feature is a trailer made up of the only surviving footage left from it (a former girlfriend apparently sold the film and Stanley's other belongings after some sort of bizarre misunderstanding).
Wrapping up Disc 1 is a gallery of stills from the final film, cast and crew bios, and trailers for other Subversive releases.
Disc 2 presents the "work print" version of the film. At 115 minutes, this includes extra footage that did not make it into the final cut. Most of the footage was only available in VHS format and is noticeably subpar, sometimes even with no sound. Stanley provides a brief video introduction to the film. In all honesty, the added footage does not have a major impact on the film as a whole. It is easy to see why most of it was not used. If you must see it, the chapter selections begin right where a new piece of extra footage is added, so you can simply skip to each new segment.
A feature-length documentary is showcased on Disc 3. "The Secret Glory" (2001) is a 97-minute feature that Stanley originally made for British TV, investigating the life of Otto Rahn, a man whose quest to find the Holy Grail led him to be ranked as an SS officer during the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. The subject matter is genuinely fascinating, but as in "Dust Devil," Stanley piles on much more than he knows what to do with. Between the overpowering music and cryptic visuals, the underlying story becomes lost on the viewer. It all adds up to one confusing experience that leaves the viewer wondering not only what happened but what the point was.
Once again, Stanley and Hill team up for an interview/commentary track that proves to be far more educational than the documentary itself. Stanley also appears in a 27-minute interview segment. The same Stanley bio from Disc 1 is repeated, and there are some more Subversive trailers.
Disc 4 gives two more of Stanley's documentaries, albeit thankfully shorter ones. "Voice of the Moon" (1990) is a 32-minute exploration of survival during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. This film looks more like a video montage, with little narration or structure. In the commentary, Stanley explains that this was initially only meant for the Afghanis to see. The second documentary is the most comprehensible of the three, "The White Darkness" (2002), offering a look inside an African Voodoo ceremony. Both films are accompanied by commentary tracks with Stanley and Hill as well as separate on-camera interviews with Stanley. Crew bios and trailers finish the disc off.
The fifth disc in this set is the soundtrack to "Dust Devil," featuring Simon Boswell's excellent score.
Lastly, three inserts provide the icing on the cake. A "Dust Devil" production diary, a collection of essays and comments on the documentaries, and a "Dust Devil" comic book adaptation are a fitting cap on this unbelievable release.
"Dust Devil" is quite simply a fascinating failure of a movie. It fails not for any lack of ideas, but because of intellectual overload. Richard Stanley is a man of immense talent and extraordinary dedication to his subjects. His tragic flaw is that he seems incapable of editing his ideas and finding one cohesive path to follow. Whether directing a fictional narrative or a documentary, he knows how to grab the viewer's attention and create a visually spectacular work. There is just nothing for the viewer to really grasp onto. I have a feeling that, with proper restraint, Stanley is capable of directing a true cinematic masterpiece. Subversive Cinema's comprehensive DVD set is verifiable proof of his abilities…and his weaknesses. For horror fans, this release is a crown jewel. Although the film on its own has many problems, this set is a highly desirable tribute to a mystifying, brilliant man who could one day create greatness.