South Africa / UK, 1992
Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 16 October 2005
Features: 31 Days of Horror
Reviews: Dust Devil (by Rumsey)
In the mid 1990’s, my cousin was hitch-hiking around central Africa when he fell in with a mysterious stranger, wandering from town to town, country to country, with no particular agenda. They got to talking, and it turned out the traveller was South African-born but based in England; a filmmaker by trade. He was taking some time out of his career after a few disappointing setbacks, exploring the outer reaches of what had once been known as the Dark Continent. He had a fascination with the supernatural, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema. His name was Richard Stanley, and that career has been on hold ever since.
Richard Stanley stands as one of the most bizarre and unfortunate cautionary tales in modern filmmaking. After displaying tremendous early promise with the low budget exploitation sci-fi shocker Hardware, Stanley managed to secure funding for his second feature, Dust Devil—another foray into horror, this time inspired by the folk tales of his African childhood. The finished film was misunderstood, mistreated, devastatingly recut and finally dumped onto a totally disinterested public. But Stanley still somehow managed to find the money to finance his dream project, a remake of H.G. Wells’ The Island Of Doctor Moreau, starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. The rest is history. Kilmer schemed to have Stanley replaced by veteran John Frankenheimer, who produced what is universally regarded as one of the worst movies of all time. Stanley’s career imploded—there were (unsubstantiated) rumours that he was disguising himself as an extra and sneaking on to the set in order to disrupt proceedings. He was dismissed as unprofessional and even slightly insane, and the career of one of the world’s most promising young directors was cut short before it had really started.
So what remains of Stanley’s existing directorial work? Hardware stands up as a brutally effective slice of 90’s techno- splatter, humorous and horrific in equal measure. But what of the more ambitious Dust Devil? The film is unique in that it is a Western- financed horror movie set in poverty stricken Namibia, exploring uniquely African themes, albeit filtered through a self consciously American/European-inspired filmmaking aesthetic. The film is cheap but looks extraordinary: you clearly get a lot of budgetary bang for your buck shooting on location in southern Africa. What emerges (at least in the 103 minute restored version which Stanley financed himself) is flawed — perhaps fatally so — but fascinating, an experience like no other in modern cinema.
Visually, the film is close to flawless. The westerns of Sergio Leone were clearly close to Stanley’s heart when making Dust Devil, and consequently it has the look and feel of a Spaghetti epic, most obviously Once Upon A Time In The West, referencing both the opening railroad station sequence and Bronson’s ‘Man with a harmonica’ character. But this isn’t just lazy homage; Stanley’s Namibia is as wild and unpredictable as Leone’s west, a frontier landscape between civilisation and wilderness. The difference is that this time the wilderness is winning, and ‘civilised’ man has been forced into a humiliating retreat. South African forces are in the process of abandoning Namibia to a long awaited but fatal independence, having stripped the country dry of all they can take. Drought has rendered much of the land unliveable, and industrial closures have seen to the rest. And now a monster stalks the wasteland, ‘a leech, feeding on the world’s pain’, a ‘tourist’ dining on tormented souls. Robert Burke’s Dust Devil is Clint Eastwood possessed by Satan, an homage reinforced when Simon Boswell’s Morricone- inspired score swells dramatically as he marches into the setting sun.
The real joy of Dust Devil is the photography. Cinematographer Steven Chivers (a pop-promo veteran) learns the lessons of Sergio Leone and MTV equally, knowing when to drench the frame in saturated colour, when to hide the action in shadows, when to return to semi- documentary style normality. There are a number of shots in Dust Devil which are simply breathtaking—a grandiose helicopter shot over a burning house in the desert, a battered Volkswagen turning loops in the dusty yard; a similar track out over the Fish River canyon; the repeated appearance of figures or vehicles through rippling heat haze, shimmering into view like Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia, an image ideally suited to the uncertain, morally adrift world which Stanley creates. But it’s not all showy visual flair—the dying desert town of Bethany is recreated in plain, unenhanced tones; such a tragedy clearly requires no visual reinforcement. There are moments of eerie, sudden beauty in the film which take the viewer by surprise- a bottle left on a table moves by itself, as an unexplained explosion lights the horizon. Burke’s monster stares into a bathroom mirror, and is suddenly cut adrift in endless, infinite blackness. The projector in an abandoned ghost town cinema springs to life, signalling the imminent death of one of the protagonists. It’s these moments that make the film special, that give it a unique edge.
Unfortunately, there much else here that fails. Stanley may have been a promising director, but on this evidence he was no screenwriter. The characters are uniformly drab and uninteresting—there’s nothing to rival bit-part maestro William Hootkins’ extreme, grotesque turn in Hardware. Hootkins shows up again here, and his grizzled South African police chief Beyman is the only one of the central characters who shows any life. The potentially interesting figure of Ben Mukurob, a conflicted, guilt-ridden cop who sleeps with newspaper reports of murders pasted to the wall above his bed, should have been the heart and soul of the film. But the character is completely undermined by Zakes Mokae’s awkward, shambling performance; he reminds one of a nervous African Columbo—it feels as though the actor is as much out of his depth as the character he’s playing. The other characters are all white, and all bland: Burke’s terse, taciturn villain, who should be threatening but just seems empty; Chelsea Field as Wendy, a suicidal, self involved housewife who never elicits the faintest spark of sympathy; and her abusive, boorish Boer husband Mark, who begins the film as a pathetic loser, and ends much the same. It doesn’t help that there’s some nailbitingly awful dialogue (Wendy is described as ‘like a horse staring into the barrel of the future without blinking’) and some equally half hearted acting. But if its Stanley’s intention to depict Whitey as uniformly weak, evil or self centred, which in a southern African context is a perfectly noble ambition, one has to wonder why he’d centre the film around them.
Politically, the film is evenhanded and intelligent. Stanley knows that his audience isn’t here for a treatise on African politics, so the sociological aspects of the film are very much secondary to the supernatural hijinks. But they are consistent and well thought out- snippets of radio or television broadcasts fill in the unfamiliar history, and the characters of Mukurob and Beyman give the unfolding tragedy a human face. Racial tension is rife, and it is to Stanley’s credit that he never paints his white characters as racially sympathetic—even his nominal heroine Wendy leaves a black labourer standing in the dust after he’s helped her dig out her car. And when Mark receives a savage beating from black workers in a bar, we feel no sympathy—one of them has just been tortured by white cops, and a spot of payback is clearly well deserved. It could also be argued that in the casting of the American Burke in the role of the villain, Stanley is commenting on the Western pillage of African resources. The Dust Devil describes himself as a ‘tourist,’ and the above quote about leeches certainly sums up U.S. policy towards Africa fairly succinctly.
But whatever his political bias, Stanley can’t hide the fact that this is another African story with a primarily white central cast. And his treatment of the folklore from which he derives his central villain feels equally colonial. He steals a demon from the African storytelling tradition, invests him with aspects of serial killer mythology and Terminator-style invincibility, and comes up with a monster no more interesting than a thousand others with whom we’re already familiar: Rutger Hauer’s Hitcher, Lance Henriksen’s Jessie from the superior Near Dark. The marriage of folklore and fairy tales to the horror film has never, to my knowledge, been a successful one ( Leprechaun in the Hood notwithstanding). So it’s a shame that Stanley couldn’t come up with an effective mythos and interesting characters around which to centre his more powerful social concerns.
Dust Devil is not a film for everyone. It’s slow, at times painfully so, and often awkward. The characters are empty and the narrative laughable. But the stunningly photographed landscape lends the film an air of intriguing strangeness, and Stanley’s vibrant, unpredictable directing style ensures a vivid, unique experience.