It's Hammer time!
At least that's what Scott Bunt, the writer and director of Sea of Dust would have you believe. He has crafted a film that is a throwback to the Hammer horror films of the 1960s. His loving attention to detail shows through in the set design and heightened visual approach to the material. While the film is kooky and ambitious, it ultimately suffers from tonal inconsistencies that prevent it from being a solid piece of entertainment.
The film opens in a bygone era where the stuff of legends has become frighteningly real. We see a woman, in period garb, running for her life only to meet a messy end with brain-splattering finality. Unfortunately her death is part of an epidemic as people in the region have been keeling over left and right. Some even enter a fugue state only to later emerge as very different people. The entity responsible for all of this is Prester John.
Prester John was a mythical Christian king who was believed to have ruled over a kingdom in the East. His legend served the purpose of demonstrating the Church's far-reaching influence to its Western followers. His elusive existence prompted explorers to seek him out and crusaders to fight on his behalf. Sea of Dust employs the legend of Prester John and makes a man out of the myth. It suggests that Prester (Tom Savini) has become flesh and blood through the sheer force of his will. Now he just needs to find a General to lead his Army of Christ in crusades against the non-believers.
This is where Stefan (Troy Holland) enters the picture. A physician in training, he has been sent by his mentor Professor Sorell (Bill Timoney) to aid the local medicine man, Dr. Maitland (Edward X. Young) with the previously mentioned epidemic. He soon finds that Prester is exerting control over him from another plane that exists across the titular sea of dust. When he finally receives an offer from Prester to lead his army of believers, Stefan has to choose between a path of bloodshed and his wavering morality.
From this point on, the proceedings become exceptionally strange. In fact, I'm not sure there is any way for me to describe them without seeming a little bonkers myself. I could tell you that there is a Harpy in Prester's employ who punishes prisoners by peeing on them. Perhaps you'd want to hear about the way Stefan fists a woman so he can use her birth canal as a portal to Prester's world (you read it right the first time). You're probably thinking a bit of context would help make sense of these occurrences but that's where the problem lies. These events and other assorted oddities pop up without explanation. It's a disconcerting feeling that makes you question whether you put PCP instead of sugar in your coffee...again.
While Bunt is successful in ramping up the shock value of the film, his ambition gets in the way of giving Sea of Dust a cohesive identity. He throws too much at the screen for all of it to stick. There are bits of slapstick and some well-executed gore effects on display here. There is also pointed religious commentary to be found ("Knowledge is dangerous to religion", "Only way to heaven is through pain"). While these disparate elements could potentially co-exist, here they are present in the wrong proportion and just diminish each other. In addition to this, Prester never comes across as a real threat since he mostly makes speeches while roaming his castle like Count Dracula under house arrest.
Although the film is a bit muddled in execution, it is visually compelling especially considering its tiny budget. While the film isn't wall-to-wall gore, the effects are fun in a schlocky way. Additionally, I am impressed by the attention to period detail. Bunt and his crew have gone to great pains to replicate the ambiance of Hammer films and the results speak for themselves. The cast members seem to be enjoying themselves with Edward Young and Tom Savini having a blast with their roles. Holland is a bit weaker in the lead since he tends to over enunciate while employing a barrage of facial twitches.
Even though the film uses the fascinating legend of Prester John as its starting point, it isn't entirely successful in building on it. Too many tangents end up as dead-ends as layers of strangeness pile up on top of each other. While parts of the film suggest what could have been, the whole never comes together in a satisfying manner.
The movie was presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. While the image was perfectly watchable, it definitely had some issues. I noticed inconsistencies in the color palette along with some grain and shimmer in a few scenes. Additionally, the bright colors in a few scenes tended to smear with the reds being the worst offenders.
The audio was presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix. This was a pretty lively mix. In fact, it may have been a bit too lively. The voices in the center channel seemed to be drowned out by the booming surrounds. It wasn't enough to hurt my viewing experience but it was noticeable. There were no subtitles on this release.
For a low budget horror flick, the release comes packed with quite a slate of extra features. First up, we have a Filmmakers Audio Commentary with director Scott Bunt and producer Pauline Bunt. Scott uses this opportunity to profess his love for Hammer horror as well as Mario Bava. He also discusses the screening process and why the film had to be edited down from a much longer cut. In addition, he explains his intention to make a darkly comical art film which was never meant to be taken seriously. Altogether, I found the commentary track to be a little dry but appreciated some of the nuggets of information that emerged from it.
Numerous Trailers for the film are also supplied. One of them plays up the action and gore in the film while another indicates honors that have been bestowed upon it. Most interesting is a Grindhouse Teaser that shows scenes of the film with an overlay of scratches and dirt for the complete 'Grindhouse' effect. The look of the teaser feels more natural than what the film currently has. A Behind the Scenes piece (14:14) features interviews with members of the cast and crew. We follow along as details of the costume design are discussed while mention of an on-set colorist indicates the lengths to which the production was willing to go in order to achieve that Hammer Technicolor look. This is followed by 3 Deleted Scenes (3:49) featuring an optional commentary track by Scott and Pauline Bunt. The scenes didn't really add anything to the film so it's probably best that they were left on the cutting room floor. A Slideshow of images from the filming process is also supplied.
While it's always nice to see a filmmaker shoot for the moon, it's even better when they execute their plan successfully. Scott Bunt wanted to make a movie that brought together his love for Hammer horror films and Mario Bava. Although Sea of Dust clearly represents his vision, there are too many gaps in the finished product for it to really hit home. Confusion in focus coupled with a lackluster leading performance doesn't help matters. Fans of gothic horror may find enough here to give the film a look but I can't really recommend the film for most genre fans. Rent It.