For those familiar with Fangoria Magazine, the arrival of Richard Stanley's Hardware in 1990 was a heralded event in the realm of genre cinema. After a decade awash in all manner of slasher silliness, and endless Freddy Krueger sequels, this supposed Terminator take revolving around a killer robot, a maniacal peeper, a post-apocalyptic soldier and an everpresent pretty girl looked to become the next step in the evolution of horror. It had all the trappings of a classic. Instead, it was a minor success that has yet to earn more than a considered cult following. As a result, Stanley found it difficult to get his next film, the evil among us metaphysical spree slaughter epic Dust Devil off the ground. Miramax promised support, but after seeing Stanley's work print, the Weinsteins took the film away, chopped it up, and dumped it onto home video. It would be another decade and a half before Stanley's visionary work would wind up, more or less intact, on DVD. Thanks to an amazing new Limited Collector's Edition box set from Subversive Cinema, we get a chance to see what struck fear into the hearts of those Independent heavyweights, as well as a chance to view Stanley's career since Devil's original debacle.
An abused wife leaves her brutish husband and heads across the South African desert toward the sea. A black police officer, haunted by the death of his son and loss of his wife, tries to decipher the clues to a string of horrifying murders. A stranger in a long coat and cowboy hat wanders the wasteland of the arid terrain, looking for likely victims for his otherworldly bloodlust. All three are destined to come together in the small town of Bethany. There, the killer will find the confused Wendy Robinson – lost, lonely and vulnerable. There, officer Ben Mukurob will trace the decades old lineage of death to a surreal legend involving a shapeshifting spirit looking to establish a domain of evil on Earth. It is here where ritual and magic will meet racism and murder, all working both for and against The Dust Devil, and his unnatural desire to use fear and flesh as a means of controlling the destiny of all mankind.
Dust Devil is hard to define. It is not a pure horror film. It plays around in too many political and philosophical arenas to warrant a straight macabre delineation. Nor is it a standard suspense thriller. Writer/director Richard Stanley is too obsessed with the gorgeous vistas he's capturing onscreen to manage the undeniable dread inherent in the storyline. There are elements here that harken back to other identifiable filmmakers like David Lynch, Ken Russell, and Terry Gilliam, and the South African setting gives the movie an almost alien, science fictional quality. And yet none of these labels fit this truly startling, sometimes underwhelming, cinematic experience. With rumors flying around about studio interference and massive editing, it may be hard to actually decipher what Stanley had in mind. What's on the screen is definitely engaging, but after a while, the bountiful bloom begins to fade from this often surrealistic rose. It's not that Dust Devil is a bad film, it just feels incomplete, and unable to truly recognize the elements it has going for it. As a result, it quickly gets lost in its own logic, and eventually the audience feels flummoxed and disconnected as well.
At the center of this story is a fairly simple legend – the myth of a shape-shifting spirit who mines human souls to keep his physical form 'viable' on Earth. Setting this standard scare material within the Apartheid plagued country of South Africa makes for all manner of social symbolism. The demon is white – and not only that, but a Westerner as well. He/it tends to torment only white Africans, and never seems to target individuals within the minority status. His only run in with a black African comes at the end, when our aggrieved antihero cop character confronts him, and even then, the man of color holds a potential key toward stopping this scourge. Clearly, Stanley is working through some substantive racial issues in this movie. His white cops are corruptible, or unwilling to work within a new desegregated system. A scene in a predominantly black bar finds Wendy's Caucasian husband beaten, kicked and humiliated to within an inch of his life. As the narrative plays out, the local population of Bethany – almost all light skinned – sit by idly as evil slowly erodes away at the center of their town. Only the local drive-in shaman, a victim of racial brutality from the past, holds the keys to any hope. Even though the obvious epithets are few and far between, Stanley wants to make it clear that South Africa has a lot of skeletons in its world community closet, with each and every one reflecting the color of a victim's/oppressor's skin.
Visually, Dust Devil is simply astounding. Stanley's eye for the unique and profound is apparent, but it's the smaller moments that are just as significant as the long, languid tracking shots of far off horizons. From the way his characters look, to the elements they employ in their destined interaction (spaghetti western attire, VW bug, tribal artifacts) this is a filmmaker fully capable of creating an alluring alternate universe, a place where serial killing and social disarray can calmly co-exist. Toward the end, when the confrontation with the Devil occurs, a grandiose ghost town is employed, an arid suburban setting overloaded with abandoned and sand swallowed luxury homes. The image is significant – a reminder of the South Africa being slowly worn away by the rise in black majority rule. It's a stirring moment. Yet the odd thing is that, somehow, Stanley can't make all these stunning shots add up. They look good, but lack an emotional heft behind them to really help us disappear into the expertly staged loveliness. We have to care about the characters here – Wendy's want of empowerment, Mukurob's painful need for closure. But Dust Devil never sets anyone up as an identifiable or recognizable type. We share no commonality with anyone onscreen, and as a result, loose interest very quickly in their seemingly scattered motives. Stanley may be after an attractive allegory, and in that capacity he succeeds. But as a film, Dust Devil doesn't deliver.
Instead, what we get is one of those frequently found forgotten films that some champion as lost classics while others simply discover the reasons behind their original disappearance. None of the actors are especially great – even the title terror, as essayed by Robert John Burke, is all glower and glamour shots – and Stanley spends an inordinately large amount of time in creating what amounts to a terrific travelogue. Somewhere, buried inside all the vast open highways, rough-hewed buildings and endless oceans of sand lies an intriguing exploration of one country's cruel legacy of hate and horror. Richard Stanley deserves to be cheered for what he accomplishes here on a completely artistic level. You will simply never see a similar treatment of such genre-inspired material in the entire fright film oeuvre. It is beautiful – a telling tone poem to death and defeat. Sadly, it should have been a lot better, and could have been, had more attention been paid to the script and the story, and less on the locations and the logistics. Dust Devil is indeed distinctive. Like Stanley's previous effort – Hardware – however, being different is just not enough.
In a word – breathtaking. In another certifiable statement – reference quality. In an arena that sees major mainstream motion pictures getting a grainy, subpar visual presentation, Dust Devil stands as a true thing of artistic beauty. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is pristine, capturing every aesthetic quality that Stanley wanted to bring to his film in flawless optical opulence. Simple phrases can't describe the visual sensations here – the heat shimmering off of the desert highways, the clouds of amber dust filling the dreamy dusk hued skies. Colors are vibrant and brightly lit exteriors never flare up or white out. Indeed, this is one of the best looking movies ever made, and Subversive's transfer is just terrific. It does Dust Devil and its clever creator proud.
Offering the option of either a standard 2.0 Stereo or a much more effective 5.1 Surround mix, the Dolby Digital aspects of Dust Devil are equally wonderful. The multi-channel choice is the way to go, since it opens up the film and lets us actually experience – at least, in a sonic sense – the movie's magnificent vistas.
Presented in a powerhouse five disc set, Subversive Films enters the rarified realm of companies like Criterion with the release of this limited edition compendium. Each DVD deals with a different aspect of Dust Devil, and Stanley's career. Instead of trying to cover all that is here, this review will hit the highpoints, focusing on elements that expand our understanding of Devil's problematic production, as well as illustrating the digital domain's considered contextual power. We begin with:
Disc 1: Dust Devil: The Final Cut
Representing Stanley's "final theatrical version" of the film, this disc contains a terrific full length audio commentary by the director, who is joined by Subversive head Norman Hill. Like any proud Papa, happy that a forgotten child is finally before the public, Stanley walks us through the basics of Devil's birth: the dream origins of the storyline, the horrors of filming in South Africa, the eventual stunted release by Miramax and the joy in 'almost' rediscovering his original intentions. It's a brilliantly effective track, a discussion that demands attention for how accurately it reflects Stanley's feelings about the film, and his inspiration for many of the movie's more telling moments. It's the same with the rest of the material found on the disc. An interview with Stanley, and composer Simon Boswell (whose sensational score is included, separately, as a CD in this set) is equally enlightening. Stanley discusses his childhood, making films in his native land, and how the eventual treatment of Dust Devil nearly destroyed him. The rest of the featurette content here, from "Dust Devil Home Movies" (on set footage), "The Dust Devil 16mm Scarpbook" (a look at the film's cinematic genesis) and a trailer for the home movie version round out our perception of Stanley's original vision.
Disc 2: Dust Devil: The Work Print
Provided in a non-anamorphic, letterboxed transfer, this version of the film runs a scant seven minutes longer than the main feature (115 mins, vs. 108 mins) and uses time coded VHS inserts to give us a better look at Stanley's first formulation of the narrative. While many of the sequences are familiar, finding a place – albeit in a truncated form – in the final film, there are still a few discoveries here. Specifically, an oddball postcard salesman, a character whom the Devil and Wendy run into during their rendezvous, is reinserted into the story. He is all but absent in the theatrical version. Similarly, more of Mukurob's inner pain is "visualized" in this edition. While not completely revelatory, it is a wonderful addition to the set. It offers us a window into the creative process, as well as a way of judging how closely the current film matches what Stanley supposedly intended.
Disc 3: Secret Glory
Inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark, Stanley's 2001 documentary follows the real life story of Nazi Otto Rahn, and his official SS approved search for, of all things, the Holy Grail. Using the elements of the epic he honed so well in Hardware and Dust Devil, what we end up with is a marvelously engaging fact film that plays like a combination of The Da Vinci Code and an outtake from one of Indy's more memorable adventures. While it's mostly a talking head experience, this is still a startling effort, profound and deeply effective. Also on this DVD are an interview with Stanley (again, a must view) and a collection of trailers and biographical content.
Disc 4: Voice of the Moon/ The White Darkness
Two more documentaries – one DVD of excellent narrative filmmaking. Stanley takes on the Russian Afghanistan War in 1990 (Moon's primary focus) and his insights are excellent. Through the juxtaposition of competing images (war vs. daily life) he manages to make a case for militarism, and extremism, as an integral part of existence in the region. "Hanging with the Taliban", another excellent Q&A with the director, as well as a full length commentary, rounds out this presentation. Darkness, on the other hand, deals with voodoo, its historical roots and continued practice around in its main homeland of Haiti. Somewhat superficial in its overall themes, but dense in both details and descriptions, this determined documentary is yet another feather in Stanley's substantive cinematic cap. Toss in the necessary interview (great), commentary (exceptional) and digital basics (bios, trailers) and you've got a wonderful summary of Richard Stanley's work – both fact, and fictional.
Disc 5: Soundtrack CD for Dust Devil – Music Composed by Simon Boswell
A wonderfully atmospheric and ambient musical presentation.
And there's still more. Three separate booklets contain a Dust Devil comic, an 11 page Production Diary following the film's making, and a series of essays and comments on the trio of documentaries offered herein. On par with the best that companies like Criterion can create, Subversive Cinema's Dust Devil Limited Collector's Edition DVD package stands as one of 2006's most comprehensive and praise-worthy releases.
So how do you evaluate a presentation that does everything except deliver a satisfying cinematic experience? Do you downgrade the package because the film failed to be a major motion picture masterwork, or do you balance the bad points out with the good, and then goose everything upward because of an almost definitive DVD presentation? Thankfully, the inclusion of Stanley's delightful documentaries, as well as the unlimited access to the director and his designs more than compensates for Dust Devil's seemingly slight shortcomings. Therefore, this authoritative five disc set earns an easy score of Highly Recommended. And who knows. Perhaps, upon a revisit, the aspects of the feature film that seem cloudy and incomplete now will come clearly into focus. There is no denying that, in the purely visual artform of film, Dust Devil is a triumph. All movies should look as cinematically sound and optically ornate as this individualistic horror hybrid. But those expecting the same old shock and shudder should perhaps avoid this anti-macabre material. Stanley is interested in terrors more social than supernatural. The results are definitely different. They can be a little dull as well.