Richard Stanley’s DUST DEVIL had a troubled production history with as many twists and turns as the movie itself, with all previous releases having been virtually botched. Miramax excised more than 15 minutes from the director’s cut, and since then the original version remained unavailable for quite a while. There was a German DVD (by Laser Paradise) in 2003, with a tolerable but far from perfect transfer, as the only chance to see the full, 104’ version – until now. Optimum Release has come up with a new digital transfer (done by MGM in 2001), so the full glory of DUST DEVIL can finally be unleashed upon Region 2 viewers.
It was worth the wait, since the film remains as powerful as it was 15 years ago, and its qualities are timeless just like the Namibian desert where it takes place. It is an eclectic blend of spaghetti western, serial killer thriller, dark romance and mysticism, crafted into a spiralling tale of a supernatural entity from the title. He/it assumes the form of a spooky Clint Eastwood as ’the man with no name’ from Sergio Leone’s westerns. Excellently played by Robert Burke, this ’devil’ is the last image burnt into the retinas of unlucky drivers through the oldest desert in the world. Those who give him a ride are found later, their bodies cut to pieces, their blood used for ’primitive’, though elaborate murals. But, as the tagline warns: ’’He’s not a serial killer: he’s much worse.’’ He/it is an ancient demon, trapped in the material world, attempting to get a release ’’through the ritual of murder’’. He frees the spark of light from his suicidal victims (for there’s a catch: he only comes to those who have already given up on life) trying to come back to the original spiritual kingdom.
In this part of his journey he accompanies a young woman (Chelsea Field) running away from an abusive husband. She is contemplating suicide, but the hitcher stops her: even the ancient spirit gets lonely sometimes, and decides to use her company and affection for a while. In the meantime his bloody tracks are followed by a policeman (Zakes Mokae, the creepy dictator from THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW) haunted by demons of his own and slowed down by his brutish, racist South African subordinates. This dance with the devil will eventually take all of them to the center of the spiral, a deserted town half-swallowed by the desert sand, for a blood-spurting showdown...
DUST DEVIL is complimented by beautiful cinematography (Steven Chivers, who also lensed Stanley’s HARDWARE), and a stunning score by Simon Boswell that resembles a combination of Morricone’s spaghetti western sounds and Goldsmith’s THE OMEN large-scale doom’n’gloom accompanied by Boswell’s elegiac flute tones, as memorable here as they were in Jodorowsky’s SANTA SANGRE. The final result is a unique piece of visionary filmmaking.
Aside from its technical mastery, this is a horror film that actually has something on its mind. It is rooted in the Gnostic belief that our world is a mistake, a failure. Material existence is a product of the Evil Demiurge, a malevolent deity. The real God has been overthrown and powerless. The Gnostics believed that everything, from far-off stars to the nuclei of our cells carries the mark of the original imperfection inherent to the Creation. In the midst of this material darkness, there is a spark of light, conceived by the original God, as a trace of our true being. The goal of a Gnostic is to tear through the veil of delusion and burst through the screen of false reality into his original homeland, the otherworldly realm of the True God. Stanley admitted this much about DUST DEVIL ‘‘it basically dispenses with conventional morality and tries to replace it with a totally different idea of movement toward the spirit or away from the spirit.’’
The Devil is, obviously, a figure that Stanley deeply sympathizes with, and he’s presented in the film knowingly, with numerous allusions to the multifaceted archetype invoked. Stanley’s Devil is a stranger, an alien, and a man with no name. He’s the One from the other side of mirror: the double, the doppelganger, Avatar of emptiness and desolation - or transformation.
The Namib Desert is the oldest in the world and serves as the setting for this primeval, timeless drama. South Africa is at the ‘Edge of the World’, both geographically and symbolically. Stanley describes this place in his production diaries as ’’a land that no longer seems to be part of man’s universe, an untenanted, unfinished world, the terrain of Gods and Spirits’’. Kubrick used a similar location for ‘Dawn of Man’, the opening segment of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and in Stanley’s vision it is the stage for the ’Twilight of Man’ as well.
This is the edge of the abyss. What lies beyond? It’s either destruction or transformation. In this place, even the Devil is not a metaphor or psychological concept but a tangible reality: a roaming spirit at the beginning and end of the world.
Optimum’s presentation of the film is quite decent: the anamorphic image (in 1.85:1) is sharp most of the time, though certain contrasts leave something to be desired. The stereo sound is excellent, while occasional minor faults have to do with the original source and difficult circumstances of filming. There are four brief deleted scenes (all of poor transfer and probably originating from a VHS tape) that do not add much to the film, but the main extra is director’s commentary. Highly vivacious, informative, funny, intelligent and personal, it is also helpful since Stanley explains some of the occult symbolism and points towards subtle visual together with other allusions and signs throughout the film, demonstrating further the extent of thought and passion inherent in its making.
Directed by Richard Stanley
UK/Namibia / 1992 / 104 minutes
Region 2 / PAL