Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dust Devil: The Final Cut (1992)

In my opinion, the 1990s were (mostly) a cultural wasteland for the arts, where almost every hope raised was dashed on the rocks of mediocrity and formula (the more things change...). Alternative music assaulted the airwaves with its mix of punk rock aesthetics and corporate rock attitude. Bands that were once great turned out watered down music in an attempt to cash-in (not that I particularly blame them, because almost everyone likes money). But seeing a new album from a band like Sham 69 and listening to the album were two different experiences, altogether. In movies, for every Fargo or Rushmore, there were dozens of House Arrests or Batman & Robins. Around this same time, the American "Indy" film movement was getting started with work like Reservoir Dogs and Clerks. Unfortunately, in the same way that the alternative music scene spawned countless, bland imitators, so did the Indy film movement, and it made me, personally, nervous to rent a movie or go to the theater for fear of being disappointed yet again. I realize it would only be a couple hours wasted, but these are hours I will never get back. 

In 1990, Richard Stanley's Hardware, however, signaled a major, new talent in genre filmmaking. Here was a name you could trust (at least I did), and the future seemed bright, indeed, for the young South African director. Sadly, his next film, Dust Devil, was hampered by studio meddling and a sketchy, direct-to-video release. After being unceremoniously dumped from the 1996 version of Island of Dr. Moreau, Stanley mostly occupied himself with screenwriting and producing a handful of documentaries, but he has recently returned to genre fiction filmmaking with his portion of the portmanteau film, The Theatre Bizarre. Here's hoping that he's back to stay. But we're here today to talk about Dust Devil.

A trenchcoat-wearing wanderer (Robert Burke) stalks the bleak roads of Namibia. He listens to the ground, like a native tracker, and signals an approaching car. The woman inside, Saarke (Terri Norton), brings the wanderer back to her house. As the two make love, the stranger snaps the woman's neck, just at the point of climax. He leaves her dismembered body, along with tribal paintings drawn in her blood behind and torches the house. Meanwhile, Wendy (Chelsea Field) is dissatisfied with her marriage and walks out on her husband, Mark (Rufus Swart), hitting the road in her VW Bug. Veteran police inspector, Ben (the late Zakes Mokae), is called in to investigate the death of Saarke, but the more he discovers, the more unbelievable the case becomes. The Dust Devil senses Wendy's approach and hitches a ride with her, determined to make her his next victim. As the separate hunts progress, the Dust Devil, Wendy, and Ben move inexorably towards their final reckoning. 

The Dust Devil himself is presented as a monster, but the character and Burke's performance are so complex, he becomes much, much more. At several points, we see him distinctly as a monster, but each time, the makeup is different. From this we can infer that either we're seeing different stages in one transformation or we're seeing different manifestations of the Devil's shapeshifting nature. The movie also asserts that he is a demon and a sorcerer, as well as a tormented serial killer. While we see all these aspects of the character onscreen at one point or another, the film never locks onto one as definitive. True to his name, the Dust Devil as a character is constantly swirling and changing. This approach allows the audience to make up their own minds about what he is.

The Devil's pursuer, Ben, is wracked with guilt over the death of his son during Namibia's war of resistance with South Africa. His dreams are vivid and creepy, and they inform Mokae's performance. He needs to catch Saarke's killer to help assuage his shame. Mokae is not the greatest actor, but he brings a level of reality to his performance, and if nothing else, you'd like to see the man earn some well-deserved peace.

Oddly, Wendy is the least well-defined character of the three (possibly due to issues arising during the film's production?), and Field's affectless performance is either just bad acting or spot-on. She plays a woman at the end of her rope, contemplating suicide (the reason the Devil is attracted to her in the first place), but she's supposed to have a spark of life left in her, a fading light to which she still desperately clings. It never comes through fully in Field's acting, but again, it could just be that her take is to give nothing up as a display of Wendy's numbness inside.

The final character I want to mention here is Joe (the late John Matshikiza). He is the film's narrator, as well as the expositional character for Ben and our edification. Further, he is a shaman and a former movie projectionist. I find it very interesting that the second most mystically plugged-in character in the movie also used to show movies to people. And did I mention he has one dead eye? So the person who can see clearest, and who we (and Ben) rely on for clarity and aid is a half-blind man whose life was at one point in time occupied with dealing artifice to the masses. Joe's worldview will ultimately be made clear to Ben when the detective has a self-reflexive moment in an abandoned movie theater. This juxtaposition of mentor and unreliable narrator in Joe's character is deftly handled by Stanley, and further deepens the multiple meanings one can glean from the film.

Visually, the movie is a feast, and like all good filmmaking, the camera and writing reinforce the themes. Most prominently, the film teems with spiral imagery. A windmill spins against the smoke of a house fire. Joe sits at the center of a giant stone-made spiral he adds rocks to, as if constructing the narrative of the story we're watching. The camera itself spins around as the Devil opens himself up to Wendy in bed. The only straight lines that I can recall are in the scenes set on the main road that seemingly intersects the characters' lives and the film's narrative, driving it to its eventual conclusion and beyond. The circular motif is indicative of the multiple (and equally valid) facets by which the film can be viewed, and frankly, it's brilliant filmmaking. I'll leave my review at that (and Lord only knows, there's much, much more to be said about this film), because you owe it to yourself to watch this movie and make up your own mind. Then watch it again and change it, but you will never be disappointed by Dust Devil.

MVT: Richard Stanley, as a modern storyteller and mythmaker, weaves an intricate tapestry that invites and rewards multiple viewings as well as interpretations. He's smart enough to give his audience what they want but confident enough not to spoonfeed them all the answers.

Make or Break: The "Make" is the second scene. As soon as Burke's ear touches the road, and he flags down Saarke's car, you know there's something more going on. And, man, is there ever.

Score: 8/10


  1. Fantastic review. I concur with your thoughts on Stanley, and I love this film. One of the true great horror films of the 90s, though criminally underseen. It's too bad that Stanley hasn't been able to produce work.

  2. Thanks for reading, Chad. I'm really hoping that THE THEATRE BIZARRE brings Stanley back. He's a genre filmmaker who has something to say and says it entertainingly.