Friday, October 22, 2010

Dust Devil (1992)
SOUTH AFRICA/ UK --- horror

Dir: Richard Stanley

Horror movies coming out of Hollywood have churned out plenty of run-of-the-mill classics, and garbage alike. But they have run out of ideas, and some of the good ideas out there are not done quite right. A lot of times the good ideas don’t get the good treatment they deserve. Some films feel like you’re watching a caveman push a crude wheel down a dirt path. It rolls, but it’s still not smoothed out or it’s jagged in some areas. South African born writer/director Richard Stanley strikes me as one of those guys with the vision and perhaps if given time and money on a good project he cares about, he’d handle it well. But, even that doesn’t guarantee success.

His 1992 film, “Dust Devil” is no rudimentary horror film, it’s layered with deep marks of substance, involving dark South African spiritual beliefs, as well as foreboding realism, as they mention terrorism – unfortunately for all the heart it has, it doesn’t quite give it enough. The story is centered on a shape-shifting duster wearing demon vagabond in the desert of Namibia and South Africa. The demon played by Robert John Burke (of Thinner fame) does a great job as the wandering dust devil performing ritualistic murders. It’s these murders that garner the attention of a veteran police detective haunted by the disappearance of his own wife. Detective Ben Mukurob is played by Zakes Mokae who puts in a brilliant turn that reminds one of "Halloween"s reluctant Dr. Loomis to Burke’s Shape. It’s great to see him deal with his own problems on top of a case involving a strange serial murderer. The film also has a cliché battered woman on the run subplot, who is geared to be the heroine of the film. Wendy Robinson (played by Chelsea Field) flees her abusive husband for the open road, and picks up a hitch-hiker; of course he wears a duster. She nicknames him Texas, for his resemblance to one of those guys in a spaghetti western get up. Then, we go back to the husband in search for his missing wife, and thus the adventure begins.

I know that Stanley’s film went through a lot of turmoil, and this is not the original version of the film he had intended. That’s why all the bad reviews I ignore. But, I don’t laud the good ones neither, as there’s no need for the husband’s story throughout the film other than coincidentally meeting up with Detective Mukurob (who as mentioned shares a similar problem).

"Dust Devil" is loosely based on a series of Nama tribal murders in South Africa committed by what the local natives called "Nhadiep". They believed since the murders were ritualistic and only were within the tribe, that an unstoppable shape-shifting being who rides on the wind was the culprit. Stanley’s horror film is not for the gore-meisters, or even someone expecting something faster paced. It is an intellectual horror film and not a slasher flick where you don’t have to follow the characters motivations around or wonder why a villain is doing a particular thing. The cinematography throughout the film is awesome, and captures the mosaic landscape. My favorite character happens to be the eccentric old shaman (if you can call him that), Joe Niemand, played by veteran actor, John Matshikiza. His character fits perfect in any western as a wizened barfly in a rocking chair who can tell something ain’t right with the prairie.

The ending features a landscape submersed in sand, as it alludes to an apocalyptic finale. The dust devil goes at odds with our heroes Det. Mukurob and Mrs. Robinson as Burke’s demon pulls out all the freaky stops. The interesting thing about the villain of the film is he’s revealed as weakened and vulnerable himself. These murders aren’t committed because he’s a vengeful spirit or wronged psychopath, their being done because this demon is trying to return to his rightful dimensional beating grounds. This isn’t the indestructible monster that will not stop for sequels, this is a credible malevolent spirit wrapped in a menacing human form.

Richard Stanley succeeds with displaying all of these emotions on a quiet level, just not as trumped up as its potential could be. Well, the reason isn’t entirely his fault. Stanley originally had a 120-minute feature length film here with “Dust Devil”, which was in turn cut to 110-minutes. According to many sources on the Internet and Stanley himself, the film was then mired in Murphy’s Law. As the European production company who was to release a 95-minute cut of the film, went bankrupt causing Stanley to lose control of it. Miramax had jurisdiction of the film with the right to their own cut of the film, and well, we know how they adore cutting. The film in their hands ended up being around 87-minutes long. Eventually, Stanley Had to self-finance his own new cut of the film with what he had left. The Subversive released DVD has the work print version available for comparison. The final verdict is, watch the film and decide for yourself, I guarantee, it’s not a bad little horror film.