Review: Dust Devil (1992)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #793

Number of Views: One
Release Date: April 16, 1993
Sub-Genre: Psychological Thriller/Western
Country of Origin: South Africa, United Kingdom
Budget: £4,300,000
Running Time: 103 minutes
Director: Richard Stanley
Producer: JoAnne Sellar
Screenplay: Richard Stanley
Special Effects: John Cormican
Cinematography: Steven Chivers
Score: Simon Boswell
Editing: Derek Trigg, Paul Carlin
Studios: British Screen Productions, Channel Four Films, Miramax, Palace Pictures, Shadow Theatre Films
Distributor: Polygram
Stars: Chelsea Field, Robert John Burke, Zakes Mokae, Rufus Swart, Terri Norton, John Matshikiza, William Hootkins, Russell Copley, Andre Odendaal, Luke Cornell, Philip Henn, Robert Stevenson, Peter Hallr, Stephen Earnhart, Marianne Sägebrecht

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Die Antwoord “I Fink U Freeky”
[2] Billie Holiday “That Ole Devil Called Love”
[3] Simon Boswell “Dust Devil”

Before we commence, I feel obliged to point out that we are not here today to talk about upward motion whirlwinds and neither is this an advertisement for a brand new cordless handheld vacuum cleaner retailing at $49.95 and available from all good stockists. Apologies for any confusion, but our talking point this day is actually a long overlooked 1992 oddity from the man responsible for another long overlooked oddity from two years prior, by the name of Hardware.

Recently I took this taut low-budget apocalyptic thriller for a woefully tardy second run out and was thrilled to discover that the first cut need not necessarily be the deepest. On reintroduction, South African visionary Richard Stanley’s film promptly announced itself at the very top table with regards to cherished cinematic concoctions. That is to say, I love its bloody bones or perhaps nuts and bolts would be more fitting on this occasion.

Once a filmmaker makes themselves known to me in such a decisive manner, it becomes mandatory to comb through their oeuvre for other suchlike delights. One great movie is all that is required for my lifelong allegiance to be pledged to the cause. Whether or not they repeat this feat is irrelevant in the greater scheme of things; but I’ll never once bet against such accomplishment. Much is made of great directors who appear incapable of scaling the heady heights of former glories and I’m quite aware this viewpoint mainly stems from passion. But it’s one thing reaching the summit once perhaps twice in your lifetime, and entirely another when you’re expected to conquer Everest every frigging year until you’re pissing blood in a colostomy bag.

My advice would be to go easy on your heroes as you don’t see Lois Lane divorcing Superman on the grounds that “he’s just not around enough anymore”. I’d sure she’s just glad that he was kind enough to reverse the planet’s polarity long enough to bring her bony ass back to life the one time. The very least the Man of Steel can expect is a dash of perspective once the rough patches start. I’m transgressing wildly here but I guess what I’m saying in my own Mulberry bush way is that, whether Dust Devil lives up to its forerunner or not, Mr. Stanley is well within his rights to expect one affectionately planted brow kiss from me, should our wayward paths ever cross in the future. With that I say hoovers at the ready and let’s go suck up some memories shall we?

Before we break out the mosquito repellent, I’d like to extend a warm Namibian welcome to you all, and fill you in on some of the local folklore by paraphrasing our narrator. You see, back in the first times, in the time of the red light, there was a fellow by the name of Desert Wind and he was a man just like any other. This was until he sprouted a pair of feathered flappers and took to the skies like a proud bird of prey.

However, having once been a man, he was still very much in possession of bog-standard human failings such as passion and indignation. When not swooping from a great height to dismantle the early morning worms, he could often be seen pounding his fists on the ground, venting his wrath upon the earth that held him prisoner for so long. Indeed, the people of the great Namib, in their infinite wisdom, have another name for those violent winds that blow from nowhere. They call them Dust Devils.

Speak of the arch-fiend, here he is as we speak. To the untrained eye, Hitch (Robert John Burke) looks no different from any other ruggedly handsome desert drifter. Should a beautiful young woman happen to be passing and it be long enough since she last had her sexual pistons fired up, then this is the kind of dashing nomad who would find it effortless persuading her out of that dirty, moist linen and into his loving embrace.

Of course, Hitch would ensure that a damn good time was had by both parties before snapping her neck like a stale bread stick and using her life blood to redecorate her house (free of charge, I might add). He may something be a devil, but he’s no rogue. Just a dude who appears to be ensnared in a reality he never actually requested.

The problem is, over in the nearby town of Bethanie, Sgt. Ben Mukurob (Zakes Mokae) is investigating a recent spate of murders and is known for his dog-with-a-bone approach to police work. Catching a ritualistic killer is one thing but, when you’re suffering from recurring nightmares that appear to offer symbolic meaning inconveniently tying in with the trail of destruction being fashioned a few clocks South, the sense of urgency is only heightened. Ben won’t rest until the man responsible for these atrocities is brought to justice or his knees and couldn’t, even if he tried. Dust may be mobile, but it tends to leave a trail and it’s Ben’s job to pick up the scent the moment his sinuses start stinging.

Then we have disillusioned wife Wendy Robinson (Chelsea Field) who has recently fled the life she couldn’t bear in Johannesburg and, in particular, her hostile husband Mark (Rufus Swart). Wendy has no real clue as to where she’s headed or why, but seems inexplicably drawn to the same stretch of desolate road where Hitch habitually loiters. Like Ben, she too has received unsolicited communication from a higher power, and seems to be implicated in this madness in ways she is not yet aware of.

One inadvertent pick-up later and Wendy’s hubby has even more reason to pick up the pace trying to track his estranged wife down. Curiouser and curiouser cried Alice. Not entirely sure you’re gonna like where this rabbit hole is headed love. I’ll give you a clue – it’s as hot as midsummer gonads in a PVC jockstrap down there.

Dust Devil has had a turbulent run since its release in 1992. Undoubtedly a more intimate project than Hardware, it struggled to make anything like the same kind of impact on audiences and many were left frustrated by the uneven way in which it hangs together. It certainly doesn’t help that Stanley’s original cut ran for 120 minutes and versions exist that are as little as 70 minutes long, effectively tearing the heart straight out of it.

The director’s cut that I watched (which Stanley financed himself) is closer to what he originally intended and, while still somewhat flawed, it is easier to see exactly what he was driving at. Taking its clues from numerous different genres including spaghetti westerns (particularly Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in The West) and the Italian gialli, it’s a curious concoction that doesn’t always work. But, despite a few pacing issues, it is always fascinating to observe.

Much of this is down to the unique look of the thing. Cinematographer Steven Chivers saturates the screen in scorching color, using the shimmer of heat vapors and vast stretches of Namib wasteland to reflect the afflicted mindsets of its characters. There are also numerous moments of stark beauty sprinkled throughout.

From the resplendent aerial shot of a burning homestead to the sight of our dust devil staring into a bathroom mirror, only to be snatched away by infinite darkness; it is visually damn near flawless. Meanwhile, Simon Boswell’s Morricone-flavored score lends considerable weight to proceedings, expanding and shrinking in turn, almost as though breathing at times. All of this lends Dust Devil a haunting tone which is hard to shake once our time in Namibia draws to a close.

As for the cast, well it’s a mixed bag I’m afraid. Burke is simply mesmerizing as the titular shape-shifting demon and his high plains drifter achieves grand results while being economical with dialogue. Field fares less well as Wendy, not due to her performance not being up to snuff, but because her character fails to kindle any real sympathy from the audience.

Then we have Mokae, so chillingly effective in Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, here he comes across as out of his depth and struggles to recite his lines with the sincerity required. That said, for all its narrative lulls and the fact that it almost grinds to a halt at times, Dust Devil still manages to secure undivided attention throughout. This is largely indebted to the peculiar, almost otherworldly atmosphere that permeates every frame.

Perhaps most spellbinding of all is the director’s back story. Born and raised in South Africa, Stanley fled his native country in his early twenties to sidestep compulsory military service and has decidedly mixed feelings about his homeland. While wisely refraining from placing racial and sexual politics at the top of his agenda, his casting choices alone speak volumes for his personal stance, particularly Ben and Wendy (a dark-skinned policeman and downtrodden wife). Both appear to embody the Dust Devil’s own fears and phobias, delivering a far more personal statement than Hardware could ever hope to achieve.

Stanley’s lifelong fixation with ancient mysticism and the occult likely stems from the fact that his mother was a feminist anthropologist who specialized in necromancy and tribal folklore. However, one glance at his résumé (which consists largely of pop promo videos), and it becomes clear where his greatest strengths as a storyteller lie. Hardware is very much a film devised to cater to the MTV generation and, to a lesser degree, Dust Devil is also.

It’s the way in which he marries the arcane to vogue that allows his work to make its spiritual impact. I can see clearly what he was striving for here and, providing you select the right version, chances are you will too. Regrettably, it never quite comes together as a cohesive whole here and, as a result, the dust never quite settles.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Stanley already proved that, when called upon to roll his sleeves up, brutal violence doesn’t faze him in the slightest. There’s nothing here quite as splattertastic as William Hootkins’ gloriously gloopy drill bit demise from Hardware, but he makes up for the omission with a rather spectacular exploding head and numerous dismantled body parts. As for the skin, well I would’ve preferred if Hitch hadn’t been quite so hasty with the post-sex sacrifice. I mean, at least let the poor woman wash the sperm off first. 

Read Hardware Appraisal
Read White of The Eye Appraisal
Read The Serpent and the Rainbow Appraisal
Read The Hitcher (1986) Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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