Judge Dennis Prince never encountered a dust devil, but he can render you spellbound with his harrowing tales of savage dust bunnies.
He's not a serial killer. He's much worse.
A demonic being (Robert Burke, Robocop 3) descends upon dying towns to consume the souls of weak and unwary stragglers. Having assumed human form, he's stalking the arid deserts of South Africa in a continual search for additional souls to perpetuate his human-like existence. Appearing as an American tourist garbed in a dusty trench coat, boots, and a wide-brimmed hat, the demon that calls himself 'Hitch' literally hitchhikes on a barren roadway, luring his next victims via his portrayal of a needful wanderer. He seduces a young woman who takes him to her home and engages in physical relations, only to be brutally murdered, dismembered, and given as an offering in his bizarre and fiery soul-stealing ritual. Traveling on, he encounters an abused woman, Wendy (Chelsea Field, The Dark Half), who has left her overbearing husband. Sensing her despondency, Hitch targets the woman for his next soul feeding, but does so slowly, gaining her trust and companionship. A local police officer, Ben (Zakes Mokae, Outbreak), haunted by nightmares of his own son's death, understands the essence of Hitch and the dark spirituality he embodies. As Ben closes in on the demon, Wendy becomes filled with dread as she begins to realize something is very, very wrong about Hitch.
Dust Devil is unlike most horror films you've seen, mainly because it borrows from several genres outside of the terror realm. Visually, the film looks like an art-house offering, employing many symbolic and evocative in-camera compositions while also telling much of its story through action and reaction rather than by words. By way of its main character, Hitch, and its arid settings, the film resembles a Sergio Leone western. And, through its penchant to use wide and distant shots of the South African landscape, it even seems reminiscent of a National Geographic endeavor.
In regards to its content, the film is an amalgam of differing styles and subject matters, but this isn't to say it's unrepentantly derivative. It manages, somehow, to weave various genre elements and presumed influential artifacts into a swirling symphony of the unnatural. At times, it flows in a lyrical deftness, while at other times it jars in a cacophonous assault. Such a contrast in presentation should certainly doom the picture, but it doesn't. Much like the allure Hitch holds over his victims, so too does Dust Devil succeed in bewitching unsuspecting viewers. From a style standpoint, the film smacks of George Miller's work in The Road Warrior, not just in the amber-tinged dusty locales but also in the extreme POV setups. There are also elements of Don Coscarelli's filmic language, as used superbly within Phantasm, largely in the way it establishes its premise immediately without feeling the need to first convince viewers of its intent. In fact, the film is most reminiscent of Phantasm (to this reviewer, anyway) in the way it requires its fantastical premises to be quickly consumed and accepted by viewers, either through visual cues or through unchallenged exposition. This is satisfying, though, since it allows us to quickly enter the world of Hitch and immediately become entranced by what transpires. Without a doubt, Dust Devil is an unusual horror film that discards most rules (and expectations) of the genre and, therefore, should be applauded for its daring.
With all this said, don't expect Dust Devil to unfold as the most compelling genre film around. In fact, it seems a bit underdone. The picture languishes a bit in its visual endeavors, and, consequently, sacrifices some narrative coherence, preventing it from fully succeeding. As if caught in a dust devil cyclone, we are left to spin about unexpectedly at times, required to try to assess our position within the narrative after the stylistic cyclone has dissipated. Therefore, expect to spend time in protracted situations that seem to exist for no other reason than to revel another of the film's meticulous visual progressions.
But is it really a horror film at all? Actually, yes, although it has no compunction in veering in and out of the expected genre boundaries. For that reason, it become compelling in its artful style, one that employs stark and savage gore to punctuate its purpose. Recognizing the film was produced in 1992, meat mongers will appreciate the realism of the grisly stuff, easily on par with the sort of decadent delights of today's technically advanced blood-soaked servings.
For years, Dust Devil has been swirling in a purgatory all its own, the finished film having been sorely misunderstood by the sponsoring Weinstein brothers. Then heads of Miramax, the two demanded changes and ultimately tossed out an 87-minute cut that never represented director Richard Stanley's (Hardware) original vision. Audiences also missed the point, and Dust Devil was whisked away into the realm of lost film. Now, Subversive Cinema has helped Stanley present his original vision (actually, two of them) in this incredibly comprehensive limited edition release, Dust Devil—The Final Cut. The original film has been fully restored to its proper 108 minutes, still challenging to comprehend at times but duly restored at last. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is clear, clean, and well saturated to bring out every spec of the arid atmosphere. It features an option to select between Dolby Digital tracks in 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo. Extras on this main disc include an audio commentary by Stanley, who is joined by Subversive Cinema's Norman Hill, 18 minutes of Stanley's on-set home movies, a 16mm version of Dust Devil that Stanley made as a student, a trailer, and a photo gallery.
As the film has become a picture of cult appreciation, fans will definitely appreciate the other cut of the film, too. On the second disc of this mammoth 5-disc collection is the "work print," an extended version that runs 115 minutes and includes additional footage (some very rough and occasionally without sound) that was excised from the final cut. There's nothing significant in this work print unless you appreciate this sort of unfettered access to more of Stanley's vision. Stanley gives a brief introduction to the work print, and convenient scene selections allow you to jump effortlessly to the additional footage elements.
On Disc Three, you'll find more of Stanley's work in the form of an excellent documentary, 2001's The Secret Glory. This 97-minute British television production explored the life of Otto Rahn, a man who conducted a fanatical search for the Holy Grail during the reign of the Nazi Party in Germany. Stanley and Hill sit down to chat over this one in an optional commentary track, plus you'll find a 28-minute video interview with Stanley.
Moving on to Disc Four, you'll find two more of Stanley's short films. First up is 1990's Voice of the Moon, a 32-minute account of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. This one is certainly not as heavily produced as Stanley's other work, although, during the available commentary, he admits he hadn't intended this for widespread release. Following this is 2002's The White Darkness, a chilling excursion into the realm of African Voodoo rituals. Stanley and Hill speak to both films in audio commentary; there is also a filmed interview with Stanley alone.
Disc Five delivers the soundtrack of Dust Devil, a haunting score by Simon Boswell. This doesn't end the bonus material, though. The double-wide keep case also houses three slick booklets: a Dust Devil production diary, a collection of essays about the included documentaries, and a graphic novel adaptation of the feature film. All told, this is an extensive and even exhaustive foray into the world of Stanley.
After sifting through the immense amount of bonus material, its easy to forget the original draw was Dust Devil. Without a doubt, it is a very original and quite unusual horror-type film, but one that, if you're properly prepared for its style and method, will draw you through its hypnotic pull.
Recommended and certainly not guilty, especially never to be accused of being "routine."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Subversive Cinema
• Audio Commentaries
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