Judge Gordon Sullivan's allergies have just gone haywire.
Prester John is a mythical figure who was pretty much made up out of whole cloth sometime in the 12 Century. Supposedly, he was king of a land "beyond a sea of dust" somewhere in the Orient. He was, of course, a fabulously wealthy, kind, and generous king. Historians, archeologists, and scholars have found no actual evidence of Prester John or his kingdom.
As a figure, Prester John served a couple of key purposes. First, during a time of significant conflict with Eastern nations (this was the period that included the Crusades, after all), he was seen as a symbol of the extent of Christ's earthly dominion. If this king could rule a Christian people in the middle of the Orient, then there was hope for converting others in places like Jerusalem. Second, like the Fountain of Youth and El Dorado, the kingdom of Prester John become the object of quests by lots of young men who needed to earn their fortunes. Although they never found Prester John, these eager adventurers did strengthen trade routes and communication between nations at the time. Now, we have a third thing to thank Prester John for: Sea of Dust, a horror film that whips up his legend into a Hammer-inspired period piece. Although the film has a lot going for it, genre fans are going to be hard-pressed to sit through the meandering narrative to get to the icky goodies within.
Sea of Dust assumes the mythical Prester John (as played by the loveable guru of gore, Tom Savini) is real and exerting control over the town of Heidelberg. Into this situation comes young medical student Sebastian (Troy Young), who has ventured to the city at the behest of Dr. Maitland (Edward X. Young, Only Go There At Night). Sebastian will learn more than he cares to about the land beyond the Sea of Dust.
I really wanted to love this one. With so many films relying on gore and relentless editing to pummel their viewers into submission, Sea of Dust harkens back to the films of the legendary Hammer Studios (including, apparently, an on-set colorist to mimic the look of their Technicolor pictures). This kind of gothic, atmospheric production is generally lacking from the contemporary horror lineup. The only recent film I can recall mining similar territory is I Sell the Dead, and although Sea of Dust doesn't share the slapstick elements, it does share in that film's propensity for good gore. Though he didn't engineer the film's gore, the presence of Tom Savini as Prester John helps the film's mood. In fact, Sea of Dust is almost worth watching for a scene where Savini is crucified. The rest of the cast does an equally fine job, even if none of them look comfortable in the period context.
Despite its strengths, Sea of Dust can't quite overcome a lack of narrative focus. The filmmakers admit to tryin to pull a switch up on the audience, starting as more of a slasher-like film before settling into the spooky atmospherics of the Prester John story. It takes over 20 minutes for our hero to cross the legendary "Sea of Dust" and by then many viewers will have lost interest. Even once Prester John's plan is revealed, the film has neither a clear line to the end nor a usable mythology. With other baddies, like say vampires, the audience has a clear idea what threat they pose and how to dispatch them, which means they can more easily follow the hero's journey. With Prester John, it's difficult for the audience to know his weaknesses, and the mumbo-jumbo about some book feels tacked on. This leaves the film to rely on gore and atmosphere, which isn't enough for most horror fans.
On DVD, Sea of Dust gets a pretty solid treatment for a low budget flick. The anamorphic transfer is generally clean, and the colors mimic those of the old Hammer flicks as much as they can be expected to. The audio, however, is not quite as strong. Part of the reason I found it difficult to get into the film's latter half was the dialogue. Despite a 5.1 surround track, dialogue was mixed low compared to music and atmospherics. Even when it was loud enough to be audible, it was rarely distinct.
Extras are surprisingly extensive for an indie release. There's an audio commentary featuring the writer/director and executive producer. The pair keep up a pretty steady conversation, discussing the film's production, the actors, and their goals for the film. A behind-the-scenes featurette gives another peek at the film's production, mixing interviews with on-set footage. There are also some deleted scenes (with and without commentary), and slideshow of behind-the-scenes images and conceptual art.
Sea of Dust has strong atmosphere and some good gore, but the story's lack of narrative is going to turn many horror fans away. A solid rental choice for fans of low budget gore, Tom Savini, and those who long for the atmospheric days of Hammer Studios. All others can skip this one with a clear conscience.
Sea of Dust might not be to everyone's taste, but for trying to recapture a glorious past, it's not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Epoch
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