Friday, November 16, 2012

Review: Dust Devil - The Final Cut (Limited Collector’s Edition) (1992)

Directed by Richard Stanley
Final Cut: 108 mins, color.  Work Print: 115 mins, color.
DVD released by Subversive Cinema, 2006

Dust Devil is that rare movie that is both art film and genre piece.  It is beautifully shot and wonderfully put together.  And yet, it is in that strange unmarketable space of being strange and creepy, but doesn’t have the scares or gore needed to draw a horror audience.  Not surprisingly, the distributor (Miramax) hated it.  Stanley originally brought in the film at 120 minutes, and Miramax cut it to 87 minutes without his permission or cooperation.  The version they cut removed all supernatural elements of the film and cut out nearly all of Zakes Mokae’s scenes, as he was a non-traditional hero, ie: African Zulu. The studio, Palace Pictures, went broke and the film disappeared, never finding any kind of wide release.  Stanley hunted down the negative, which was being held by the investors, and he personally paid for his own cut of the film.  Subversive Cinema has now released Stanley’s final cut of the film.  

The film centers on three major characters: Ben Mukurob (Zakes Mokae), who is a Zulu policeman who has been hunting the Dust Devil (Robert John Burke) and Wendy (played by Chelsea Field, who you might know better as the flight attendant in Commando “Don’t wake my friend, he’s dead tired” or Teela in Masters of the Universe -Dolph Lundgren!).  The Dust Devil is a supernatural evil, called a Nagtloper.  He is a drifter who kills and feeds off the life-force of those who have lost the will to live.  As the narrator tells us, he can smell towns and people that are dying.  He ritualistically cuts people apart and then keeps their fingers, as we are later told, “there is a whole lot of power in fingers.”  Mukurob has dedicated 15 years of his life to the hunting of this man, this serial killer, this Nagtloper.  His room is plastered in newspaper stories linked to this devil.  Wendy walks out on her abusive husband and decides to just drive, with no sense of hope.

Wendy ends up picking up the drifter and giving him a ride.  Mukurob continues to hunt, but is caught in the politics and mire of South Africa, which is in the midst of civil unrest and racial tensions are high.  Wendy gets involved with the Devil, and becomes his next target.  She escapes and he chases her into the desert.  Mukurob follows them into the wasteland, where there is surreal showdown in a deserted city sunken in the sand.  

At one point, Mukurob tells Wendy to wait, saying:
“I know what I’m doing.  I’m a cop.”
Wendy replies, “That Won’t Help.”
Mukurob, “I know.”

Exactly right.

The film was shot in Namibia, and sand dominates every inch of it.  It can be seen in the hair and teeth of every actor.  It blows constantly and seems to cover every surface.  The color temperature and film stock give the film an almost Aussie exploitation look.  It feels all the more epic with the giant sweeping helicopter shots and long wide takes.  Simon Boswell’s Morricone-ish soundtrack adds another dimension to the moody, atmospheric feeling of the film.  All the elements of a Western seem to come to the fore after the soundtrack really finds it’s place near the end of the film.  

I originally heard about Richard Stanley when I read his wonderful essay, “Dying Light: an obituary for the great British horror movie,” in a book a friend loaned me (thanks Tom!), British Horror Cinema.  In it, he discussed The Scala cinema in the King’s Cross neighborhood of London.  The cinema had originally been London’s first Primatarium (an ape house).  His love for the theatre and his description of the programmers and projectionists at the theatre made a deep connection.  Unfortunately, the Scala is now closed, and I feel a bit mournful for a place I will never know.  But, it is from there that he met the people from Palace Pictures and how we now have Dust Devil.

Biggest Surprise:
That this doesn’t have much of a following.  Something this creative and well made should have been picked up.  It is also a shock to me that this doesn’t have a sequel of any kind.  (though, that is a good thing)


  • Richard Stanley is the great-grandson of the great explorer / adventurer Sir Henry Stanley, who saved Sir David Livingston, coining the phrase “Dr. Livingston, I presume?”
  • Stanley left South Africa at 16 years old to avoid being drafted into the military
  • Stanley was with the Mujahedin in Afghanistan when his first film, Hardware, was approved.  (He is Rambo in Rambo III!)

Set Yourself Up:
  • The film’s pacing is slow and moody, so set the lights correctly.  Don’t have the fluorescent overheads on.
  • Get some Tyson Chicken Fingers and a few cans of Castel, put them in your basement and let a small layer of dust form over them.

The Goods:
The Limited Collector’s Edition is an outstanding release.  Subversive went all out for this one.  Limited to 9,999 (that seems like a lot, but it does appear now to be out of print), it is a 5 disc tribute to Stanley’s work.  The first disc is a great transfer of Stanley’s Final Cut of the film.  The second disc is his work print, which is interesting only if you want to see his editing process, but still really great to have. Unfortunately, they must have taken this from an old VHS or something, because the aspect ratio is 4:3.  The third disc is Secret Glory, Stanley’s documentary on Otto Rahn, a Nazi SS officer who was obsessed with the holy grail.  The fourth disc contains two of his short documentaries, Voice of the Moon, about his time in Afghanistan, and The White Darkness, a film he did for BBC about voodoo practices in Haiti.  The fifth disc is the soundtrack, which is great.  You also get a Dust Devil comic book, two commentaries, featurettes, a production diary, essays on his documentaries, and the original trailers (that are horrible at selling the film).  All in all, this is one of the best releases I have found in awhile.

You also get this quote from Steve Beard:
“Looks like Tarkovsky on acid and feels like Nightmare on Elm Street placed through a cultural blender.”  Whatever that means.

-J. Moret

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