Dust Devil (1992)

There is a lot in common between my blog and the filmography of Richard Stanley. They’re both essentially uncommercial works, they are based on a love of cinema and belief in the scope of what movies can be, and they both rely on introspection interspersed with brutal violence. But whilst I do quick reads about other people’s work for free, he convinces people to give him millions of dollars to make two-hour gothic epics set in random deserts. Also; he once got driven crazy by Val Kilmer, but that’s a whole other story.

“Subtext is for cowards”

The story here is in three main parts. The first involves the physical manifestation of the wind of the Namibian desert (Robert Burke), going on a bit of a murder spree around the countryside. It starts kind of sexy, in that slinky gothy way people loved in the 90s, and then just goes horrible because did we mention the murder bit? He meets Wendy (Chelsea Field), who recently dumped an absolute dickhead (Rufus Swart), and decides to seduce her into letting him murder her and then do just quite horrible things to her corpse.

The correct response to that kind of thing

This plays out like a cross between The Hitcher and The Crow, but with lots of talking bits, some interesting demonstrations of how much you can gaslight someone if you’re a supernatural creature with undefined powers, and a general air of menace. That bit’s important, because whilst Robert Burke is a good-looking chap and carries himself with a suave sophistication the film makes it clear that he’s out to murder people because he likes it and that his justifications are just bullshit. Yes, he looks great in that hat and coat, but he’s still just Dennis Nelson with a good tailor.

…God damn, he even looks cool having a kip in the middle of the road.

Another part of it is police officer Mukurob (the legend that is Zakes Mokae) trying to track down the Dust Devil, because the police have noticed all the mutilated corpses and burning buildings. His mission involves police work, getting plot dumps from witch doctors, and dealing with the racist and colonial bullshit that comes from becoming independent from South Africa about a month before the film started shooting). It’s the more directly politically charged of the stories, but it’s all handled suggestively because these are people living in that situation and they just know the score.

“Excuse me whilst I act everyone else into the ground, but I am incredibly good at this”

Richard Stanley was South African, and the casual racism in the world of the story is handled depressingly realistically. That the Dust Devil is white, and there is a lot of discussion about it being drawn to death, gives a joyful subtext to the narrative. It’s also one you can easily miss if you don’t know the history of the location where it’s set and, in a real stroke of genius, you won’t know that you’re missing it. It’s multi-layered subtext, even under the more overt examples, giving extra layers to a story already open to a variety of interpretations

Goth As Fuck!

Eventually the two stories meet, as such stories are wanting to do, and we get to see Wendy and Mukurob deal with their traumas in their own ways. Neither character is given the cliché of changing or suddenly becoming stronger, instead they solidify into what they already were. The Dust Devil continues being itself, although a small portion of pathos is delivered which ups the ante without making you feel too sorry for it. Then, finally, there is a satisfying conclusion to the whole story, which might leave you pondering for a while.

“I’d fuck me, I’d fuck me hard”

The third bit is what will either make or break the film for you, and that’s Richard Stanley twiddling around with arty shots, fever dream moments, and taking his own sweet time over everything. It swings between surreal, semi-mystical, and overblown with the assumption that you don’t feel the need to have anything explicitly explained and you’re more than happy sitting through it all. You get an absolute sense that he made music videos in the 80s, and that he might have been trying to slip a couple into this production. Oh, and there are lots of really nice shots of the desert. To the point of wondering if it was sponsored by the Namibian Tourist Board. You can’t blame Stanley for including them though, as frankly it was there and it looks fantastic. But his cut (there are three versions out there) came in at 108 minutes long, so you might start to find them a bit excessive.

So 80s it closed a coalmine

Lots of this kind of thing, all the way through

And that is where the weakness of the film really comes through. It’s wonderfully shot, it’s wonderfully acted, and it’s absolutely filled with ideas at every point. But they are all given their time to shine and, even with narration to help you know what the heck is going on, the film really doesn’t want to give you much explanation for anything it doesn’t have to. It want’s to give you things to think about and draw your own ideas about, and it wants to give you time to think about them. This means a lot of people will end up thinking “this could have been 30 minutes shorter”, even if it’s just to remove some of the weaker and less wacky moments. (There is a 30 minutes shorter version, but it’s quite shit unless you’ve seen the original).

“Did I leave the gas on?”

Personally, I bloody loved it. It’s got a sense of self-belief and self-identity that more supernatural slasher films need. It has a visual style that it sticks to and which is unrelentingly magnificent, and a willingness to use subtext and suggestion as well as just outright strangeness. If you can get caught up in it then it’s an absolute Treasure, and it’ll be worth an extra watch to deal with the rich environment it builds. If not, then at the very least it’ll look devastatingly pretty.

The Raggedyman

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