Directed by Richard Stanley
GHOUL RATING: ****(*) 4+
This is a review of the Optimum DVD release, which came out before the superlative, definitive one (4 DVD discs + 1 CD with the soundtrack), by Subversive Cinema.
DUST DEVIL is the best kept secret of horror film in the past 20 years.
Of course, the title is known among the cult aficionados and the initiated few, but as far as the wider public goes, including many who call themselves 'horror fans', Richard Stanley's masterpiece is yet to be discovered. It had a troubled production history with as many twists and turns as the movie itself, and its release has been virtually botched. Miramax excised more than 15 minutes from the director's cut, and since then the original version remained unavailable for quite a while. There was a German DVD (by Laser Paradise) in 2003, with a tolerable but far from perfect transfer, as the only chance to see the full, 104' version – until now. Optimum Release has come up with a new digital transfer (done by MGM in 2001), and the full glory of DUST DEVIL can finally be unleashed upon the Region 2 viewers.
It was worth the wait, since the film remains as powerful as it was 15 years ago, and its qualities are timeless just like the Namibian desert where it takes place. It is an eclectic blend of spaghetti western, serial killer thriller, dark romance and mysticism, crafted into a spiraling tale of a supernatural entity from the title. He/it assumes the form of a spooky Clint Eastwood as 'the man with no name' from Sergio Leone's westerns. Excellently played by Robert Burke, this 'devil' is the last image burnt into the retinas of unlucky drivers through the oldest desert in the world. Those who give him a ride are found later, their bodies cut to pieces, their blood used for 'primitive', though elaborate murals. But, as the tagline warns: ''He's not a serial killer: he's much worse.'' He/it is an ancient demon, trapped in the material world, attempting to get a release ''through the ritual of murder''. He frees the spark of light from his suicidal victims (for there's a catch: he only comes to those who have already given up on life) trying to come back to the original spiritual kingdom.
In this part of his journey he accompanies a young woman (Chelsea Field) running away from an abusive husband. She is contemplating suicide, but the hitcher stops her: even the ancient spirit gets lonely sometimes, and decides to use her company and affection for a while. In the meantime his bloody tracks are followed by a black policeman (Zakes Mokae, the creepy dictator from THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW) haunted by demons of his own and slowed down by his brutish, racist South African subordinates. This dance with the devil will eventually take all of them to the center of the spiral, a deserted town half-swallowed by the desert sand, for a blood-spurting showdown... The film is complimented by the beautiful cinematography (Steven Chivers, who also shot Stanley's HARDWARE) and the stunning score, maybe the best of his career, by Simon Boswell (why is this guy not more famous?). The soundtrack effectively merges Morricone's spaghetti western sounds with Goldsmith's THE OMEN large-scale doom'n'gloom and Boswell's own elegiac flute tones, as memorable here as they were in Jodorowsky's SANTA SANGRE.
DUST DEVIL is a unique piece of visionary filmmaking the likes of which are rarely found in horror genre lately. Other than its technical mastery, it is a horror that actually has something on its mind. It is rooted in the Gnostic belief that our world is a mistake, a failure. Material existence is a product of the Evil Demiurge, a malevolent deity. The real God is overthrown, powerless. The Gnostics believed that everything, from far-off stars to the nuclei of our cells carries the mark of the original imperfection inherent to the Creation. In the midst of this material darkness there is a spark of light, conceived by the original God, as a trace of our true being. The goal of a Gnostic is to tear through the veil of delusion and burst through the screen of false reality into his original homeland, the otherworldly realm of the True God. Stanley admitted this much about DUST DEVIL in one interview: ''It basically dispenses with conventional morality and tries to replace it with a totally different idea of movement toward the spirit or away from the spirit.''
The Devil is, obviously, a figure that Stanley deeply sympathizes with, and he's presented in the film knowingly, with numerous allusions to the multifaceted archetype invoked. Stanley's Devil is a Stranger, an Alien, a Man with No Name. A Shape-shifter: bringer of instability, enemy of fixity. The Great Pretender, Actor, Liar, Fool, the Man with a thousand faces. Dweller of the Crossroads, gateways, bridges, crosses where worlds intertwine; Guardian of the Gate of Passage, the top Initiator. Inhabitant of the Desert, bringer of extremes, Avatar of emptiness and desolation – or transformation. He's the One from the mirror, the other side of reflection: the double, the doppelganger. Defined by the fire, heat, flaming red, shimmering of the hot air above the desert dust or asphalt, the deceiving fatamorgana. A haunted, roaming soul. A Damned One who feeds on the damned. Ambivalent shadow of 'Evil' through the centuries. Anti-hero, dissatisfied with the assigned role. Ultimately, a puppet whose strings are in the hands of the Evil Demiurge.
Namibian desert, the oldest in the world, becomes the most adequate stage for the primeval, timeless drama. South Africa is at the Edge of the World, both geographically and symbolically. Stanley describes this place in his production diaries as ''a land that no longer seems to be part of man's universe, an untenanted, unfinished world, the terrain of Gods and Spirits''. Kubrick used a similar location for the opening segment ('Dawn of Man') of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and in Stanley's vision it is the stage for the 'Twilight of Man' as well.
This is the edge of the abyss.
What lies beyond?
It's either destruction or transformation.
In this place even the Devil is not a metaphor or psychological concept but a very possible, even tangible reality: a roaming spirit at the beginning and end of the world.
Optimum's presentation of the film is quite decent: the anamorphic image (in 1.85:1) is sharp most of the time, though certain contrasts leave some to be desired. The stereo sound is excellent, while occasional minor faults have to do with the original source and difficult circumstances of filming. There are four brief deleted scenes (all in poor transfer, probably from a VHS tape) that do not add much to the film, but the main extra is director's commentary. Highly vivacious, informative, funny, intelligent and personal, it is also helpful since Stanley explains some of the occult symbolism and points towards subtle visual and other allusions and signs throughout the film, thus further showing how much care, thought and passion has gone into its making. So, open up yourselves to the glories of DUST DEVIL, and if you're hooked, you'll probably want more. And more is coming this autumn, when Subversive Cinema releases the ultimate edition of DUST DEVIL on R1 DVD with a new commentary and a bunch of extras, plus ingenious documentaries by Stanley, dealing with voodoo and Nazi search for the Holy Grail.