Brilliant Failure: Dust Devil (Richard Stanley, 1992)

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According to Richard Stanley, the idea for Dust Devil came to him in a dream whilst studying at Cape Town Film School, and the roots of the project are evident in the vividly realised opening sequence that is mostly free of dialogue and drenched in a feverish atmosphere reminiscent of Dario Argento at his peak.

A woman picks up a hitch-hiker in the middle of the Namibian desert and takes him home for a one-night stand, only for the hitch-hiker to murder her, then set fire to the house and drive away. Set to Simon Boswell’s ominous score, it introduces a hypnotic hybrid of slasher thriller, spaghetti western and social-political commentary which makes up for occasional lapses in logic with hallucinatory visuals and some sense of the racial tension that was rupturing the fabric of South Africa at the time of production.

Aside from Stanley’s nightmares, the basis for Dust Devil was a serial killer case which brought terror to the town of Bethany in the early 1980s; the victims were mainly migrant workers and railway employees, while the police failed to identify any suspects leading to a local legend that the murders were committed by a supernatural force. Eventually, officers engaged in a shoot-out in the canyons and brought back the body of a man that they insisted was the killer, but the corpse could not be identified due to the fact that the head had been blown off. Although there was little evidence to support their conclusion, the case was considered closed.

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Dust Devil subscribes to the mystical interpretation of the murders; Hitch (Robert Burke) is a shape-shifting demon who seduces women before murdering them in a ritualistic manner that suggests sacrificial significance. Wendy (Chelsea Field) is a frustrated white housewife who storms out on her husband Mark (Rufus Swart) and drives out into the desert where she picks up the enigmatic Hitch. Ben Mukurob (Zakes Mokae) is a black policeman, haunted by the death of his son fifteen years earlier and obsessed with apprehending the serial killer, even though local shaman Joe (John Matshikizia) has warned him of supernatural evil, insisting that, ‘He preys upon the damned, the weak, the faithless. He draws them to him and he sucks them dry. We are nothing to him, we’re dust in the wind.’ Wendy is attracted to Hitch, but must fight for her life when she realises his true nature, leading to a final confrontation in an abandoned movie theatre.

The failure surrounding Dust Devil actually has little to do with the film itself, rather the manner in which it was mistreated by its transatlantic production partners, Miramax and Palace Pictures. The two companies had previously produced Stanley’s first feature Hardware (1990) – a ruthlessly efficient science-fiction shocker about a defunct military cyborg which rebuilds itself and goes on the rampage in a dilapidated apartment block – and expected the director to deliver another easily marketable genre item. Confronted with Stanley’s surreal vision of a South Africa caught in racial turmoil and an American-accented villain who considers himself to be a ‘tourist’ amid the madness, Miramax chairman Harvery Weinstein hacked Dust Devil from 120 minutes to a mere 87 minutes and released it to some territories under the title Demonica. For the UK market, Stanley prepared what could be termed a ‘compromise cut’ running 95 minutes, only for Palace to announce bankruptcy; Polygram picked up the distribution rights but subsequently shelved the project. However, the determined Stanley discovered that one of Palace’s creditors was in possession of a copy of the 87 minute version and persuaded him to hand over the negative, then tracked down the rest of the rushes and excised footage to a storage locker in Hertfordshire. In the months that followed, Stanley invested £40,000 of his own money in re-editing and re-dubbing Dust Devil, delivering a 105 minute version to Polygram which received a brief UK theatrical release.

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Zakes Mokae as policeman Ben Mukurob

The behind-the-scenes drama of Dust Devil filters through the final version to the point that the flaws in Stanley’s visionary horror film somehow add to its cult appeal and become talking points rather than complaints: Wendy is a largely unsympathetic character, possibly because Chelsea Field was cast at the insistence of Miramax, or the result of a conscious decision by Stanley to portray the white population of South Africa as blindly self-centred, while the Dust Devil is perhaps not as culturally specific as Stanley originally envisioned, a demonic figure drawn from South African folklore but one who shares characteristics with the antagonists of such American genre pieces as The Terminator (1984) and The Hitcher (1986). This may leave Dust Devil without an emotional anchor, but it also makes for an unpredictable experience that is as scary and spectacular as the landscape in which it is located.


Watch the trailer


John Berra

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