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Dust Devil - director's cut
cast: Robert John Burke, Chelsea Field, Zakes Mokae, John Matshikiza, and William Hootkins

director: Richard Stanley

104 minutes (18) 1992
widescreen ratio 16:9
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
When Richard Stanley made Hardware (1990) it quickly became a minor cult favourite. In that film, a nomad scavenger recovered a robotic head, from the sands of a post catastrophic Earth, and brought it back to his wife to form a piece of art, which then took on a life of its own. His next project, secured on that first success, retains some echoes of it for in a sense it is Stanley's own head we now find out in the desert, shooting what turned out to be an art house project, one which also features a nomadic character and a female under threat. When the director turned in his work however, it found less favour. A slow moving film, handicapped by self consciously portentous narration, symbolic in content and with a unique flavour owing much to Sergio Leone, Jodorowsky and Argento, it was never going to be easy fare to a front office which, presumably, expected something far more stereotypically generic.

The result was that Stanley's film was cut down, shorn of some interesting 20 minutes or so, and issued in the US under the title Demonica - a version that the director rightly repudiated. Like the regenerating artwork in Hardware, however it was a film that refused to go away, word of the original version treasured by a small legion of loyal admirers down the years. Meanwhile, the director's career took a nosedive, and he became one of a small and select group of talented directors, who, after making an initial impressive impact fade away into television or less prestigious work. Stanley's nadir was reached with the fiasco of The Island Of Dr Moreau (which he wrote) and the evidently still unfinished semi-documentary The Secret Glory (2001).

Fortunately the advent of DVD has served to belatedly revive many a reputation, and his film has now made an appearance - most notably in an extravagant multiple-disc edition put out a while ago by Subversive Cinema, that included both versions of the film, the soundtrack, documentaries, The Secret Glory, and much else besides. The UK release is much more modest (this reviewer is only looking at a single disc) but still provides an effective presentation of a movie which is still not without flaws but is well worth investigating.

Writer-director Stanley's plot focuses partly on the 'dust devil' that walks the Earth, in this case specifically a beautifully shot Namibia. The creature has human form (Robert John Burke), but is in reality "a shape shifter, who seeks power over the physical world by the ritual act of murder´┐Ż preying on the damned, the weak... and the faithless." In an early shot, the fiend is shown with the massive horns of some mounted beast framing either side of his head, like some giant Goat of Mendes, neatly emphasising the eternal devil in his makeup. Likewise fallen from his original seat among the spirits, he seeks to return to where he presumably came from by pursuing his fatal work, which includes horribly mutilating female victims. Thus, at least in one sense, Dust Devil is the tale of a character's search for grisly fulfilment. Intertwined with his fate is that of estranged wife Wendy Robinson (Chelsea Field) who, after leaving her violent partner, is driving to the sea in an attempt to re-orientate her life. Given that the dust devil is most attracted to those who have given up on life - at one point Wendy contemplates slashing her wrists - it is certain that she is to be his next victim. After an introduction during which we see the gruesome despatch of an earlier victim, we fear the worst, especially as the sexual allure of the devil draws the two together and in his magnetic presence the wife finds temporary fulfilment of a different sort.

At the same time the film also uses a third character to help sketch in some mythological detail to the story. Weary black cop Ben Mukurub (Zakes Mokae), haunted by the death of his son in war some years back, initially sceptical about the forces he confronts, obsesses about the dust devil and gradually tracks him down. While devil and Wendy provide most of the film's dynamic aspects, the cop allows more contemplative elements to creep in, as does as a voiceover (an element of the film which has attracted the most criticism) which sometimes obscurely places events in a mystical, national and historical content, none of which is really memorable.

Stanley's film is considerably buoyed up by some marvellous cinematography, which goes a long way in compensating for the self-indulgences elsewhere. Whether or not an audience takes to its deliberate pacing - variously accounted 'hypnotic' ... 'slow moving' or 'tedious' by reviewers - will depend, one imagines, on how active the viewer feels a story like this deserves to be but it is certainly a creative individual's film. Those who enjoyed the atmosphere of Cammell's White Of The Eye (1982) for instance, in which irrationality and fear lie just below the surface, will find a certain familiarity here. But Dust Devil's unique blend of Namibia, mythology and mutilation is all its own and it deserves a reappearance.

The pared down UK DVD release includes a welcome director's commentary, a few deleted scenes and trailer. Stanley's attempts to see his original version (this is now 'the final cut', after the director apparently did some re-editing, paid for out of his own pocket) back in the light of day is almost as interesting as his film. The good news is that a revival of interest in his talent means that he has recently written two more films ('Stray' and 'The Abandoned', both 2006) and one hopes that he is once again given the chance to direct.
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