Dust Devil (1992)
The basic plot: In South America, a series of gruesome murders are committed by shape-shifting demon known as the “Dust Devil” (Robert John Burke), who targets lonely and suicidal individuals who have nothing left to live for. Wendy Robinson (Chelsea Field) is driving across the Namibia and South African deserts while fleeing from her husband Mark (Rufus Swart) and picks up a mysterious hitchhiker, while tormented policeman Ben Mukurob (Zakes Mokae) enlists the help of near-insane shaman Joe Niemand (John Matishikiza) in order to solve the ritualistic murders.
Det. Abilene’s rating for all versions of Dust Devil:
Theatrical Cut: 3 (out of 5)
The Final Cut: 5 (out of 5)
Workprint Cut: 4.5 (out of 5)
Analysis: A criminally underrated, fascinating hybrid of horror, melodrama, science fiction, and Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, Dust Devil is a cerebral and atmospheric gem that grows increasingly hypnotic with each viewing. As indicated above, the film nearly defies description in aura, as it largely skewers a linear storyline and functions largely as chilling mood piece rather than a traditional thriller. The movie’s loose, deliberately-paced narrative allows the viewer to become fully emerged in the film’s surreal world, and the strong characterizations from the cast bring a reality to the proceedings that keep the picture accessible. In spite of the rather minimal plot (which is more or less accurately described in the plot summary above) the film is overflowing with intriguing ideas and remains almost obsessively compelling until the very last frame.
Unfortunately, the film may have been too artsy for it’s own good, as distributer Miramax panicked when they saw director Richard Stanley’s 110-minute director’s cut, which they found slow moving and confusing. Miramax decided to prepare their own edit of the film by editing out over 20-minutes and whittling the runtime down to a scant 87-minutes, which eliminates or reduces a couple subplots, deemphasizes the film’s supernatural elements, and adds in some newly-shot footage. The film received some limited theatrical distribution in Japan, Germany, Portugal, France, and the UK in the fall and spring of ‘92/’93, but Miramax decided against releasing the film in US theaters. Instead, the 87-minute studio cut of film was eventually dumped onto home video in the US on October 13, 1993.
It is with that old ’93 VHS videotape released via a deal through Paramount Home Video that I was first introduced the fascinating world of Dust Devil. Perhaps it is because of it was my initial (and for over 10 years, my only) experience with the film, but I don’t consider the 87-minute Miramax cut to be the unholy travesty that many of Stanley’s fans seem to think. While Miramax were completely wrong in decision to reedit Stanley’s vision and all of the changes they were totally unnecessary, the central strengths of the film remain in a more streamlined, less rewarding manner. It seems as though Miramax thought they could make the film more of “commercial” thriller by eliminate much of the film’s supernatural trappings, but no amount of tinkering could ever make Dust Devil anything approaching commercial.
Having enjoyed the Miramax butchery of the film for 12 years, it was with great excitement when it was announced in 2005 that Subversive Cinema and Richard Stanley would reconstruct and release a Stanley-approved cut of the film. Subtitled The Final Cut, this 108-minute edit recreates much of Stanley’s original vision of the film, and it demonstrates the obtrusive nature of the Miramax edits. Many of the scenes in the Miramax version were edited in a completely different manner from The Final Cut, and the Miramax edit also uses many alternate takes and altered lines of dialogue that change the focus of many scenes. For a detailed analysis of the differences between the Miramax version and The Final Cut, please check out the fantastic “Terror Obscura” page here .
Not surprisingly, The Final Cut is a richer and more rewarding experience, highlighting the flaws of the Miramax version in hindsight. Simply put, everything runs much more smoothly in The Final Cut allowing viewers to become further entranced in the film’s spell, which was somewhat destroyed in the more crudely edited Miramax cut. More than ever, Stanley’s cut restores the otherworldly element that Miramax seem desperate to normalize, unaware that the movie’s uniqueness would have been one it’s greatest achievements. The biggest advantage to The Final Cut, however, is that the film’s sharply drawn character arcs are finally reinstated.
In particular, The Final Cut especially benefits the “Ben Mukurob” character, who seemed like a motiveless cop with an unhealthy obsession with the Dust Devil that was never adequately address in the abbreviated Miramax cut. The Final Cut restores an entire subplot involving Mukurob’s real motivation for stopping the Dust Devil, involving the death of his son and estrangement of his wife. This subplot includes nightmares and apparitions that feature some hauntingly memorable imagery, which probably lead Miramax to delete this important story thread because of the supernatural-themed dream sequence and because it suggests that the Dust Devil has been killing for years – both of which contradict with the “non-supernatural” thriller that Miramax was trying to craft the film into becoming. As Mukurob, Zakes Mokae’s dignified and almost graceful portrayal has always been one of the strongest aspects of the film, and his excellent performance is enhanced even further with his full character arc reinstated.
If Mokae’s performance is exceptional, then Robert John Burke is a near revelation as the titular demonic desperado. Burke is obviously a handsome, leanly muscular hunk in the rugged Clint Eastwood fashion, and this murderous mystery man seems all the more dangerous due to Burke’s immense sexual attractiveness. The Final Cut restores further complexities to Burke’s portrayal, particularly his almost sympathetic stance towards the women that his demonic side eventually drives him to kill. Burke completely nails this seemingly unplayable role of the compassionate, sexy, and terrifying demonic murderer in a performance that simply could not be improved upon.
In both The Final Cut and the original Miramax edit, the character of Wendy Robinson is one of the most strongly-developed female heroines in horror movie history (although it’s not like there are many contenders for that title). Instead of following the traditional thriller format of making the clichéd transformation from mousy wallflower to ass-kicking bombshell, Wendy is a tough cookie from the onset, defiantly walking out on her husband and meeting every challenge she faces head on with aplomb – yet there is an underlying desperation and sadness to Wendy that is ever-present underneath her external toughness. The earthy beauty Chelsea Field perfectly handles Wendy’s strong/vulnerable dichotomy, delivering an effortlessly affecting portrayal even in the completely silent moments such as the achingly serene moment in which she contemplates suicide in her hotel bathtub. In addition to being the central protagonist, Wendy completes the triangle that began with Mukurob and the Dust Devil, each of them seeming to be more than evenly matched in the inevitable climax.
The supporting characters are also further developed and improved in The Final Cut, particularly the transformation of Rufus Swart’s Mark Robinson from a caricature into real man. With a few dropped shots and some overdubbed dialogue, Miramax had basically turned Mark into somewhat of a buffoon but The Final Cut fleshes him out as an insecure man who’s major undoing is that he wants to control the headstrong woman that he loves. John Matishikiza’s oddball, near-blind shaman/cinema projectionist makes a strong impression in both cuts, but reinstating the film’s various supernatural elements further justifies his character’s presence in the film. As the narrator of the film, Matishikiza’s introduction and concluding voiceover were altered and “dumbed down” by Miramax in the original cut, but The Final Cut also restores both voiceovers to their original, more mystical text.
As anyone who seen Stanley’s previous picture Hardware can attest, the young director (only 25 years old at the time of this film) knows how to use limited means to make a beautifully-looking film. Virtually each and every frame of the filming is breathtakingly gorgeous, as if we are looking at some great painting by Van Gough or Dali. The film was made with a budget of less than $6-million, but it looks as if it literally cost 10 times that amount – I would dare say that it is possibly the finest-lensed “horror” film ever released. The ominous Simon Boswelll musical score is also eerily effective, sounding very much like an Ennio Morricone score but with an decidedly original slant all it’s own.
In addition to The Final Cut, Subversive Cinema and Stanley have also issued a special 115-minute “workprint” cut, featuring an additional seven minutes of even more footage that Stanley elected not to reinstate to The Final Cut. The additional footage in the workprint cut is obviously sourced from an old video tape with deteriorating picture quality and even the original tracking code at the bottom, but the footage is still fascinating to see imploded back into the film. Frankly, most of this footage is nothing more than a few extensions and additional shots, and The Final Cut is overall a much tighter, definitive version of the film. However, the scene where Ben sees that apparition of his wife holding his dead child at the finale hauntingly brings his arc to a close, and I wish that this particular moment had found it’s way into The Final Cut.
Dust Devil was Stanley’s second film after his directorial debut Hardware became a sleeper success at the box office, grossing nearly four times it’s budget. Unfortunately, Stanley did not enjoy the rewarding directing career that he should have had, and (after the entire fiasco with Dust Devil that is detailed above) Stanley’s was shockingly fired as director of 1996’s big-budget Island of Dr. Moreau after an argument with temperamental star Val Kilmer. Stanley has since only directed documentary features and some random television fare, although he is reportedly working on a narrative feature film for 2012. It is with my sincere hope this will serve as Stanley’s reemergence as a feature film director, as his was one of the most promising genre directors of his generation and was silenced far too soon.
Bottom Line: One of the most unusual, serene, and thoughtful thrillers ever made, Richard Stanley atonal Dust Devil will not be to everyone’s liking, but those who appreciate the cinema’s more challenging works will be rewarded with an unforgettable experience.
Deputy Jay’s Commentary :
I can admit upfront that I didn’t like Dust Devil very much the first time I saw, as it left me feeling unsatisfied, confused, and empty. In retrospect, I think that this largely because Miramax had billed the film as sort of a “Silence of the Lambs in the desert” and I think I felt misled after seeing the actual picture.
However, to the film’s credit, I couldn’t forget it and found myself returning to it every few years as if it’s spell was drawing me back in. With each additional viewing, I slowly became aware of it’s greatness and it is a picture that I still get engrossed in whenever I re-watch it.
Now after living with The Final Cut for a few years, I honestly believe that Miramax’s hack job is what I had initially found off-putting, and that it was Stanley’s original vision that kept drawing me in. As Robb stated, this definitely a one-of-a-kind picture, and perhaps (in this day of assembling line moviemaking) that in and of itself should be enough reason to cheer.
The film’s performances are uniformly strong, quickly hooking us on these damaged, desperate characters. Both Chelsea Field and Zakes Mokae are especially good, and bring real dimension to their roles that many lesser actors would have skimmed over.
The film belongs to Robert Burke, however, as the sexiest spawn of Satan that you will ever be privileged enough to see. Even though we know he’s a murderous demon, you’d still never kick Burke out of bed due to steel-eyed gaze and gorgeous bare chest.
And while the film may be too arty for the traditional horror crowd, the film is still loaded with enough gore (something that Robb didn’t really touch on) to be worth a look for more mainstream horror fans. With severed limbs, blood-soaked walls, and exploding heads, Dust Devil certainly delivers horror fans the grisly goods.
Deputy Jay’s Rating : 4 (out of 5)