Original Release Date: October 13, 1993 (USA)
Running Time: 88 minutes (theatrical) / 105 minutes (director’s cut)
Editor’s Note: This film, due to distribution by multiple production companies in different countries, has multiple versions available that different audiences have seen. The original theatrical cut was trimmed significantly by the production company, coming in at under 90 minutes long, but the cut preferred and created specifically by the film’s director, Richard Stanley, runs at 105 minutes long. This second version is called “The Final Cut” or “The Director’s Cut,” and for clarity’s sake it’s important to note that this is the version of the film being reviewed here.
Horror movies are often over-the-top and violent. They are often filled with overt sexual imagery. They deal with superstitions or legendary characters coming to life, seeking bloody revenge for some reason or another. And while Richard Stanley’s film Dust Devil deals with all of these things to a certain extent, it does so with an element that most horror films never consider: beauty.
In the film, Robert John Burke portrays the Dust Devil, the embodiment of a South African legend. He is unbridled fury in the shell of a man; he looks like an angrier version of Crocodile Dundee. Wearing a sun-bleached trenchcoat, a hat decorated with teeth, and leather bags filled with mysterious weaponry and ritualistic tribal implements, the Dust Devil blends in with the world around him while unable to ever truly be a part of it. He is driven to kill those who are suicidal and despondent – those who are “ready to go.” Every murder brings him one step closer to his transformation from a shape-shifting man creature back into an elemental force, the winds of a sandstorm.
If William Congreve was right and Hell truly hath no fury like a woman scorned, then Hell drives a Volkswagen Beetle. Wendy Robinson (Chelsea Field) has about had it with her abusive husband Mark (Rufus Swart). After one closed-fist kiss too many, Wendy, an emotional wreck, takes off across South Africa on a soul-searching mission. Actually, it’s more of a soul spot-check, because very quickly, Wendy is sitting in a bathtub staring intently at a shiny, shiny razor blade. Unwillingly, she has called the Dust Devil to her side.
Detective Ben Mukurob (the criminally underrated Zakes Mokae) is a man caught between two worlds. As a police officer, he is committed to hunting down a serial killer. But his spiritual side keeps poking its nose in where it doesn’t belong. His friend Joe (John Matshikiza), a holy man, warns him that he isn’t hunting a man; he’s hunting a demon, something that cannot be compartmentalized or profiled, something that refuses to be encapsulated on a rap sheet. The internal battle and the external job collide, leaving Mukurob at his most fragile and most vulnerable.
All of these people are on a path that converges in a ruined town called Bethany, which is slowly being reclaimed by the Namibian desert. It isn’t pleasant. It cannot be happy. And it will not end like you think.
Let’s flense this film and put it through the GASP Factor.
G: General Entertainment – In some ways, Dust Devil would have fit right in with the current wave of revisionist fairy tale movies. It feels like an old tale, a terrible myth brought to screeching life before your eyes. From the moment the Dust Devil walks on screen, he is a commanding presence, something primal wrapped in a veneer of modernity, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The character anchors the film firmly both in the now and in the never, as he should; if you can’t buy Burke as the Dust Devil, you can’t buy the movie at all. I was entranced from the get-go, and although the movie is leisurely paced, it never drags. It moves on the kinetic energy of Burke’s restrained, empathetic performance and Stanley’s incredible direction. 8/10
A: Actuality – One of the things that makes Dust Devil unique, especially among modern horror offerings, is character development. It follows a Blade Runner model (the theatrical version), incorporating a voiceover when necessary to provide back-story while actually showing the growth of the characters within the body of the film. It sounds awkward, but everything flows together quite nicely. It is like having someone read a gorgeous yet chilling picture book aloud to you. You can’t take your eyes off the images and you can’t stop listening. 8/10
S: Story – Dust Devil is story driven. It isn’t an exploitation film, barreling along from nonsense to nonsense to make sure it hits the “one kill for every twelve minutes” ratio. It’s a mythos, and it resonates with a grandeur not often found in American horror. Dust Devil is inherently South African. There are scenes totally spoken in Afrikaans. Apartheid, which was slowly dying when the film was shot in 1992, rears its snake-like head and wends its way in and throughout the script. These touches lend real world gravity to an essentially otherworldly story. 8/10
P: Presentation – The movie ranges in location from Johannesburg to Bethany to the deserts of Namibia. Everything is covered with a fine sheen of sand; the whole movie looks like an exquisite terra cotta painting. There’s a real sense of agoraphobia here. The wide open spaces seem more threatening than the close dark interiors. Even more terrifying are the times when the outside comes in; sand piles up in drifts inside abandoned buildings, blocking doorways and making movement difficult. In the middle of it all resides the Dust Devil himself, with the power to summon storms and take lives, a barely-contained element himself. It is filthy and beautiful, terrifying and graceful and nothing short of amazing. 10/10
TOTAL SCORE: 8.5/10
Dust Devil is a demanding film. It insists that you be patient. It requires that you let it tell its tale at its own pace. There’s no hyperkinetic editing here, no subliminal storytelling. This is small-scale epic filmmaking, a creepy chamber piece that grasps after greatness and very nearly succeeds. The slow, deliberate pace may throw some viewers off. I can also understand how someone could become lost if they aren’t giving Dust Devil their full attention. This isn’t the movie to watch in a noisy house. It is a movie to be absorbed, savored and, finally, treasured.