A psychotic mix of horror and western, South African style!
In the early 90s, South African director Richard Stanley was a young director with a short but promising career directing music videos and documentaries. After finishing his first feature length film, the horror and sci-fi hybrid Hardware in 1990, Stanley started working on his dream project: a horror film very loosely based on the Nhadiep, a Namibian mythical serial killer.
This project became a reality with the name of Dust Devil and was finally completed and released on 1992. Sadly, the film released wasn’t exactly Stanley’s film, as a series of problems with its production company (as well as with Miramax, its distributor) resulted in the complete mutilation of Stanley’s Dust Devil and its subsequent failure. Fortunately, Stanley recovered his film and re-edited a version closer to his ideal, and finally, the legendary Dust Devil: The Final Cut, became available in a way similar to the one its creator intended.
A serial killer (Robert John Burke) is on the loose across the enormous desert located on the border between South Africa and Namibia, and so far the police has been unable to locate the mysterious hitchhiker. Officer Ben Mukurob (Zakes Mokae) is determined to catch the killer, who the locals think is an incarnation of the Dust Devil, a shape-shifter who devours human souls. A skeptic, Mukurob will have to face not only the local superstitions, but also his country’s racism and his own inner demons in his quest across the desert. In the meantime, Wendy Robinson (Chelsea Field) abandons her husband Mark (Rufus Swart) after a big fight and sets towards the desert looking for an escape from her life. However, what she finds on the road is the figure of the hitchhiker, as the Dust Devil has chosen her as his next victim.
Written by director Richard Stanley himself, Dust Devil is a film that walks the dangerous line between harsh realism and surreal fantasy, however, Stanley manages to keep the film together without sacrificing any of its elements or cheapening the plot with unnecessary silliness or comedy. True, the supernatural plays an important role in the film, but the way the characters are developed (there is not a hero in the traditional sense) is haunting and very believable. While at its core Dust Devil is about a ruthless serial killer on the loose, the added elements of folklore and magic do give the story a captivating feeling that makes it stand out among similar films, and that gives the film a soul and identity of its own.
The plot is very attractive and unusual, but what really makes Dust Devil a gem is the amazing way the director builds up the movie. With an outstanding cinematography (by Steven Chivers) that certainly owes a lot to the Western genre (as well as his own previous work at making documentaries), Richard Stanley captures the beauty of the Namibian desert and makes it another important character of his film. Along with the cinematography, Simon Boswell’s brilliant original score is the other element that completes Stanley’s haunting vision of the horror of the desert. Another important thing to point out is that “The Final Cut” version is probably the one that shows the better pace, as it’s neither illogical and incomplete as the theatrical one, nor slightly overlong as the Director’s Cut sounds. “The Final Cut” is probably Stanley’s best “version” of the film.
The acting is overall very good, with Robert John Burke giving an exceptional job as the Dust Devil by being both attractive and frightening at the same time. One can easily understand why people pick the charming hitchhiker because Burke really makes him likable. Chelsea Field is also very good in what would be the “main” role despite being a really unsympathetic character. However, the film belongs to Zakes Mokae, who delivers a terrific performance (almost completely cut in Miramax’s cut!) and essentially is the heart of the film. John Matshikiza appears in a small yet very important role, as well as being the Narrator of the film, both jobs are very good as he steals every scene he is in. Rufus Swart is really the only problem of the film, although that has probably more to do with the odd dubbing done by the sound department of the film.
While this Final Cut of Dust Devil is near flawless and probably the best this film will ever be, there are some minor quibble found in the movie that stop it from being perfect. The biggest problem I found was the bad work of dubbing done in post-production, as at times (specially at the beginning) it just doesn’t feel right and it diminishes the impact of the cast’s performances. It’s easy to understand why Dust Devil received such a cold reception on its day, as much of the film’s charm relies so on the mystic aspects of its plot that were cut by Miramax; and after watching “The Final Cut” (arguably the final Director’s Cut) it becomes unthinkable to cut those elements out.
Dust Devil, now in its “complete” version, is truly a remarkable horror film that successfully mixes graphic gory realism with a supernatural mythology. It’s captivating cinematography and wonderful score are highly artistic elements that complete an overall brilliant film of great quality. I wouldn’t say it’s a must-have, but it’s definitely a film that every horror fan should check out.
Trailer (The Final Cut):