-Written by Greg B
Ok, so im gonna make an admission at the very beginning of this review, Dust Devil probably can’t be considered a horror movie, at least not in the purely generic sense of the word. There seems to be a tendency to slot movies that defy generic catagorisation into the horror pigeon hole (one only has to think of Eraserhead, Tetsuo or even Sante Sangre), although in reality, the interpretation of these ‘art-house’ flicks is rarely that cut and dry (or perhaps its just a marketing thing? Remember the way Roger Corman used to advertise Bergman movies as sex films to drive-in audiences?).
Whatever the case, I decided to include this one within our horror marathon not only because it is so strange (and occasionally downright incomprehensible) but also because one of the areas in which it does succeed is in creating a palpable sense of dread. The films plot is actually quite simple. Over a title sequence of lush desert aerial photography, an old ‘Sangoma’ (or South African witch doctor) describes how since ancient times a force has roamed the earth in male physical form, taking out all of his frustrations and rage on our blissfully unaware planet. This violent force is called a ‘dust devil’. With this new knowledge in hand we see a lonely figure in a duster jacket and a cowboy hat walking down a road located within a vast desert (he looks kinda like a mix between a greaser, Rutger Hauer, the eponymous hitcher you don’t want to pick up and Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter, a cowboy you definitely don’t wanna fuck with). A kind hearted woman named Saarke offers him a lift and the next thing you know, their sharing a steamy love scene with one another. However things aren’t that simple or we’d be reviewing a different kind of film entirely. At the climax, the man snaps Saarke’s neck. Ladies and Gentlemen I give you your dust devil! The next morning, Dusty has turned the dead womans house into something the Sawyer clan could be proud of, with odd spirals of blood all over the walls and a fingerless hand nailed to the door. After proceeding to burn down the abode, we now know what kind of a figure we are dealing with here.
After establishing the dust devil as a force of evil manifested within a mans body we cut to a much less bloody domestic situation, as an alienated lady named Wendy leaves home Rain People-style, after her paranoid husband Mark accuses her of cheating on him. Meanwhile, a jaded, world weary cop named Ben Mukurob begins an investigation into Saarkes mysterious death. A visit to the morgue confirms that the murder may have been witchcraft related. As Wendy drives nowhere in particular, she runs her car off the road beside what looks to be an abandoned camper although we have seen the dust devil previously hitch a ride with the poor driver. Once she’s back on her way, she passes the dust devil on the road and picks him up. We now see that dust devil is not only pure evil, but also quite the charmer. After telling Wendy that he has come from nowhere like herself, she thinks she has found a kindred soul and so decides to bring him back to her motel. Elsewhere Ben travels to meet Joe, the local drive in projectionist-cum-mystic (who has to worry about jackals wandering down the aisles of his movie house), who suspects that all the spirals and such are the work of an evil supernatural force. While I don’t want to give much else away, the films main source of tension arises between the local mystics who believe in spirits and forces and the local police who think that the dust devil might be a terrorist and decide to consult the U.N.
The film is most successful on a cinematographic level, with the wide 1:85:1 frame put to stunning use in capturing the desiccated vistas and sheer breadth of the African landscape. Also the nightmares that torment Ben throughout the course of the film are highly effective and brilliantly staged. A particularly eerie example presents him floating toward his wife and son in a candle lit witchcraft ceremony being held within a morgue. The juxtapositioning of fantastical mysticism within the sterile functionality of an operating room is downright creepy and deeply troubling. Like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre before it and the video game Resident Evil 5 after it, I always appreciate a horror text that can create a sense of terror and dread within the blistering sun. The sepia lens filters and dry, cracked lips only add to the pervading sense of death and decay that permeates the film (there is also an amzing use of an abandoned town that has been partially reclaimed by the desert).
Simon Boswell’s synthy score hasn’t aged well and the belligerent thumping of the percussion over the first few opening scenes was distracting rather than tense. The processed sound fx of whale song that Ben churns out of his jeep radio add a surreal element to the amber beauty of the desert and fits perfectly within the films trippy narrative.
As an aside, I also really liked the fact that Dust Devil takes polaroids of his intended victims, it evoked that old Native American belief that a camera has the ability to steal your soul. There is a faint echo of this notion in other scenes within the film. For instance while snapping pictures of the charred remains that used to be Saarke, the crime scene investigators cheerfully make ladish jokes abouts Israelis. This raises an interesting point in its stressing that the law can be evil or at least morally bankrupt in its own way, reducing someones life into a file that is investigated before becoming nothing more than a few dusty pages in a filing cabinet.
Nonetheless, with all of its impressive cinematography and filtered landscapes, Dust Devil’s narrative is as much of a mess as one of the devils victims cadavers. The optimum DVD release of the final cut (the version I watched) is far too convoluted and sometimes just plain confusing. Between Wendy’s lustful acts of infidelity with ol’ dusty, Bens profound guilt and sadness at the death of his son and Joe’s inaccessible musings on different aspects of South African witchcraft, the narrative never seems to gel into a cohesive whole. I found that the best aspect of the story to be the fact that the dust devil only preys on those that have no reason left for living. Wendy knows that her marriage is doomed and Ben has suffered fifteen years of self loathing and grief after his son passed and his wife left him (In this vein, the films existential misery sort of reminded me of Saw’s ‘jigsaw killer’, a cancer ridden madman who focuses his evil on those who take their life for granted, albeit Dust Devil deals with its characters sadness in a slightly more melancholic and less misanthropically bloody way). This idea is ripe with narrative potential but it never has a chance to develop, instead its get bogged down under more meandering voiceover. The education in South African witchcraft that the movie provides is interesting but, Richard Stanley’s rambling, fever dream voiceover dialogue is just too convoluted and muddy. It is clear that the filmmaker is trying to show us that there are forces and phenomena that simply cant be rationaly explained and that is all fine and dandy, but when Joe keeps quoting passages to us from some ancient book while we are watching a dream within a dream onscreen, the narrative descends into chaos in a most unenjoyable way.
This film is by no way a classic and is crippled by its muddled plot and too many narrative threads, but it is an interesting flick all of the same. During ‘a making of’ that I stumbled across, director Richard Stanley states that he was hearing voices on set whilst making the film. Perhaps this was a sign that he had ingested too many hallucinogenics, or maybe it was the producer trying to communicate by telekinesis ‘Richard this movie makes no freakin sense!’. If anything, Dust Devil is more of a stylish, supernatural thriller than a straight up horror film, but it remains deeply flawed nonetheless. All in all this is a pretty, mess of a movie.