Dust Devil (DE - DVD R2)
Gabe Powers hitches a ride with the director's cut version of this cult movie
Politics and horror stories have marched hand in emblematic hand for centuries. The modern horror film is often a barometer for the general state of public politics, disguising some of the most rabid attacks on government as simple entertainment. Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror will often mirror a society's functionality and fears, feeding on the anxiety of world events and everyday life, from the black plague, to the rise of fascism, and the nuclear arms race. Images of the World Trade Center's collapse have refueled the nightmares of creative filmmakers in this generation.
Quite often this duality can be surface level and general, as in Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, both made in response to the televised violence of the Vietnam War. It can be satirical and cynical, as in George A Romero's four zombie films, each one representative of its decade’s politics. The message can also be far more overt, such as that of John Carpenter's They Live, an obvious (and not always successful) jab at Neo-Conservatism and Reganomics.
Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil is actually more of a cop film then a true blue horror film, but it does have a distinct supernatural twist. A gruff and dusty hitchhiker (the criminally underrated Robert Burke) is murdering his way across South Africa. He’s not a simple serial killer, but a shape shifting demonic entity that recognizes and preys on the desperate souls. An aging local detective must overcome racial resentment among his underlings, and his own skepticism in order to save an emotionally fragile woman who has just left her husband in search of herself.
Set and made in the early nineties, in newly freed South Africa, Dust Devil is virtually swimming in political metaphors. The stench of the apartheid era motivates every diabolical occurrence, and the apprehension of distrust among races brings about the films most agonizing moments. Though the metaphorical Dust Devil is the physical villain, it's pretty obvious that racial distrust and poverty are the real horrors of the film.
The film is most comparable to Alan Parker’s 1987 chef d'oeuvre, Angel Heart. Both films are supernaturally based murder mysteries, with deep cultural interests and political subtext. Parker’s film is superior, but Dust Devil has a certain unshakable presence that makes it seem perhaps more significant that it actually is. Both films have overwhelming sense of dread, and are most memorable for their artistic execution rather than their actual plot lines.
Dust Devil's South African geography verges on post-apocalyptic. The landscapes are barren and foggy with dust (hence the title). The demonic killer himself, it is said by the film's token nutty shaman, is drawn to towns that are waiting to die. In effect, he kills the entire town, drowning it in sand and taking the souls of all its people. This imagery is film's strongest facet, and it builds a sense of impossible danger throughout. The horror is in the fact that no matter how hard they may try to escape their fates, every character, including the devil himself, is doomed from the beginning.
The meandering plot hinders the film in that it isn't really a plot at all, but rather a loosely connected series of haunting images. This will put off some viewers, but those used to the bizarre visual excesses of most cult European horror films will feel right at home. Dust Devil is by no means a genre masterpiece, and its base similarities to the superior Angle Heart make it hard to recommend to casual genre viewers.
Though presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Laser Paradise hasn’t exactly gone out of their way to make Dust Devil look pretty for this release. First off, the print is non-anamorphic, making any and all imperfections super magnified. These imperfections include, but are not limited too, heavy film grain, digital blocking, compression and film related artefacting, and an overall lack of detail. I was actually sort of shocked by a few shots, which were so grainy that I couldn’t tell what was going on. These problem shots are mostly found in interior and night scenes. Daytime sequences are generally all right, with the exception of the heavy film grain and constant artefacting. Unlike some genre films that can actually benefit from a grainy presentation, Dust Devil's foreboding visuals lend themselves better to a crisp and clean image.
Some shots are very obviously meant to be Rorschach test-ish, and the grain during the titular dust storms is clearly forgivable. The film is not exactly new, nor was it high budget when it was made, but other companies have produced much better results from much more damaged source material in the past. In the end, the print is only indecipherable in a couple instances, and to my knowledge the only director’s cut available on the DVD format. From what I understand, it’s worth suffering though an inferior video presentation in order to see the unaltered version.
Usually weak video presentations go hand in hand with weak audio presentations, especially when the source material is aged and lacking. I’m pleased to say that this isn’t the case with this release of Dust Devil. The soundtrack has been remixed (I’m assuming, based on the film’s age) into a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The music track is occasionally overpowering, but in general there is an even balance of sound. The surround channels sell some of the films creepier moments better than a stereo or mono soundtrack ever could. I had a few problems deciphering some of the dialogue, but this was more due to the actor’s thick accents than the volume of their voices.
The main extra and reason one would want to buy this DVD above any other is the fact that it is presented uncut. It seems that even in the early ‘90s, the good old Weinstein Bothers were cutting up director’s original visions in favour of their own, and the US release of Dust Devil apparently bears all the scars of a Miramax scissor attack. Run time accounts seem to differ from site to site, but the general consensus seems to be that this DVD is a completely uncut version.
Also included is a brief little documentary that was shot on video during the filming process. Though quaint and quite informative for its running time, it does have a silly tendency to present director Stanley in a quasi-mythic light. The video quality of the doc is pretty rough, but manageable. Everything is capped off with a trailer.
In some circles, Dust Devil is a true modern classic. I admired its scope and ingenuity, though it appears that its reach tends to exceed its grasp. As I said, the original US VHS release was cut by something like 20 minutes, and seeing as that the uncut version is slightly hard to follow as is, I can't image how inconceivable that version was. This German DVD is lacking in video quality, but is still decent enough to enjoy. It's also the only version available on legal DVD in the whole world.
You can purchase this title from Xploitedcinema.com.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Release Date: 20th June 2003
Audio: English and German Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround
Extras: Trailer, "Making Of"
Easter Egg: No
Director: Richard Stanley
Cast: Robert Burke, John Matshikiza, Terri Norton, Chelsea Field, Rufus Swart, William Hootkins
Length: 103 minutes
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