The Director’s Cut
South Africa / UK, 1992
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 18 September 2006
Source Subversive Cinema DVD
Reviews: Dust Devil (by Tom)
The sun rises over a distant, empty horizon, its rays scattering, making its shape appear to dance behind a sort of gaseous exhaust. Slowly, a darker shape materializes and grows as it moves toward you. It is apparently some indigenous component of the desert landscape, and becomes a man dressed in a weathered hat and coat, walking alongside a rural highway. He stops, presses his ear against the pavement, and shortly signals an approaching car.
Later, a local mystic will describe the man’s legend, but the overall account is inadequate; he is the “dust devil,” capable of appearing anywhere, and likely in most any mammalian form he wants — there are brief glimpses of the figure in the middle of a transformation into a sort of demonic rat or wolf — but, as with discerning his shape in a morning horizon, there is little clarity for his form or capability, but you are assured he is quite hostile—herewith Richard Stanly establishes his villain only via his physics.
He is also methodical. A woman gives him a lift, and he takes a quick Polaroid of her face—later we see he has a collection of them, all presumably of past victims, and each with a date and some unrecognized characters scribed on the margin. He travels with a wooden box, enclosing what appear to be dismembered index fingers. After a round of intercourse, the man snaps the woman’s neck, dismantles her body, and uses her blood to paint the walls with symbols before he ignites the house and drives away.
As excessively brutal as Dust Devil may seem in this description, it is told in unexpectedly epic photography. The above scene is captured in a massive helicopter shot, a burning house in one half of the frame, the trail of dust emitted by the getaway car in the other. It’s a disparaging technique, counterbalancing the horror with a visual poetry unbecoming of the slasher films with which Dust Devil ostensibly identifies.
As such, I find it limiting to describe Dust Devil as a horror film. Its violence and suspense are elements that inform an overall (and, perhaps, deliberate) sense of disorientation. Stanley has described his film as inheriting the physical characteristics of its eponymous phenomenon; as Dust Devil progresses, it becomes less coherent, spiraling violently toward an ending in which the villain dematerializes. It’s a decent justification of the film’s lack of narrative coherency, lending the dust devil’s fragmented form both a literal and figurative basis. But it’s also apparent that this approach is a bit contrived, as it serves to polish the film’s flaws. Via the local mystic’s narration, there is some attempt to disclose the dust devil’s motivations and practice, but his methods — as well as his ancillary attempt to experience the passions of man (he manages to bed both women he victimizes herein) — aren’t sustained. The methodic patience seen at first is replaced by savagery and thoughtless determination.
The dust devil’s progression is odd, furthermore, because he at first seems (and appears) to have been modeled discretely after a Leone individualist, but comes to need people or the sustenance they provide him with—he’s more of a vampire, what with his lust more definite than his stoicism. In keeping with this comparison, Dust Devil contains aspects of Gothicism, and like the arid setting, photography, and occasionally campy dialogue, it’s another in a disparate collection of familiar aspects from multiple genres, which ultimately endears Dust Devil. It is a film comprised of occasional and laughable passages of dialogue, mysticism of sparing coherence, and a few scenes of inarguable beauty.