"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, October 30, 2020

Dust Devil

As far back as when he was a teenager, filmmaker Richard Stanley dreamed of the image of “the dark man, his face hidden, his hat pulled low, his coat gathered around him, standing alone in the wasteland.” For years, he dreamt of this man while the town of Bethanie, Namibia was during a years-long drought with several locals murdered in gruesome fashion that some attributed to local superstition of a black magician known as the “Nagloper.” Stanley incorporated this mythology with his dreams of “the dark man” into a student film that ran out of money before it could be completed but was ultimately fully realized in Dust Devil (1993), his feature film follow-up to Hardware (1990).

The Dust Devil (Robert John Burke) emerges from the hazy desert like a cross between Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name gunslinger and Rutger Hauer’s nightmarish hitchhiker in The Hitcher (1986). With his piercing eyes he hitches a ride with a woman (Terri Norton) driving alone and seduces her into taking him home with her where they have sex, killing her at the moment of climax. Wendy Robinson (Chelsea Field) leaves a dysfunctional marriage by traveling from Johannesburg, South Africa to the small town of Bethany, Namibia, encountering the Dust Devil, a serial killer that ritualistically dismembers his victims and takes their fingers as trophies.

Sergeant Ben Mukurob (Zakes Mokae) is the police detective investigating these murders and discovers that they go back decades before their suspect would’ve been born! Realizing that he is out of his depth, he enlists the help of Joe Niemand (John Matshikiza), the local witch doctor, to track down the Dust Devil. Unaware of his true nature, Wendy travels with this enigmatic hitchhiker to a town ravaged by drought and decimated by the closure of the local uranium mine. It might as well be the end of the world and it is this unlikely place where she confronts the Dust Devil with Ben in hot pursuit.

“You got to keep your eyes open when you deal with magic.” – Joe

Neither Wendy or Ben believe in magic. She believes in nothing, her grief over her increasing estrangement from her husband (Rufus Swart) causes her to nearly commit suicide. He, on the other hand, is in a profession that deals in facts and believes only in what he can prove, He experiences a dream within a dream that shakes his belief system while she encounters the Dust Devil who speaks of magic, myths and legends. At one point, they have a fascinating conversation about the belief in a higher power. When he tells her about God, the Devil or the idea of a soul, she says, “I don’t believe in that any more than I believe in magic or Peter Pan.” This is rather amusing as her name is Wendy and she is very much a “lost boy” with an emphasis on the lost. Both she and Ben have dreams that hint at their checkered pasts and continue to haunt their subconscious. They are both adrift in life. She is so down in it that at one point she nearly slashes her wrists. He wakes up every day with very little purpose in life, given garbage assignments by his superior and enduring thinly-veiled racism by his fellow co-workers.

The Dust Devil is a shape shifter that practices black magic and seduces Wendy by preying on her weaknesses and vulnerability. He feeds on pain and such people as Wendy who have nothing. He takes people’s souls but is trapped in the material world, bound by flesh until he can perform enough ceremonial murders to build up his power and return to his realm. He pushes Wendy to her mental and physical limits as he pursues her across the desert, threatening her physically and manipulating the environment by summoning a sandstorm to torment her.

The Dust Devil arrives in Bethany on an old fashion train like a gunslinger straight out of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) as the narrator intones, “He can smell a town waiting to die.” With his intense stare, Robert John Burke requires little dialogue to convey a commanding presence and this only enhances the character’s mystique. He is a very physical actor and lets his actions define his character. The Dust Devil is a wonderfully low-key boogeyman and a far cry from the chatty Freddy Krueger and much cleverer than the lumbering Jason Voorhees.

Burke doesn’t play the Dust Devil as a stereotypical monster but rather as an old soul that has existed for countless years, still exhibiting human frailties such as the moment when he cries after making love with Wendy. He tries to articulate his internal pain and how it has tormented him for as long as he can remember. Joe sums up the character best when he says, “He seeks power over the material world. Through the ritual of murder…He feeds off our light. He preys upon the damned, the weak, the faithless – he draws them to him and he sucks them dry.”

Zakes Mokae and John Matshikiza are also excellent in their respective roles. Ben and Joe make for an unlikely yet compelling team – the believer and the non-believer. To succeed they must find common ground for, like Wendy, Ben is a lost soul and it takes Joe to awaken his faith by showing him what they are up against. Ben must tap into his dreams and pay attention to them if he has any chance of defeating the Dust Devil.

There are several things that make Dust Devil stand out from other horror films. There is the film’s exotic locale, the deliberate pacing, and the emphasis on spiritualism. It has a distinctly European sensibility with an importance on symbolism over gore – although, it does not shy away from the red stuff, it just doesn’t revel in it, such as a lingering close-up shot of a fly on a blood-splattered window instead of cutting away to the gruesome murder scene nearby. Stanley wisely opts for a low-key approach to the supernatural elements with most of the effects done in camera and with clever editing techniques.

Stanley immerses us in this world with stunning establishing shots of the vast, unforgiving deserts of Namibia and the burnt-out, nearly abandoned town of Bethany with African music playing on the soundtrack, which culminates in Wendy and the Dust Devil arriving at the “end of the world,” a Grand Canyon-esque place that is simply breathtaking in its scale and scope.

The idea for the story came from the most inexpensive, simplest film he could make at the time: two characters – a woman driving a car and a “crazy hitchhiker.” Some ideas came from his mother’s book, Myths and Legends of South Africa about the “Nagloper” and the urban legend of the Vanishing Hitchhiker, an often-told tale about people picking up hitchhikers only for them to disappear out of the passenger’s seat.

It was a strange case of kismet that Stanley’s recurring dreams of “the dark man” dovetailed with the “Nagloper.” Even stranger still, he found himself passing through Bethanie while the murders were occurring and was beaten by a paranoid railway policeman. In 1984, the 15-year-old aspiring filmmaker returned to the town with a 16mm camera, a homemade crane and five friends with a 45-page screenplay entitled Dust Devil. They spent two months shooting on the Skeleton Coast until it had to be abandoned when the money ran out and two of them were hospitalized after a freeway accident.

Stanley continued to dream about “the dark man” and seven years later he decided to flesh out the script, taking out many of the hitchhiker elements to avoid comparisons to The Hitcher and placing less emphasis on the killers, and gave it to Jo-Anne Sellar who had produced his previous film Hardware for Palm Pictures. Its success enabled the production company to pre-sell Dust Devil and secure a $2 million budget from Miramax. Palm mistakenly thought that Stanley was making a serial killer movie like The Silence of the Lambs (1991) but that was the farthest from his mind, thinking more along the lines of the films by Dario Argento or Andrei Tarkovsky.

Stanley originally considered Nicolas Cage for the Dust Devil but the budget wasn’t big enough for someone of the actor’s caliber and ultimately, he didn’t think he was right for the role. Stanley had seen Robert John Burke in Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth (1989), liked the actor’s intensity and felt he was right for the role. The filmmaker could return to Namibia and shoot on location thanks to elections in March 1990 when a socialist government was voted in. The production arrived in July 1991 but Stanley met with resistance from the financial backers over the casting of the female lead. Miramax executives Bob and Harvey Weinstein wanted Chelsea Field, who had just come off a part in The Last Boy Scout (1991), as they thought she had more star power than Stanley’s choice, Kerry Fox. They pushed hard for Field and Stanley relented but in retrospect felt that she didn’t play the character as mean as written and never quite got the South African accent. The studio also tried to convince him to set the film in Santa Fe, New Mexico and use American Indians instead of black South Africans.

The shoot was a challenging one as Stanley shot the film on the actual locations of the original murders, requiring the production to cover 1500 kilometers of road during the eight-week shoot. The pre-production period pushed the shooting schedule to the start of the windy season with gale force winds making it impossible to stand upright. Cars had to be weighed down with sandbags lest they be blown off the roads. Despite these setbacks, he enjoyed filming in Namibia, comparing it “shooting on the face of Mars. I like being in landscapes where humans have no sane reason to be there.”

Three quarters of the way through the production, Palm was gradually going bankrupt and Stanley only became aware of this when equipment they needed failed to show up and the crew began leaving. By the end of production there were only eight crew members left! In December 1991, Stanley delivered a 120-minute cut of the film that was subsequently edited down to 95 minutes and shown to a test audience in April 1992 to a not-surprisingly confused response. Palm went into liquidation and any further post-production was shut down. Polygram took over British distribution rights and promptly shelved the film. Miramax produced their own cut that gutted all the supernatural elements and restructured the narrative completely. In January 1993, Stanley managed to track down all the original elements of the film and spent 40,000 pounds of his own money reconstructing his edit of the film. He went bankrupt trying to complete Dust Devil, losing his apartment and living in a spare room above the ticket office of a movie theater.

“The moment you start dealing with God, the Devil, the big issues, you end up in the genre, whether you like it or not. So in some bizarre way the horror genre has become the last place where you can really deal with these things. If you’re trying to actually do something which is about those kinds of issues, that is where you end up.” – Richard Stanley

Was it all worth it? Stanley pushed himself to his physical and emotional limits making Dust Devil with the result being a fascinating struggle between the good and evil aspects of a woman’s soul filtered through the lens of the horror genre. He isn’t interested in making a straight up genre exercise but something else, something more deeply felt, something that resonates and stays with you long after the film ends.


Dust Devil liner notes. Subversive Cinema. 2006.

Rowlands, Paul. “Richard Stanley Talks to Paul Rowlands About Dust Devil.” Money into Light. July 2012.

Totaro, Donato. “Richard Stanley Interview: The Dust Devil.” Off Screen. August 1997.