Review: Dust Devil (1992)

Dust Devil

Directed by Richard Stanley
Starring Robert John Burke, Chelsea Field, Zakes Mokae

Let’s talk about depression.

Not as psychologists or experts in the field or poor souls unlucky enough to live with it for months, years or decades. Just as you and me. People who know what it is, who have felt it lingering in the back of our minds, in the shadows gathered in the darkest corners of our bedrooms. People who may have been caught in its throes at one point or another, felt it grabbing the back of our throats, forcing us into the earth, into the endless pit of hopelessness where nothing but black resides.

If you’ve felt it touch you for even a moment, you know how seductive its pull can be. How meaningful it can seem – how plausible. How convenient. It can be an escape just as easily as it can be a torrential rain of images, memories, thoughts that should never be allowed to see the light of consciousness.

Or, for those stuck within frames of celluloid, forced to play out the same scenes over and over in eternity, it could be something else entirely.

Dust Devil is a meditation on isolation, desperation, and the struggle between the horrors of life and the calm of death. Its titular antagonist (portrayed by Burke) is a mirage, a wanderer, a half-human shapeshifter whose ultimate goal is to be sent into the “realm of the spirit.” To escape his earthly form, he must ritualistically murder those who have nothing left to lose. “Their death is gift to them. Their blood – a tribute he takes to paint his way out of the circle of incarnation,” says the film’s narrator. Indeed, his victims are wanderers like him, consumed with the spectre of loss and regret. In the film’s opening scenes, the Dust Devil makes love to and then – almost gently – murders a middle-aged woman before using her flesh to paint the walls of her bedroom with symbols and figures spelling out his release from the confines of the earth.

The Dust Devil himself isn’t an evil figure like those found in similarly-themed stories by Stephen King (from which director Richard Stanley may have taken some influence). He is simply a traveler – like our protagonist, Wendy (Field). “There is no good or evil,” the Dust Devil reminds us. There are only different motives, different needs. The Dust Devil thinks of himself as a liberator of tortured souls. “Maybe she let him do it to her,” a coroner muses, gazing at the first victim’s burnt and dismembered body. Once Wendy finds out his secret, she is hesitant to act upon it. She, too, is desperate and lost. She is alone. But when she glimpses death, she discovers a newfound need to fight against it.

The film was filmed entirely in Namibia, Africa. Stanley uses its vast, unforgivable drylands as a manifestation of each characters’ inner desolation. Everything is orange, yellow or red. Dust covers every surface, indoors and out. The Dust Devil appears almost as a mirage in a sea of sand, standing atop an empty road, enticing drivers to slow down and gather him in. Sections of the movie are beautiful, even on a panned-and-scanned, second-generation print. Mirages dance in the African heat, giving shape to distant figures, shimmering in the ethereal eternity of the desert. All the while, Simon Boswell’s rousing, deeply moving score accompanies every frame, giving the film a mysterious, mythical feel.

Although the film was made with care and precision, its b-movie underpinnings sometimes sneak through. The dialogue can be hokey, and the screenplay allows time for comic relief characters and over-the-top moments that sometimes add up to nothing much. Zakes Mokae, in the role of a zealous policeman out to permanently destroy the Dust Devil, is almost fatally miscast – his only saving grace is his serious approach to the material and his aged appearance, which provides him with a palpable sheen of sorrow that haunts his performance. The movie makes obvious references to Mad Max and The Terminator (“A storm is coming,” Mokae’s character utters near the end of the film) and sometimes is content in molding itself to other films instead of becoming its own.

But never mind that. If you stick with it, Dust Devil becomes a haunting portrait of depression, desperation and heartache set deep in the center of a deserted African landscape.

I love you, Wendy,” the Dust Devil whispers to our weary, broken down protagonist. There is hesitation in Wendy’s response. A hesitation that can consume even the very best of us with the promise of escape, of release.

But we’re still here, shotguns steady, ready to dispatch any soul-stealing shapeshifter who comes our way.

Links:

Amazon – Dust Devil DVD
Amazon – Dust Devil (Director’s Cut) DVD
Amazon – Dust Devil VHS
Netflix – Dust Devil
YouTube – Main Theme by Simon Boswell

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