Dust Devil Review
On a deserted stretch of highway, a hitchhiker stands by the side of the road. Steppig forward, he kneels and puts his ear to the ground, looking down the broken white line that stretches out into the distance. Listening carefully to the silence that surrounds him, he hears and feels the vibration of a car still some distance away. He smiles, sensing within the approaching vehicle a lost soul, one for whom he has a particular manner of caring. As the sun sets and the car gets ever closer, the hitchhiker leaves the side of the road and takes up his position at the side of the road once again. It will be a long night...
There is, as you might expect, much more to say about Dust Devil although I'm not sure that I want to say anything more, at least not to give any of it away. The hitchhiker is, of course, the titular character, the Dust Devil, a creature of the supernatural who feeds on the souls of the living. Were this in the hands of any other director, perhaps one with aspirations to have their film feature in a late-night slot on the Sci-Fi channel, it would star a plucky bunch of kids who would, in the manner of such movies, fight back against the creature. But what Richard Stanley brought to Dust Devil was his making of the character, as played by Robert Burke, an entirely sympathetic one. Far from being a typical demonic slasher, the Dust Devil's consuming of human souls are less to do with an insatiable hunger than a doomed love affair, his spirit being attracted to those on the brink of suicide or who are otherwise full of pain. There are strains of horror in that - the film ends with a particularly graphic beheading - but these are matched by the echoes from a film like Solaris, wherein the action is drenched in sadness. The scene in which the Dust Devil stands outside of the bathroom in which Wendy Robinson (Chelsea Field) contemplates slitting her wrists is amongst the best in the film and a perfect example of the peculiar sense of horror in the film, not one of disgust but one of the terrible depths to which the human spirit can sink to.
Better even than that, though, is the dreamlike quality that Richard Stanley brings to the film. As well as the horror of the Dust Devil - his opening seduction of a stray traveller is the closest the film gets to conventional horror - there is also the presence of a shaman, the breakdown of Wendy Robinson's marriage and a police investigation into the source of the murders. Read like that, there is the implication that Dust Devil is something of a mess, which isn't entirely inaccurate, but the manner in which these strands crisscross one another is impressive, accentuating, rather than playing down, the sense of loss and discomfort in the action. Slow-moving, often tenderly so, and with an odd distance from its subjects that leaves it edging towards surrealism, Dust Devil is a unique horror film and one that divided audiences. Even now, there are those who will find it painfully slow, being something else that it shares with Solaris, but allow its sometimes beautiful imagery to wash over you and it can be a powerful experience. It can, however, also be somewhat ponderous if one's mood isn't quite right, perhaps suggesting that an appreciation of it can come and go.
However, despite what happens onscreen, the particular sadness about Dust Devil was that, after a rather wonderful start in the film business, it marked Richard Stanley's second and last full-length feature. Following this film, he brought to production, but was soon removed from, an adaptation of HG Wells' The Island of Dr Moreau, replaced by veteran director John Frankenheimer. A short time after, defunct film magazine Neon published Stanley's impressions of the shoot, with the director having sneaked back onto the set disguised as an extra. That film is, of course, a notorious failure but ought not to dent the reputation around this film and Stanley's previous film, Hardware. Rarely, Stanley even enjoyed popular support in the film press for his movies and there was a tangible sense of disappointment when he was removed from The Island of Dr Moreau. His use of Ministry's Stigmata in the cyberpunk-influenced Hardware even suggested that he was a director in touch with the details of the genres that he was bringing to the screen. A history directing videos for goth band Fields of the Nephilem probably didn't hurt but with Hardware and Dust Devil, Stanley proved that he could bring films in, at least as cult successes if not blockbusters.
Unfortunately, Richard Stanley's bright future was cut short, with his promise being shown in Hardware and in this film. After 1996's The Island of Dr. Moreau, there was a wait of five years before he returned with the documentaries The Secret Glory (2001) and The White Darkness (2002). That's a real shame for those of us who enjoyed Hardware and this film but best, then, to remember Stanley through those films and to hope that this year's Vacation sees him, once again, achieving some level of success.
Optimum have not struck this DVD from a new high-definition master and it shows, with it looking alright on a small screen, such as a laptop or portable, but it struggles on anything above 32". On a big plasma screen, it looks positively weak, being soft and fuzzy with an utter lack of detail that's better, but only slightly, than VHS. The assumption is, I'm sure, that fans would simply appreciate Dust Devil being on DVD rather than worrying about the quality of the transfer, much as how we're still waiting for Hardware on DVD, but given that a high-definition master was being struck this year, would it have been too much to ask for it to have been included here.
As for the audio track, again it isn't bad but it suffers from background noise and a limited range, with the dialogue and action tending towards sounding somewhat muddled and with little top or bottom end. There's no obvious faults, as such, more that neither the picture nor the audio track are very good. Finally, to add insult to injury, there are no subtitles.
As well as four Deleted Scenes - Crossed Lines 1 (1m24s), Bethany Train (1m03s), Crossed Lines 2 (1m05s) and Final Apparition (24s) - there is a Commentary with Richard Stanley that's a very good one. Talkative, interesting, honest and with a good memory of the time, Stanley is often very good and this is certainly worth a listen. Or two give how much Stanley gets through in the 105 minutes. It's a shame that some of the other material couldn't have been included, such as Richard Stanley's Production Diaries, which are available here, but that would appear to be solved with the release of the five-disc version from Subversive Cinema.
As decent as this release is, fans of this film may prefer to look for Subversive Cinema's very limited release of Dust Devil in a five-disc box set this September. Including two cuts of the film, this 107m Director's Cut and a 144m Workprint Reconstruction, which have been transferred from a high-definition master, as well as the original soundtrack CD and a range of extras. It also includes Stanley's later documentaries The White Darkness, The Voice of the Moon and Secret Glory, this is being produced in a limited run of 10,000 copies, comes with a RRP of $29.95 and is released on 26 September 2006.
However, for everyone else, this will do. It's by no means a great release but there's something that suffices about it. The transfer does the job without fuss, though it could have been a good deal better, and though the commentary is often excellent, there's a wealth of material that could have been included alongside it. In fact, I'd have had less complaints had they included Hardware in a reasonably-priced two-film set but, as it is, this is acceptable but not very much better than that.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 04:45:56