“Dust Devil” (1992)

by A.J. Hakari

It’s Blog-a-Thon time again! Throughout November (and December), I’ll be reviewing four movies suggested to me by four fellow film freaks: Marcey Papandrea (of SuperMarcey.com), Bede Jermyn (also of SuperMarcey.com), Sam Inglis (of 24 Frames Per Second), and Mike Ewins (of E-Film Blog). The theme of the month(s) is forgotten ’90s films, so check my pals’ respective sites to read their takes on what I picked for them.

Next up is Mike’s selection, Dust Devil, and here’s the review…

"Dust Devil" poster

It’s hard to feel sorry for all of the bad shakes director Richard Stanley has gotten over the years, when you don’t really care for his movies to begin with. He’s had a hard time realizing his visions on film (or, in the case of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, he was canned before he even could), and when they do reach the screen, they’re what can best be described as “interesting failures.” Dust Devil is, without a doubt, one weird ditty, bringing a mystical slant to the murderous hitchhiker myth. But though Stanley spares no expense when it comes to disturbing content, Dust Devil serves it all up in one lukewarm mass instead of a simmering stew.

From out of South Africa’s searing sands comes a product of our world’s dark past. Robert John Burke (Thinner) plays the Dust Devil, a wandering vagrant who preys on the weak of will and harvests their souls for his own otherworldly objectives. The latest unfortunate to cross his path is Wendy (Chelsea Field), a woman fleeing an abusive marriage. The Devil works his black magic and sets about draining Wendy’s spirit, but she’s not about to give in that easily. There’s some fight left in her, and with a native cop (Zakes Mokae) on the trail, there’s hope yet of sending the Devil back to the hell from whence he came.

I’m the last to whine about a filmmaker using unconventional tactics and structure to tell an otherwise straightforward story. That said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spent most of Dust Devil wanting Stanley to get to the goddamned point. I love his main conceit, that not only is Burke’s character a shapeshifting spirit condemned to wander the earth and tortured by physical desires he can never satisfy, he can’t even kill anyone without a catch or two. The Devil only takes a life once he’s extinguished all hope within a victim, which would make for some stalking sequences both incredibly suspenseful *and* thought-provoking.

But you see, Dust Devil never arrives at that point. Sure, Burke’s performance is solid enough that you’re suitably freaked when he snaps a woman’s neck in the midst of coitus, but to the extent that Stanley wants to bring equal parts gore, mysticism, and emotion into the picture, nothing clicks together like it should. Instead of an epic confrontation between a lady who’s had almost all of her will to live sapped away and a demonic force designed to snuff out that last bit of light, we get a crybaby running from a cowboy who needs a shower. The droning narration keeps telling us about how ancient the Dust Devil is and how his MO works, but Stanley comes up short in terms of showing the audience that diabolical manipulation at work. Both the Devil and Wendy are shafted of the development the film so obviously wants to give them, with the filmmakers’ efforts ultimately yielding a dull supernatural slasher that’s fairly full of itself.

As I mentioned before, I’ve basically never liked anything Richard Stanley touched (Hardware, The Theatre Bizarre, etc.), so take my griping with a grain of salt. Dust Devil falls right in with his grimy, often unpleasant approach to genre cinema, so if that’s your bag, then you’re likely to leave with your expectations satisfied and your outlook on life dimmed. Good on Stanley for trying to break the mold, but Dust Devil was a mite too stuffy to put the fear in me.