❉ We reappraise Richard Stanley’s ‘Dust Devil’ and look at its place in Film4’s history.
Most people will be familiar with Film4 – the logo, the channel, perhaps even the fact that Channel 4’s film arm actually helped fund films like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008), ‘The Iron Lady’ (2011) and ‘12 Years a Slave’ (2013) – but what many people don’t realise is that Film4 has been going for over 30 years. When Channel 4 began broadcasting in 1982 the channel’s mission was to provide original and innovative programming, but also to fund original films and seek out new film-making talent. And it did; some of the most interesting commissions to come out of Film4 (then called ‘Film on Four’) included Stephen Frears’ ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ (1985) Merchant-Ivory’s ‘Room With a View’ (1985) and Neil Jordan’s ‘The Crying Game’ (1992).
Still, despite its varied slate and growing popularity, by the early 1990s Film4 had garnered something of a reputation for social realism. In the annals of British cinema ‘social realism’ has either been a compliment or a kind of insult: today the phrase brings to mind connotations of worthiness and mental images of grey, rundown council estates made out of post-war concrete cubes. These are the films which you might suspect are probably ‘good for you’; which might say something relevant about modern society; which might be made by Ken Loach.
This was a slight mischaracterisation, and as the connotation still lingers I felt that an article needed to be dedicated to one of the channel’s most interesting commissions; Richard Stanley’s ‘Dust Devil’(1992). The film was unsuccessful following its release in 1992, but quickly became a cult classic (which is to say it has been largely forgotten by everyone save a dedicated few). But ‘Dust Devil’ is important to the history of British cinema and to the history of Film4 for two reasons. Firstly, it’s set in South Africa during Apartheid, deals with contemporary political issues as well as veering into themes of local mysticism and spiritual lore, and such an ambitious experiment deserves reappraisal. Secondly, the decision to get involved in making ‘Dust Devil’ signified an important moment of change Film4’s policy and direction – it signalled the moment Film4 changed, moved in with the 1990s and added the genre film as a colourful and populist string to its bow.
‘Dust Devil’ is a supernatural fantasy horror which draws influences from Hollywood and European art-house cinema. Shot on location in Namibia, the film follows the story of Wendy (Chelsea Field), a young woman fleeing her abusive husband. As she drives aimlessly into the desert, she is followed by a mysterious American hitchhiker (the eponymous ‘Dust Devil’) who at times seems more ghost than human. The hitch-hiker/demon character is based on a South African myth about a serial killer who eluded capture and eventually came to gain supernatural status among the people of the small town of Bethany as Nhadiep – a desert demon who acquires power by murdering unwitting travellers. The two begin a relationship which the demon is reluctant to end because he finds himself growing attached to his prey.
‘Dust Devil’is a strange mixture of visual styles, and borrows influences from horror, exploitation and art-house cinema. The spaghetti western is also well-represented, with the hitchhiker playing the part of the proverbial ‘man with no name’; an aimless drifter complete with hat, spurs and vernacular. In the film the landscape is so inhospitable and alien that it seems almost a character in itself, and Stanley’s use of 360 degree aerial pans of the desert have the effect of making the landscape seem both vast and claustrophobic.
The film can mostly be described as a horror/serial killer movie, with bodily dismemberment and strange ritualistic bloodletting being the devil’s preferred modus operandi. This almost borders on spoof-horror in places, when, at the end of the film, Wendy shoots at the demon and its head explodes in a gratuitous shower of blood. Stanley favours extended tracking shots which give the film a more artistic feel, with uncomfortably drawn-out single takes lasting as long as five minutes. Many scenes were also hugely influenced by the work of Andrei Tarkovsky. Added to these contrasting styles, ’Dust Devil’ also brings in elements of South African spiritualism, witchcraft and folklore, as well as politics. Stanley’s parents were prominent anti-Apartheid activists, and he saw the film as a chance to explore the fraught political situation in South Africa. This is most powerfully evident in the film in a scene depicting a terse confrontation in a bar between Wendy’s white, middle class husband and the black African locals.
The production history of ‘Dust Devil’ is almost as fascinating as the film itself. It was commissioned in 1990 through a co-production deal between rising American independent studio Miramax, UK-based Palace Pictures and Channel 4. Palace had co-produced Stanley’s first film, Hardware, a post-apocalyptic science fiction film in which a sentient robot head rebuilds itself using household implements and goes on a killing spree in a high rise apartment.
The production of ‘Dust Devil’ was extremely troubled, aggravated by racial tensions on set and bad feeling among the crew. According to Stanley:
Mostly it was the clash of the personalities involved, but taking a First World film crew and sticking them in the middle of the desert is always going to present problems. I found that the British and American component of the crew had a much harder time fitting in than the South African and Australian personnel. They were basically afraid of the location.
At one point during production, Stanley and producer Joanne Sellar were communicating solely through intermediaries. The production also came under pressure from the studios. Miramax was pushing for more violence and far less sex, which resulted in some scenes being cut from the film (most notably a gay sex scene in which the demon shares a passionate kiss with a man he later murders).
If the film’s production was difficult, post-production was even more problematic. The original cut of the film was 125 minutes long, but Channel 4 and Palace agreed that this should be cut down to 110. Miramax pushed for further cuts, and another 98 minute version was completed. The company then prepared an 87 minute version for a screening at Cannes, and later released an 85 minute version in Italy. By 1992, five different cuts of the film existed.
It was at this point that Palace, the UK company co-producing the film, went into administration. According to Stanley, had Miramax and Palace been the only companies involved, the film might never have been given a proper release. However, Stanley went to Channel 4 and pointed out a clause in the channel’s contract which meant that the channel could act on his behalf, make a cut of the film and deliver a master print. Stanley’s sixth and final version (which was closest to the original cut) was completed in 1993 and shown in the channel’s ‘Film on Four’ broadcast slot in May 1995.
In 1988 Brian Pendreigh wrote in The Scotsman: ‘It is indeed a fair reflection of Channel 4’s success that its failures are so interesting.’ ‘Dust Devil’ may have been a commercial failure, but it was certainly an interesting one, especially considering the significance of the film as a marker for change in the policy and direction of Film on Four in the 1990s. With the exception of a small but dedicated following of fans, this unconventional visual melee has been more or less forgotten, but perhaps the time has come for ‘Dust Devil’ to take its deserved place in British history.
❉ ‘Dust Devil’ was released on Region 1 DVD in Lionsgate; it is currently out of print – new and used copies can be sourced from the usual outlets. In 2015 Severin Films announced that they were prepping a Blu-ray release.
❉ A 25th Anniversary Special Edition Blu-ray of ‘Hardware’ was released by Three Wolves in 2015.