survival of the shiftiest

Written for The Film Talk.

The trick to being a good troublemaker is to lob your brick and then vanish, so it’s entirely fitting that Richard Stanley had made his two recognized feature films by 1993 and has found other fish to fry ever since. Stuck as we are in a drought of troublemaking directors, that’s a shame. But it does leave his authentic piece of brilliance to stand in splendid isolation.

Hardware isn’t it. That movie has its admirers, and the filmmakers work wonders to create dystopia in sets that look about as big as a closet, but the very British late-1980s flavor of civilized anarchy has curdled a bit and drags like an anchor. Kudos to William Hootkins for delving so deep into sleazebaggery as a voyeuristic pervert that his sweat runs off the screen and pools on your carpet, but he and the other supporting cast wouldn’t be out of place in BBC’s The Young Ones. The tone of the UK comic 2000 AD is pretty clear too, even before the lawyers got into an argument over the story’s origins.

What does work, and well enough to signpost Stanley’s great gift, is the not-very-sub-text. Stuck in a land of sterilization and birth control, restless artist Jill, played by Stacey Travis as a ballsy flame-haired Final Girl, builds a surrogate child out of black market junk and gets an uncontrollable killobot for her troubles. The sequence where she builds the machine is a great piece of montage, with the beast watching the endless violence on television while Jill gifts him a body and paints it with the Stars And Stripes. Weaned on war crimes and punk rock, the kid duly goes after his mom with a phallic drill bit very close to the one last seen heading for a tender area of Julie Christie in Demon Seed. Close, but no cigar.

But Dust Devil is the real deal. The best kind of horror film, in that it’s a sprawling, political, metaphysical fable cooked up by a production team clearly half out of their minds, it throws any hint of self-parody out of the window and delves deep into psycho-geography instead. Technically it’s about a shape-shifting hitch-hiking serial killer, played by Robert Burke in an outfit owing a debt to both Sergio Leone and Stanley’s old comrades in Fields of the Nephilim, who murders young women and then does very unpleasant things to them afterward. But the film is really about its setting, the Namibia/South Africa border in the early 1990s, where some strange and powerful magic is stirring. Sorcery envelops everyone, but especially the rootless and significantly-named Wendy, played by a convincingly frazzled Chelsea Field. As unsettled and paranoid as any white South African of the time, Wendy falls into the arms of her particularly lost boy in a suicidal swoon, the two of them dancing to Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man while the earth shifts under them.

The second-best thing about Dust Devil is this whole social dimension that Stanley frets away at patiently while the serial killer has his fun. Only Clive Barker, another fine troublemaker, has this knack in this genre to the same extent. (And Barker’s last film as director before he too tired of the struggle, Lord of Illusions, post-dates Dust Devil by only a few years and shares a producer and a composer. They make a fine double bill.) Dust Devil’s feeling for the land of its birth, for desert and ruin and isolation, is right up there with Witchfinder General‘s empathy for English evergreens. It shows a whole country swimming up through the last throes of a nightmare and apparently calling up a demon in the process, with everyone caught at the moment that the fever breaks.

The best thing about Dust Devil is two of those people, the shaman Joe played by John Matshikiza and the cop Ben played by Zakes Mokae; two actors not demeaned in the slightest by the film’s wild mix of social witchcraft, playing two characters long since battered into shreds. The social document of these two South African performers playing out this story, both of them as freighted with past experiences as the characters they portray and both now gone, is not short of power. Mokae’s voice sounds like creaking shelves of history books. Dust Devil’s delirium finally crests when poor tormented Ben gets an inkling that he just might be a character in someone else’s film. Hypnotized by a vision of his wife as the Black Madonna, he lurches sideways out of his own movie in a flurry of sprocket holes. Free at last.

Tough to top that. And barring the disastrous miseries of Stanley’s attempt to film The Island of Dr Moreau, he hasn’t tried. Instead he turned that same eye for montage and illusion to documentaries, and if ever there was a convincing argument that the best documentarians are anthropologists, Richard Stanley is it. All his documentaries are worth the effort, but inevitably the humdinger is Secret Glory, a wild old girl of a doc taking in Nazism, mountains of crystal in the Tyrolean Alps, and the Holy Grail being carved out of a meteorite. Made in 2000 it fits neatly into the millennial vibe of the moment, while also looking askance at Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles and backwards towards Illuminatus!. Watched today, it also looks as if Stanley preempted the folks now thought to be reinvigorating the documentary form by a decade or so.

And he’s still out there somewhere, although for now it looks like the man’s puckish glee in getting behind the camera has displaced his analytical eye. Maybe Dr Moreau has to take the blame for that. But go and find Sea of Perdition anyway, to see what a self-aware director can do when at play in a nine minute short, and how a Martian temple and some shape-shifting Solaris-style manifestations can be created down one end of a beach in Iceland if a filmmaker has the nerve for it. Watch it for its female astronaut (niftily named Sly Delta Honey, a sign for any Lucius Shepard readers that this particular wanderer probably isn’t exactly in the land of the living either), stumbling around to John Barry’s music from Moonraker. Take the opportunity to see a fish-man space traveller saunter off to the strains of Paul Williams singing We Could Have Been Anything That We Wanted To Be from Bugsy Malone. More troublemaking like this, please.

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