Dust Devil in the Wind
by Mark Salisbury
(Originally appeared in Fangoria #117, 1992)
The air here is quicksilver. A rippling curtain across the morning. You see him first, conjuring himself from nothing, a dancing ghost walking in the white line, warping in and out of a shape as if crossing from one world to another, a solitary traveling man. A white man.
Richard Stanley is back on home soil. After tackling the futuristic, postapocalyptic and technological menace of Hardware, the South African-born writer/director has returned to his roots with Dust Devil, a contemporary horror thriller shot entirely on location in Namibia, Southwest Africa. "Dust Devil is an incredibly difficult and intractable creature to try and dissect," declares Stanley. "It's definetly a police procedural-psycho killer-spaghetti Western movie about Africa that attempts to do a romance halfway through and stirs in a huge amount of madness about relationships and divorce."
Against this sweeping backdrop, Stanley is weavering a narrative of near-mythical proportions. With a healthy $4.3-million budjet - as opposed to Hardware's $1.5 million - Dust Devil stars Robocop 3's Robert Burke as the shapeshifting serial killer of the title. Never referred to by name (Stanley's script simply calls him "Hitch"), Burke's character is a drifter that prowls the desert highways of Namibia, searching for victims, removing their fingers and painting murals with their blood. Crossing this killer's path are Chelsea (The Dark Half) Field, Hardware's voyeuristic neighbor William Hootkins and genre vet Zakes (Body Parts) Mokae as the cop who must track him down. Also returning from Hardware are producer Joanne Sellar, director of photography Steven Chivers and production designer Joseph Bennett, while New York's Miramax Films is again co-producing with Britain's Palace Pictures. The film is schedchuled for a fall/winter '92 release.
"Much of Dust Devil is actually true," confides Stanley from one of the film's most breathtaking locations, a prehistoric "lost world" valley two hours from civilization. "It's just collaged together into a series of events that didn't happen in real life. Hitch is sort of a role model for me. He's very much my dream character, in that one might wish to tear people apart with one's bare hands and paint them across the walls. One never actually gets to do it in real life, so the movie is the second best thing."
With a week and a half to go on a grueling and logistically problematic eight-week shoot, Stanley is relaxed and happy. The plot of Dust Devil has been unspooling in the director's brain for eight years, like a persistent nightmare awaiting to be exorcised. It's inspiration, he reveals, was a nighttime train journey across the desert. "I wanted to stretch my legs an do the old number of getting off in a town I didn't know," the director remembers between setups. "I walked around and very little was happening; it seemed very quiet and I got the next train out. About six weeks later, I read in the newspaper that human body parts had been found in the back of a burnt-out car parked near that town. And that," smiles Stanley, with a mischievous glint in his eye, "just started me thinking..."
Although the film's scenario appears superficially similar to that of Robert Harmon's The Hitcher, Stanley notes that "when you actually see the movie, it's very hard to connect the two stories. The only concession to The Hitcher we've made is that we haven't had Hitch raise his thumb in the movie."
Stanley, in fact, originally shot a version of Dust Devil on 16mm seven years ago, while still at film school in Cape Town, utilizing many of the same, virtually inaccessible locations currently being employed. The production ground to a halt with only 45 minutes of film in the can (footage that Stanley says still exists), scuttled by storms, South African police brutality and bizarre car accidents. Russell Copley, who played the original incarnation of Hitch and who turns up in the current version as a cop, claims the crew was party to all manner of inexplicable things. "It seemed like we weren't alone in the desert," he recalls.
While Sergio Leone's Man with No Name, as personified by Clint Eastwood, is perhaps the obvious visual and thematic influence, Stanley contends that Dust Devil is just as much a homage to Italian horrormeister Dario Argento (as indeed was Hardware). "It's sort of a combination of the two," concurs Stanley, "because I've always thought that gunfighters were the first heroic serial killers; they went from town to town mowing people down. Hitch is kind of the Man with No Name crossed with Jack the Ripper, with a sort of shapeshifting sideline. Actually, a lot of Mario Bava's been coming out this time around. I'd say the last twenty minutes are a kind of a big Kill Baby Kill homage, and once we get into the sanded-in town at the end, it plunges into Inferno and Bava territory very fast."
While the fans of the heady brand of hard-edged technosplatter that Stanley displayed in Hardware may be dismayed at his decision to eschew the trappings of cyberpunk, the antecedents of Dust Devil are clearly visible in his debut feature. "The opening 10 minutes of Hardware ar really Hitch out in the desert," Stanley explains, referring to the Nomad's presence. He admits, "Hardware was a little atypical of the things I'd like to be doing; it's too technologically heavy. I get drawn back towards the soil and towards organic things instead of machines. After Hardware I got offered a lot of computer and sci-fi movies from America, but I've kind of been shying away from that because I figure it's the wrong way to go. I'm still a big H.P. Lovecraft fan, and tend to get pulled back towards magic and darkness."
Indeed, Stanley has striven hard to incorporate both authentic Namibian folklore and his own personal obsessions within Dust Devil's framework. The director grew up all over Africa, and claims to have had a long interest in witchcraft due to the work of his mother, an anthropologist. "I was brought around a lot of witch doctors," he reveals, "and was led to believe in many things which were kind of hard to shake. Hitch is a sort of straight black magician devil figure; he collects souls, and weak people are easy prey for him. He tends to beguile, seduce and then kill them. We frame him with vultures a lot, and he tends to surface when people are ready to drop. By the end of the movie, you'll really be disliking him."
While Stanley is called away by cinematographer Chivers to discuss a particularly complicated camera setup, Fangoria steps up in to chat with Burke, who's visiting today's location on his day off. "What caught my interest was that it was off the beaten track," the actor says of Stanley's highly literate and visual script. "I didn't know what to make of it, first of all. The more I found out about Richard, and that the character is kind of based on Namibian folklore, the more intrigued I became."
A novice in feature film terms - Dust Devil only being his fourth movie since he debuted in The Unbelievable Truth - Burke is quick to praise his director. "He's a fascinating guy," the actor raves. "When I first got down here, we stayed out in the desert by ourselves and roamed around, and I was awestruck; that enhances an actor's appetite. After I came off Robocop 3, I thought I could do anything in terms of the mechanics of filmmaking. Maybe that's part of the reason I jumped at something so diverse. On Robocop 3 I was walking and talking like a robot; now I'm a shapeshifter, I'm the guy next door, I'm somebody very enticing and alluring, as opposed to 'Stop or I'll blow your head off.'"
Although Burke acknowledges the spaghetti Western influence, he's keen to disassociate himself from the Man with No Name tag. "I don't know that Hitch is a man," stresses the actor. "He's just this entity, this enigma, this necessary evil that is manifesting in different places at different times in history." To portray such a being, Burke insists, "You let the storyline do the work. If someone says my character's not real or not of this world, I can order a cup of coffee as naturally as can be and the audience is doing the homework. Once in a while, I do a little something that's not natural."
The following night, Burke's observations are put to the test during a crucial scene in which Hitch undergoes his first major FX transformation. As he pursues Field's character, Wendy, out into the desert following an attempt on her life, Hitch lets go of his human mask and rushes into the darkness looking distinctly inhuman. The extent of this change, however, has been open for speculation, since Hitch's shapeshifting tendencies are apparently more suggested than shown in the initial script.
"I didn't want to have onscreen transformations," maintains Stanley. "I wanted to imply that Hitch was somebody who had this power over reality, but I've kept his slips very minor. There are a few moments where he turns up looking very, very strange, such as when he just on the outside of a landrover during a sandstorm, and we see him with a full snout, fur and pointed ears. But I wanted to think that he could be any animal, that he could turn into an owl or into a wolf. We've tried to base the makeup on a combination of many animals, so he could have fur and feathers at once if he was caught between phases."
Dust Devil's makeup FX chores are being handled by The Dream Machine, a new company formed by Image Animation veterans Little John (who worked on Hardware), Simon Sayce and Geoff Portass. On set, it's Little John calling the shots, ably assisted by 20-year-old Chris Halls. Despite his age, Halls has already worked on Nightbreed, Hardware and most recently Alien3.
"Hitch is a shapeshifter, but we don't actually do any big changing things on him with bladders," clarifies Little John. "We just have a subtle prostethic makeup that Chris designed. It simply suggests that he's a bit more fluid than a human, that his skin is not as solid or stable as yours or mine."
Tonight's transformation requires Burke to endure a six-hour session while contacts, teeth and a six-piece makeup are applied. Though Stanley refers to the look as hyenalike, Halls is more upfront as to where his inspiration lies: "He looks similar to the creatures out of Vamp or Lost Boys. That's what I was aiming for, more than a werewolf. The prostethics just slightly bring out his cheeks and his forehead; it's the teeth and the lenses that give him the look."
For the film's later stages, when Hitch resembles a werewolf with a fully extended snout, a simple overhead mask has been crafted. "Only because of budjet restrictions," Little John admits. "We'd like nothing more than to do complete animatronic head." Halls and Little John have also been called upon to provide a quartet of zombified cadavers for a mortuary dream sequence; an animatronic, mummified Hitch for a scene where Burke looks at his reflection in a mirror; a full-scale prop ox which is catapulted through the windshield of a car during a major road crash; the severed fingers of Hitch's victims that he carries in a box; and the bloody aftermaths of his slayings.
The most spectacular gore effect has been saved, fittingly, for the film's finale, and involves an exploding head and a body that trashes around, pumping out blood. Shades of another Stanley gorefest, perhaps? "Richard likes his blood," chuckles Little John, "but there are times when he says more and times when he says less - which is unlike him. On Hardware, it was always more, more; that's why when I came out, I got a great big compressor and pumps and gallons of blood. I thought 'I don't want to disappoint him again.'"
While Stanley, now wearing a long black cape, strides off to prepare tonight's pivotal scene, Field stands shivering as the temperature takes a swift downward plunge. As with Stacey Travis's character in Hardware, Field's Wendy is a tough cookie who takes a pounding, but gives as good as she gets.
"She's kind of based on my sister," Stanley explains. "I was brought up around a lot of tough ladies, and it's rubbed off. But we've been trying something very bizarre this time around. Wendy starts off tougher than she ends. We tried a sort of reversed evolution, where she starts off as someone who's into motorbikes, wears leather jackets and sunglasses and generally has a James Cameron thing going for her, and then gradually regresses to wearing a diaphanous dress, and for the last 20 minutes disappears into Sleeping Beauty-land and gets very ghostly and waiflike."
"Wendy goes through so much", actress Field concurs. "She goes to the desert, she has no water, everything falls apart, and she has to fight this guy off at the end. She travels so far, and that was attractive." Field, whose credits include roles in Death Spa, Masters of the Universe and The Last Boy Scout, is in agreement with Burke's assessment of Stanley. "He doesn't come up and say, 'OK, now I want Wendy to be more angry', or 'I want her to be less angry and more vulnerable.' He describes what she's gone through, and then you pull out what you need from that. He has tons of stories. A lot of stuff I can't really use, but in 25 sentences there's atleast one where I'll go, 'Wow.' No other director could say it the way he says it."
Rehearsal is called. Field removes her coat to reveal a flimsy nightdress and takes her place before the camera as Stanley readies a closeup of her slamming a motel door on Hitch's head. Satisfied that the scene works, action is called and a hysterical Field rushes from her room, turning to slam the door with venomous force. Take two. The action is repeated, but the impact dislodges Burke's fangs, and Halls steps in to reinsert them.
Watching from the sidelines is actor Zakes Mokae, best remembered for his chilling performance in The Serpent and the Rainbow. Dust Devil is his fourth horror film - but who's counting? "I do this stuff because otherwise, people take you too seriously," he grins. "I started off on the stage, and most people know me from there or for doing political films like Cry Freedom. And this is the only role I didn't have to fight for. Richard wrote it for me; I was his first choice."
Mokae agrees with Stanley that the audience will emphathize more with his character - the skeptical lawman forced to confront the supernatural - than with Wendy. "Ben's not your regular cop," the actor laughs. "He finds other ways of investigating a case. Does he believe in the supernatural? It's kind of like when you get to Haiti and you talk about voodoo - nobody knows about it, but once the sun sets, everybody's into it."
Before Mokae can continue, Stanley calls for quiet. Take three. As a boxer-shorted and fanged Burke bellows deep into the night and gives chase to Field's VW Beetle, Mokae leans in closer and whispers, "You can't deal with Richard Stanley if you get easily shocked." Listening to Burke's banshee wail, one can't help feeling he's not mistaken.