Left in the Dust
by Mark Salisbury
(Originally appeared in Fangoria #125, 1993)
"I wanted to make a serious horror movie on something totally mad, something totally weird," says Hardware's wunderkid writer/director Richard Stanley of Dust Devil, his second feature. "I believe in a lot of this stuff, and there's no reason why a black magician or a shapeshifter shouldn't be the subject matter of serious movie."
Those expecting another MTV-inspired barrage of fast editing, frenzied music-video pacing and an ear-piercingly loud heavy metal soundtrack will no doubt be disappointed with Stanley's approach to Dust Devil, a horror thriller that owes as much to Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns as it does to George Romero zombie flicks. Starring Robert (Robocop 3) Burke as a shapeshifting serial killer, Dust Devil plays on like a Western on acid - "Once Upon a Time in Africa," Stanley calls it - with a plot as sprawling and timeless as the landscape it's framed against. In direct response to the criticism leveled at Hardware's use of pop video imagery, the South African-born Stanley has opted to shoot Dust Devil with his camera in perpetual motion, using elaborate tracking shots and making sweeping arcs around his performers.
"After Hardware, a lot of people said I could only do promos, and that the film was too much in the style of music videos - which I was quite angry about," says Stanley from Dust Devil's desolate African location. "I was restricted by having this very cramped set, and by having a monster that was either an arm on a rod or a head on a rod, so I was forced to shoot using many cuts and rapid-fire editing."
"The idea with Dust Devil," he continues, "was to do a movie where every single scene was in a totally different place - a road movie, something that happened predominantly outside, in broad daylight - mainly to get some fresh air after spending eight weeks in the freezer of Jill's kitchen or the shower cubicle. The whole of Hardware was incredibly cramped, so I wanted to go off to a big landscape and shoot extended tracking shots. The nice thing about a tracking shot is that it kind of reduces the potential amount of postproduction tampering. It's almost impossible for anyone to get in there and edit without it being extremely noticeable."
Five months later, back in London, Stanley is not a happy man. Gone is the relaxed sense of achievement that he wore so readily on location in Africa; it's been replaced with the air of an artist whose work has been violated. As Stanley explains it, once he delivered his cut of Dust Devil, he found himself in the unenviable position of locking horns with Miramax (co-producers of both Dust Devil and Hardware, along with Britain's Palace Pictures). Understandably loath to go into details, Stanley simply says that the "postproduction tampering" he was so keen to avoid resulted in 20 minutes of footage hitting the floor, with another 10 in danger of meeting a similar fate. (At presstime, however, a follow-up call to Stanley revealed that he had subsequently won his battle with Miramax to release his final cut, though the indie is still uncertain of when they would open the film in the US.)
"Dust Devil was a big attempt to do something more character- and story-based," the director reveals, "but I can't say it will necessarily improve on Hardware because I'm not sure how much of the story will be left by the time it's finished. The thing that comes to mind most these days is Nightbreed, and I've been kind of wanting to have a chat with Clive Barker to compare notes. I'm starting to be reminded heavily of the Nightbreed experience. I know that film went through an extremely grueling postproduction experience and now moves at an extremely fast pace, which makes it very hard to get on board. I was fairly cynical about Nightbreed at the time, but now I've developed a respect for it."
Referred to as "the South African Horror Story" by Stanley, Dust Devil takes as its springboard the true-life case of a South African serial killer whose identity still hasn't been officially confirmed, spiced up with an occult twist and the filmmaker's own psychoses regarding his homeland. "In Hardware, I wanted to use environmental problems and overpopulation because they are things that are horrifying to me. I've always felt that South Africa is a terrible place, but I thought people seemed to read it too much on a political level, whereas my memory of it was much more of a technicolor nightmare."
"Dust Devil's a more personal film than Hardware because it deals with magic," he says. "In Hardware, I had to keep that very much under rein; there's a couple of hints of telepathy and a very lengthy death trip, but that's about as far as it goes because I didn't really have the courage to launch headlong into it. Hardware was cobbled together very fast in order to make a movie, after everything else had been rejected, and was pitched squarely at the American audience. I wanted to combine as many clichés of stalk-and-slash-movies as possible and represent them in a 21st-century setting. It was quite a lot of fun to put together a shower scene, a blind person feeling for someone at the back of a room, the voyeur from next door. But at the same time, it wasn't so much a matter of personal inspiration as a way of showing off; I'm only happy with the middle of Hardware in that respect."
In addition to his previously-voiced complaints about the casting of Dylan McDermott in the lead, Stanley feels that Hardware's dystopian vision of a nightmarish future was diluted by a series of compromises that softened its intended no-nonsense tone. "Going back and re-reading the original script, I saw that there were many nasty which got messed around. We lost the fetishism to an extent; the two leads were cleaned up; the drug dependency should been much more serious than it was; and the sex scenes should have been more S&M-oriented," Stanley says. "It was made a little bit nicer and more presentable to an average audience."
"There are compromises on Dust Devil too," he sighs. "The main thing that the increased budjet ($4.3 million, as compared to $1.5 million on Hardware) got us was the location, a helicopter and we had a camera crane around longer; we've still got the same schedule we had on Hardware, eight weeks. Once again we're seeing American leads, which is something I wish I could get away from - I'd like very much to cast people who are not from the States."
So how does he rate his actors this time? "It's a better cast all around," he offers. "I don't think anyone in the movie turns in a duff performance. We did lighten up a lot. I could have done with harder people - I could do much more given crazier people to work with. But Robert Burke is really good news, and in a way Dust Devil is going to bring him to the limelight. He did a fine job but there was a degree where the rest of it was a little too Hollywood for my liking."
Though Stanley's two films to date couldn't be more dissimilar, the link between Hardware's futuristic vision and Dust Devil's Western scenario is the nomad, an archetype who both physically and spiritually shares much in common with his creator. "He's basically a recurring character," Stanley says. "He's sort of a take on me, but I wouldn't want to back him too heavily, because he kills a lot of people in Dust Devil and is obviously insane. The nomad is my traveling man, and I've got this idea that he's displaced in reality. He is able to cross from one timestream to another, but he seems very confused in both Hardware and Dust Devil as to where and when he actually is. He'll probably be back in a cameo, but Dust Devil is his one and only chance at hogging in the limelight."
Having begun eight years ago as a student film, Dust Devil was eventually given the green light as a result of Hardware's success. "The immediate impetus from Palace and Miramax was that they wanted to do it again, they wanted to find something that would work on a similar level; Dust Devil was hit upon because it had a serial killer in it, and serial killers were big box office because of Silence of the Lambs," Stanley confesses. "And throughout the shoot I kept getting faxes from Miramax saying, 'More Silence.'"
As for the film's blood quotient, Stanley says he's had to tone it down. "I thought it was very tame, myself," he shrugs. "There are only two really big onscreen bits of gore on the level of the chief's death in Hardware. The first victim's on screen, but it's not very gory - it's more nasty than anything else, a neck snap during an orgasm, but without bloodshed. The two worst things are a severed hand and a head explosion at the finale. The latter's over into Dawn of the Dead territory in that it's a result of a pump shotgun rather than psychic means. And it's quite protracted - he goes on twitching for a long time after the head is gone."
No stranger to controversy, having run afoul of the MPAA after Hardware was awarded an X rating, Stanley says he wasn't surprised at the audience's split reaction to that movie. What did surprise him was the level of hospitality aimed at the film's blatantly derivative mishmash of filmic references. "I always knew a lot of people were going to totally dislike it, and I figured it wasn't a film to take your grandparents to. But it was a little knowing about its references," he points out, "and the thing that did make me sad was the incredible number of people who came forward afterwards and accused me of ripping them off. Hardware wasn't taken in total from anyone - it borrows from a great number of sources and tends to do a whole number of fairly familiar riffs. The genre should have hung together a little bit more. An awful lot of people didn't get the joke."
Among those offended were the British publishers of 2000 A.D. comic, who claimed Hardware bore an uncanny resemblance to a decade-old strip and sued, ultimately settling for a credit on the movie. "There was also this maniac who showed up constantly for about eight months, claiming to be the real Richard Stanley," he recalls. "I never met him, but he claimed I had stolen his work. After a while I started to expect it all. But it's weird the way things turn around; the 2000 A.D. people sued me, and then I was offered the Judge Dredd film."
Stanley passed on that assignment, though. "At that time Dust Devil was happening, but also I was getting very wary of getting involved because it's a bit like Batman, the margin for creativity is a bit on the slim side. And after RoboCop and Mad Max, you could't really get the character anywhere that someone else hadn't been before. I suggested they offer it to Sam Raimi."
Instead, with a Dario Argento-produced Edgar Allan Poe TV series, for which Stanley was to have directed a number of episodes, temporarily put on ice, he's now gearing up for a large-scale remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau for producer Ed Pressman. With a prospective budjet of $18-20 million, Stanley promises a makeup FX extravaganza like no other - though he hasn't as yet signed up anyone on the FX front.
"It's going the Nightbreed route in that it's looking like a colossal makeup effects odyssey," grins Stanley, now in better spirits. "Being a big Ray Harryhausen fan, I want to try and bring back stop-motion animation as well. I tried to write it as a sort of Heart of Darkness of genetic engineering, because Moreau is definetly a Colonel Kurtz figure, with his private kingdom that he's created himself and where he really is God. It's a nice fat project for me to get my teeth into, and, if all goes well, in a year I'll be standing in some mangrove swamp trying to stop people's makeup from coming off."
His take on H.G. Well's classic tale will differ significantly from the two previous versions. "As written, the mutants first turn up kind of presentable and have very dark skins, funny eyes, cleft palates, pointy ears and long hair," he explains. "But they regress throughout the course of the movie and get furry and snoutier. It's been moved into the near future, and involves designer genetics and man-eating plants. The script's very loony, it's got a terrible puma mutant in it, which appears, It's Alive!-style, out of another puma halfway through. It should," he chuckles, "be a complete holocaust."
While that film should keep him busy for a couple of years, Stanley's dream project is still a sequel to the cult classic The Wicker Man, starring Christopher Lee. "The main impetus is to get Lee a vehicle before he's too old, because I've had nothing but respect for him for all my life. And as Lord Summerisle was his favorite character and his pinnacle achievement in the horror business, the best idea would be to have him reprise the role 20 years on and marry it on a global warming problem and the current environmental problems which are playing havoc with the harvest. It hasn't worked out so far, because the rights to the first Wicker Man are tied up. I'm sad that I missed all the great horror stars, because I don't think we've got them anymore - we just don't have people like Peter Cushing or Vincent Price toplining."
As far as the prospect of the previously mooted Hardware sequel goes, Stanley doesn't exactly rule it out, but admits it's now becoming increasingly unlikely. "I pitched an idea for it based on artificial intelligence vs. insect intelligence. Some computer systems have had problems with getting genuine bugs inside them, and have had to call in people to fumigate their machines because they've had ants in them. Their bodies were conductive to electrical current, and they were actually eating the circuitry and sending out the wrong signals. So I thought of playing the insect community off against the droids in the post-holocaust wastelands of Hardware. It would have required Stacey Travis to be coated with ants, so I'm not sure it would have worked out."