Out in the desert that crosses the South African and Namibian border, a stranger (Robert John Burke) wanders the roads, hitchhiking to get picked up by passing drivers but never ending up at any particular destination. Sometimes it will be a woman who gives him a ride, as tonight when this one takes him back to the home she shares with her away on business husband and they have sex in her bed. Yet at the moment of climax, the stranger breaks her neck, killing her, then cuts up her body, smearing blood in arcane patterns across the walls and keeping her fingers as souvenirs...
Dust Devil was the much-anticipated follow up to director Richard Stanley's sci-fi horror Hardware, which wound up cursed with troubles from the minute the production company saw what he had in mind: basically a mystical, barely coherent ramble through the impressions he had of his home country and the stories which had been brought out of it over the years. He based the serial killer aspect on a genuine case of murkily detailed murders which he had heard of a while before making the film, but any moves towards realism were evidently not something he was too keen on creating.
This resulted in Dust Devil being severely cut down and barely released, leading Stanley to rescue the negative and fashioning his own "director's cut" out of the two hour original, which was unleashed on a largely indifferent public, finding most of its audience on home video. But as is the way with this type of ambitious project, there were a hardy few who responded to what he was up to here, and appreciated its strange, dreamlike atmosphere even if not that many of them could quite explain what he was getting at. The point was, when you were watching this you could follow it as the logic of a dream, in spite of more concrete parts of real life breaking through.
Such as the other main character, Wendy (Chelsea Field) who leaves her abusive husband in Johannesburg after an argument and drives aimlessly out on to the desert. Not that domestic troubles were entirely what drove the plot, but Zakes Mokae also appeared as a policeman trying to work out what the hell was happening with these unsolvable murders, and his background was one of domestic strife as well, suggesting those unlucky in love were drawn to not only the wilderness but the stranger character too. Predictably Wendy picks up the hitcher which offers Stanley the opportunity to include the vanishing hitchhiker urban myth to bolster this passenger's otherworldly qualities as he preys on the dispossessed.
Elsewhere, we were in territory dangerously close to all those eighties horror movies where the motif "Is it a dream or is it real?" was well to the fore, except here Stanley could be accused of applying pretensions to what was a pretty tired concept. Not that he skimped on the gore, he knew better than not to give the horror fans what they wanted, but there was something more art movie than the audience might have wanted from their slasher movies here. The stranger especially was a hard character to pin down, intentionally so, but eliciting such outlandish readings that he was some kind of space alien, shapeshifting demon, or accursed wandering figure from African mythology, all of which could be reasonable assessments on the material we had been given but served to make an already obscure narrative even more impenetrable. There were compensations: the visuals, with that stark landscape, made up for the uncertainties elsewhere, a truly surreal horror, let down by its shakier properties. Music by Simon Boswell.