British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Adventures in Cult Cinema: Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil (1992)

Following on from Ieuan Franklin’s excellent blog which discussed such mind-bendingly psychedelic Films on Four as Born of Fire (Jamil Dehlavi, 1987), Shadey (Phillip Saville, 1987) and Silent Scream (David Hayman, 1991), I felt that a blog needed to be dedicated to one of the channel’s most interesting commissions; Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil. The film was unsuccessful following its release in 1992, but quickly became a cult classic (which is to say it has been largely forgotten in the cannon of Channel 4 films and cinema history in general). But Dust Devil is important in the annals of Film on Four for two reasons. Firstly, the film is a supernatural fantasy horror which draws influences from Hollywood and European art-house cinema. Set in South Africa during Apartheid, Dust Devil deals with contemporary issues as well as delving into mysticism and spiritual lore, and such an interesting experiment deserves reappraisal. Secondly, the decision to get involved in making Dust Devil signified an important moment of change in the policy and direction of Film on Four.

Shot on location in Namibia, Dust Devil 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 hitchhiker/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. Dust Devil was Stanley’s second full-length feature, although he had previously made a shorter version of the film on 16mm when he was 15 years old. Production 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.[1]

At one point during production, Stanley and producer Joanne Sellar were communicating solely through intermediaries.[2] 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).[3]

Dust Devil was one of the first commissions made by David Aukin, who took over from David Rose as head of Film on Four in 1990. The huge success of films like My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985) and Letter to Brezhnev (Chris Bernard, 1985) coupled with the fact that the channel typically sponsored low-budget filmmaking suited to a contemporary realist aesthetic culminated in a perception that there was a ‘type’ of film that Channel 4 was more likely to accept; specifically, productions that fit into the ‘worthy’ social realist mode. This view persisted despite the fact that the channel had funded The Company of Wolves (Neil Jordan, 1984), a fairytale-horror influenced by Powell and Pressburger, as well as films like Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) and  Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988).

Dust Devil represented a conscious decision to break with this perception. For Aukin, his involvement in the film was a call to the industry that the channel was willing to fund a greater variety of productions, even genre films that could be populist, entertaining, and geared toward a younger audience:

I think suddenly the industry said, ‘Fuck, he’s doing Dust Devil’. You know, that’s interesting, that’s not something that we would expect Channel 4 to be doing. And it wasn’t a particularly successful film…but nevertheless as a genre [piece] it gave a message out to the industry that I was interested in more than just social realism.[4]

Dust Devil had a limited UK theatrical release and performed badly at the box office, taking just £30,000.[5] But the fact that it was commissioned marked a change in policy in terms of the types of film Channel 4 was now willing to fund. And whatever its failings, the film was undoubtedly cinematic, and thus well-suited to Aukin’s more visually ambitious aspirations. For Aukin, the channel made ‘feature films’, not television plays, and he often argued that the idea of making a film and then deciding to put it in the cinema was the wrong approach.[6] Throughout the 1980s, around 60% of Films on Four had gained theatrical exposure.[7] Under Aukin, this figure moved closer to 90%.

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, 5 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 Aukin and pointed out a clause in the channel’s contract which meant that he could act on their behalf, make a cut of the film and deliver a master print.[8] Stanley’s 6th and final version (which was closest to the original cut) was completed in 1993 and shown in the channel’s Film on Four 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.’[9] 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 Film on Four’s history.


Laura Mayne

[2] Anon, Screen Finance January 13, 1993 p. 11.

[4] David Aukin, personal communication, 23 February 2011.

[5] Phil Wickham, Producing the Goods? UK Film Production, 1991-2001, (London, 2002).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Anon, Screen International November 02, 1992.

[9] Brian Pendreigh, ‘Investment repays’ in  The Scotsman February 29, 1988.