Title: Dust Devil
Starring: Robert John Burke as The Dust Devil
Zakes Mokae as Sergeant Ben Mukurob
Chelsea Field as Wendy Robinson
John Matshikisa as Joe Niemand/Narrator
Director: Richard Stanley
Writer: Richard Stanley
For me, this was a strange film to decide to watch. Many of you here probably love horror, the gorier and more frightening the better. Me, I don’t. I mean, generally speaking I don’t enjoy gory or scary movies. I do however like myths, legends, folklore and fantasy, and this film blends all these elements together into what is really a quite excellent movie which should be better known than it is.
Shot entirely on location in Namibia, South Africa, it tells the story of a serial killer who is believed to have mystical powers, and who is referred to in the opening sequence, narrated by one of the characters, Joe Niemand, a healer and kind of witch doctor: “Back in the first times, in the time of the red light, Desert Wind was a man like us. Until by mischance, he grew wings and flew like a bird. He became a hunter, and like a hawk, he flew to seek his prey, taking refuge in those far corners of the world where magic still lingers. But having once been a man, so does he still suffer the passions of a man, flying in the rages sometimes, and throwing himself down like a child, to vent his wrath upon the earth. The people of the great Namib have another name for those violent winds that blow from nowhere. They call them Dust Devils”
The movie opens, and indeed is mostly set in, the great Namib Desert, where a man walks along a long dusty barren empty road. At first glance he looks like a hitch-hiker, a vagrant. But it is soon apparent he knows exactly what he is doing, and he takes out a strange-looking pocket watch whose hands move around the face much faster than they should. Closing it with a nod, he then lies down on the road as if sleeping, but as the camera angles changes we see that he has in fact his ear to the ground, as if listening to, or waiting for something. Soon a battered old car comes along the road, and the man stands up, hailing it.
His eyes beneath the brim of his weather-worn hat are dark and mysterious, and somehow unsettling, but the car stops and its driver, a young woman, gives him a lift. Meanwhile we see the old mystic who narrates the movie make or trace strange patterns on the wall of a cave, and watch the circling motion of a bird of prey in the sky high above him. The woman invites the stranger into her house, isolated and in the middle of nowhere, and later that night they make love, but in the midst of the act he kills her, snapping her neck.
The scene switches to the town of Bethany, where the police Sergeant Mukurob picks up a ringing phone and hears strange, disembodied voices. The same thing happens to Wendy Robinson, in Johannesburg, but she is in bed and puts it down to a crossed line. Back at the murdered woman’s house the hitch-hiking stranger looks at his watch again. He notes the time and writes it on a photograph he has taken of the dead woman. He holds up a bowl (whether the photographs are in it or not I don’t know, but you can bet the girl’s blood is) and utters strange words, and then paints strange symbols on the wall of the bedroom. As he leaves we see that he has removed the girl’s hand, minus the fingers and nailed it to the wall. The fingers he then carefully places in a small box.
Before leaving he torches the house, while listening on the radio to news of the great drought that is afflicting Namibia, killing the cattle and drying up the crops. He then takes his victim’s car and drives away. In Johannesburg Wendy leaves her husband after an argument in which he accuses her of cheating on him. Sergeant Mukurob is called by the station to the site of the arson attack, where they have found the dismembered body parts of the woman. On further investigation they also find the abandoned car. The stranger has by now hopped a train, and is on his way to Bethany, which the radio reports tell us is the centre of the drought, and is said to be “doomed”.
Doing the autopsy of the dead woman, the doctor discovers that the symbols on the wall of her house were made with the victim’s blood and other bodily fluids, and she suspects witchcraft. Mukurob is incredulous: witchcraft, such superstition in this enlightened age? But this is Africa, where the old gods do not die easily, and the devils less so. She suggests the policeman consult a Sangoma, a holy man, who would be able to tell him what parts the killer was looking for, and what he would be likely to use them for in a ritual. Mukurob is reluctant but he does know of a Sangoma who lives locally, and goes to talk to him.
Wendy arrives at a bar near Bethany just as the stranger is leaving with some people who are driving a camper van ; he looks in the window at her but she does not see him, her back being turned to the window. That night, as she drives on and dozes a little behind the wheel, straying off the road, she almost runs over him as he walks out into the road. In the glare of her headlights his face appears momentarily inhuman, bestial, demonic. She swerves desperately to avoid him and goes off the road. Realising she has narrowly avoided crashing, and unwilling to go any further in her exhausted state, she sleeps in her car overnight.
The next morning, seeing her car has become buried in the hard sand of the desert, she gets out and goes to seek help. She notices a van up on the rise ahead of her, but when she climbs to it and knocks on the door there is no answer. A man with a shovel taps her on the shoulder and asks if she is the driver of the van, which is in fact a camper van; she says no but could he dig out her car, down the hill? As she leaves we see the inside of the van is smeared with fresh blood, and it’s obvious everyone inside is dead. Further up the road she comes across the stranger hitch-hiking, and picks him up. She realises this is the same man she almost ran over last night. While in the car he takes a Polaroid of her and asks her some questions about herself, though she is reticent with answers. She tells him she is going “straight through, all the way to the sea.”
Police meanwhile have discovered the camper van, and indeed everyone inside has been butchered, with body parts all over the place. Sergeant Mukurob meets with Joe Niemand, the Sangoma, who tells him he believes the world is about to end, and the drought is a sign of that. Joe appears to be building some sort of magic circle around his home, protection presumably, and it corresponds in design to the symbols the murderer drew in blood on the walls of the burned-down house. The enlightened Mukurob however cannot believe what the Sangoma tells him, and he can really get no sense out of Niedman so he leaves.
When Wendy admits she believes in neither god nor devil, and has no expectation of a life after death, the interest seems to go from the stranger and suddenly they appear to pass him hitch-hiking on the road. Doing a double-take Wendy looks over at her passenger and — he’s gone! She slams on the brakes, confused and if she’s honest with herself, more than a little afraid. Mukurob is told by his boss that he has to take him off the case, as the UN are taking over in the wake of political unrest in the country. He himself is being forced into retirement, but Mukurob believes he is close to catching the man who has so far killed twice, and just needs more time. Information has come to light about a white woman whose car was seen near the camper van with the mutilated corpses, and he sets about tracking Wendy down.
She, meanwhile, desperately unhappy and perhaps thinking she has lost her mind, tries to commit suicide in the bath but cannot make herself use the razor blade and drops it into the water. Outside, her erstwhile hitch-hiker lurks, but when she detects a presence and gets out of the bath to check, she finds nobody there. However the next morning she finds him in her car, and he convinces her to again take him with her. Mukurob’s boss meets him and turns over all the files on unexplained and unsolved murders in the area that he has been able to find; Mukurob is amazed to see that one, which mentions a pocketwatch like the one found inside the first victim, goes all the way back almost to the turn of the century!
Wendy and her passenger finally reach the end of the desert, and on the high sandstone cliffs overlooking the sea, they embrace, while her husband is now on her trail, heading for Bethany. Mukurob awakes from troubled dreams of his wife and son to find Joe Niedman sitting at the foot of his bed; he tells him he has come to help him. While Wendy’s husband is getting beaten up at the bar she passed through, she is making love to the stranger, and Niedman is leading Mukurob into his caves. There he shows him the symbols carved on the wall, which correspond to the ones scrawled on the walls of the first victim’s house. He tells the sergeant that what they seek is called a naghtloeper, a Dust Devil, a shapeshifting demon who preys on the weak and uses them to make himself stronger, even invincible. Mukurob of course thinks he’s mad and does not believe it.
Joe tells him that the only way to destroy the demon is to trick him to step across a holy stick called a kerrie. If he does this he can be stripped of his power, but there is danger; in so doing he may transfer his essence to that of the policeman, taking him over. Still not believing, Mukurob takes the stick. While the Dust Devil showers Wendy goes through his things and finds the box of fingers. He tries to kill her but she escapes, driving off into the night. The demon though makes a gesture and a truck swerves into her path, knocking her off the road. In the pileup that follows she barely gets free of her car before it, and the rest of the crashed vehicles explode, and she runs off into the desert.
Mukorob and Mark, Wendy’s husband, have joined up to try and find Wendy, or at least the Dust Devil, while the demon is using his unnatural powers to try to comb the desert to find her. He whips up a sandstorm and she is blinded, stopped, can go no further. He then attacks the oncoming Mukurob and Mark, overturning their police vehicle, and the sergeant shackles Mark to the car, telling him that he should be safe as Dust Devil only takes those who have nothing. Then he walks off into the storm.
As the storm abates Wendy begins walking again, but when she eventually comes across a village it is completely deserted, its habitants having long ago abandoned it in the face of the harsh desert. Here she meets Mukurob and they both unaccountably hear a phone ringing. Mukurob gives her a gun and they head towards the sound of the phone. Picking it up Mukurob hears the voice of his dead wife, calling him to her. Confused, he staggers into an old abandoned cinema, and as he exits it he runs into Dust Devil, who stabs him. Wendy goes looking for him in the building and not finding him comes back out to encounter Dust Devil. He looks at his watch: it is running backwards. He is not happy.
She threatens him with the gun but it jams and the demon advances upon her. Mukurob though, who is lying nearby, throws down the kerrie stick with his dying breaths as the monster advances, and as he crosses it, an instant too late realising what has happened, Wendy grabs the policeman’s shotgun and blows Dust Devil’s head clean off his shoulders.
As Wendy wanders out into the desert she comes across her husband, still handcuffed to Mukurob’s police car. For a moment she levels the shotgun at him, a dark, dead look in her eyes, then she turns and walks off into the desert, the shotgun over her shoulder. She walks out along the desert road, lies down and presses her ear to the ground, and presently a convoy of UN trucks arrives. She stands out in the middle of the road, hailing them.
It’s fairly apparent from the ending of the film that, just as Joe Niedman warned Mukurob, the Dust Devil has transferred his essence into Wendy, just before dying, and she is now his. Indeed, the final scene shows a figure garbed in a long shabby greatcoat and hat, the dress originally worn by the stranger in the opening scene, pass in front of a fiery setting sun. The end monologue seems to confirm this: "“The desert knows her name now, he has stolen both her eyes. When she looks into a mirror, she will see his spirit like a shore blowing tatters around her shoulders in a haze. And beyond the dim horizon, a tapestry unfolding of the avenues of evil, and all of history set ablaze”.
(Mostly from the narration of Joe Niedman)
“He sifts the human storm for souls. He can smell a town waiting to die and the manhood festering in a boy from a thousand miles away. Their smell is sweet to him.”
The doctor examines the corpse of the first victim:
“We’ve got evisceration, partial cremation, sexual mutilation, possibly even cannibalism. We found the remains of a clock wedged inside her, for god’s sake!”
Dust Devil is offered a ride by Wendy:
Wendy: “Where you headed for?”
Dust Devil: “Nowhere.”
Wendy: “Just came from there. Any other place I’m good for.”
Joe Niedman, in response to Mukurob’s query as to why the killer is taking fingers from his victims:
“There’s a whole lot of power in fingers. Lots of knuckles and such. If you want to win a war, you need a whole fistful of knuckles!”
Joe (in narration)
“This is the work of the naghtloeper, black magician, a shapeshifter. He seeks power over the material world through the ritual of murder. The power of vision, of ecstasy. The power to shield himself from detection, and death. To travel, and to transform, he feeds off our life, he preys upon the damned; the weak and the faithless, he draws them to him and he sucks them dry.”
Joe to Mukurob:
“You’ve got to stop thinking like a white man; start thinking like a man instead.”
Joe to Mukurob, in the cave:
“We are nothing to him. We are dust in the wind. He smelled Bethany dying, and he has come here for souls, to build his power and return to the realm of the spirit. Until the ritual is complete he is trapped ike us in the material world, bound by the flesh. He must work through human form while he is in this world, and so is vulnerable to human failings. Only through ritual, through any power over the flesh can a spirit awake to fuller consciousness. To work the ritual he must keep moving, but if he can be tricked to cross this kerrie he can be rooted to the spot and stripped of his power.”
Joe, again to Mukurb:
“Death hunts you, just as you hunt the Dust Devil.”
Joe (in narration)
“The serpent lures its pray entranced, eyes wide open, through the mirror, to the land of the dead. To the house of the dust, where the air is thick and hard to breathe.”
Those clever little touches
Just before Dust Devil disappears from the car, Wendy takes a bite from a shiny green apple. Eve biting into the apple of temptation while the devil urges her on?
There is also a reference, intended or not, to Kansas’s big hit “Dust in the Wind”, though the director wisely refrains from taking the easy route and using it in the soundtrack.