The title of the new documentary about the project that sidelined South African filmmaker Richard Stanley’s movie career 20 years ago might well describe him as well as the film he almost (but never) made.
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau prompted me a few columns back to revisit three versions made over the years of the H.G. Wells classic. Set to direct the third one in 1996, based on his own script with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer on board, Stanley was fired at the start of shooting and replaced by John Frankenheimer. The result was a fiasco.
But that’s another story, worth watching on its own in Lost Soul.
Richard Stanley never made another major film, though he has kept busy with music videos, documentaries, scripts, and some short subjects. However, it was on the basis of his first two (and thus far, only) feature films in ’90 and ’92 that he was hired for the big-budget Dr. Moreau remake. The energy and originality of those two films, eccentric and uneven though they may be, illustrate what we lost due to Stanley’s absence.
Hardware (1990), though obviously influenced by The Terminator,Blade Runner, and The Road Warrior, still reflects Stanley’s unique vision of a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Shot in a Moroccan desert and in London, the film posits a ruined urban world plagued with all sorts of problems, like radiation mutations and rising fascism. Protagonist Moses Baxter (Dylan McDermott) is a scavenger of the wasteland who procures robot parts for girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis), a metal sculptor.
Soon, the robot head and arm begin to reassemble themselves and create all kinds of mayhem, resulting in an X-rating, for gore. The film’s real strengths, though, are in its design, multilayered themes and striking visuals, which quickly elevated the minimally released Hardware to the status of cult film.
The opening scene of Hardware shows a mysterious muffled character in a brown duster walking through the desert, almost like a shot in a Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood film. The parallel is even stronger in Dust Devil, made two years later, which opens similarly with a stranger, hatted but not masked, wandering the desert, again cloaked in a brown duster. Apart from that, the two films could not be more different.
Hardware is science-fiction; Dust Devil is horror. Both are atypical, and both are quite good.
Filmed entirely in Namibia, Dust Devil blends magic and the supernatural with legends of a local serial killer. Robert John Burke plays the otherwise unnamed title character, a remorseless killer and mutilator not unlike the force of primal nature Rutger Hauer played in The Hitcher (1986). In fact, the story begins with him hitching a ride with a beautiful woman, later dismembering her in some kind of ritualistic orgy of violence.
As in Hardware, the basic premise is supplemented with an abundance of subplots and themes. A wife runs away from an abusive husband, crossing paths with the enigmatic killer. Her repentant spouse, desperate to get her back, eventually teams up with a middle-aged policeman to find the killer. Interwoven with the overlapping subplots are elements of racism, betrayal, and tribal folklore.
Visually stunning, often perplexing, Dust Devil has no easy interpretation. Even more than Hardware, it suffered at the hands of producers and distributors. What we have now is offered as Dust Devil: The Final Cut, a delicious bit of irony.
One can only hope that Richard Stanley, on the strength of new interest inspired by Lost Soul, isn’t finished making films for a long time.