This is a visually gorgeous film. I watched it expecting a horror movie but ended up enthralled by its sheer visual splendour; both in its stunning photography and its breathtaking landscape. As a horror film, I doubt if it would attract the mass of today's horror fans. It's obvious why the studio quietly dumped it onto video without a theatrical release. It would not have sold as a horror movie. There are not enough shocks, gore or horror to satiate today's audience. The predominant feeling I got was not so much of fear, but of despair, desolation and spiritual isolation, made all the more stark when set amidst all that beauty. I would agree with director Richard Stanley, when he says that it is closer to an "art film" than a horror movie.
Stanley grew up in South Africa and learned the folklore of the natives at the feet of his mother, an anthropologist who collected stories and folktales of the African tribes. This story revolves around a shape-shifting spirit, variously called a Soupwah, a Num or in Afrikaans, a Nagtloper (literally Night-Runner). The Nagtloper (Robert John Burke) feeds off the life-force of the damned - people who have lost the will to live. Into his orbit float two lost souls, Wendy (Chelsea Field) a South African woman fleeing from a failed marriage and Ben Mukurob (Zakes Mokae), a Zulu policeman whose life came to an end years ago with the death of his wife. Who will attain deliverance? The white woman, the black policeman or the Nagtloper, whose own aim is to return to the spirit world from where it came. The desolate emptiness of the Namib is beautifully captured. Scenes are exquisitely choreographed, almost like a ballet. I don't know if I would recommend it to the usual horror film fan, but it is definitely one for cinephiles. The DVD is superbly produced with crystal clear image quality, no dirt, no damage and with exceptionally good sound. It is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen. Strangely there are no subtitles. The main feature is anamorphic (enhanced for widescreen TV) as are all of Stanley's interview segments. Sadly none of the other Extras are anamorphic. Even the workprint is letterboxed.
This Special Edition comes with a host of Extras spread over 5 discs. Personally I felt that devoting an entire disc to the "Workprint" was overkill. But I'm not complaining. You can watch the workprint in its entirety or just use the 46 chapter-stops to get directly to the various deleted segments, which are sadly all taken from a VHS source; some having no sound, some looking really terrible, and most having the video-counter running above or below the print. I would recommend the workprint only to ardent admirers of the Final Cut. The other Extras have nothing to do with the main film itself but are Stanley's TV documentaries on other subjects. Nonetheless, they are definitely worth viewing.
The most substantial Extra is "The Secret Glory of SS Obersturmfuhrer Otto Rahn" made for Britain's Channel Four TV. This is a 97min documentary on the life of the Nazi poet and writer Otto Rahn who was obsessed with the search for the "Holy Grail". This is not the Grail of Christ which we usually associate with the legendary quest but a more obscure "Grail" supposedly made from the crown of Lucifer, variously described as a stone, a gem or a diadem. Stanley contends that Rahn and the Nazis did find the Grail in southern France but gives no source for his claim. To be fair, the documentary is not about the search for the Grail itself but is an account of Rahn's tragic life. The sad irony of his life is that this Nazi stalwart, who wrote so many vile tracts condemning the Jews, was in the end, himself revealed to be a Jew. The documentary is very dense, and expects the viewer to be fully conversant with Grail legend, 13th Century Crusader history (specifically of the Albigensian or Cathar Crusade) and German history circa WWII. Like Rahn, Stanley doesn't make clear when he conflates fact and fiction. The Lucifer Grail is referred to in Wolfram von Eschenbach's medieval poem Parzival (the source of Wagner's Parsifal). This is by almost all accounts an invention based on the old Arthurian legends. Rahn ties that in to historical fact by assuming that the Grail mountain, the fictional Montsalvat of the poem, is the same as Montsegur, the last retreat of the Cathars in southern France. The Cathars were Gnostic Christians, declared heretics by the Vatican, which sent in Crusaders to annihilate them in what became known as the Albigensian Crusade. The hilltop fortress of Montsegur was where the Cathars made their last stand. At Montsegur Rahn searches and apparently finds the Grail he is looking for. In fact, the Cathars never claimed to possess the Holy Grail. The documentary is packed with so much information, both historical fact and literary fantasy, that it requires more than one viewing for full assimilation and it is not easy to sit through. Picture quality is mediocre but tolerable for a documentary extra. It is in 1.85:1 widescreen, letterboxed into a 4x3 fullframe. Sound quality is very poor. Dialogue is recorded at fluctuating volume levels, is frequently inaudible and in many instances drowned out by extremely boomy bass. Worse, the sound and picture for the interviews are never in sync. The film's temp-track sounds terrible (like a bad B-grade horror flick) but the accompanying Wagnerian music is grand and transcendent. The exerpts come from Wagner's Parsifal and Tannhauser. The documentary interviews are in equal parts German, French and English. The entire documentary comes with obligatory English subtitles. To be fair, Stanley admits that this is just a preview of a work in progress which he hopes to release in proper form one day.
My favourite of the documentaries is the 36min long "Voice of the Moon". It is a visual record of Stanley's visit to Afghanistan towards the end of the Soviet occupation (1989). As Stanley points out in the interview, it is more akin to poetry than a documentary; a visual tone-poem if you will. The sparse narration, in verse form, occurs only at the beginning and end and is given wholly in Pashto (Pashtun language). English subtitles are burnt onto the print. This was made for Britain's BSB channel. As a traditional factual documentary it falls flat, but as a visual poem it is beautiful. And this is evident despite the poor quality of the 16mm film footage. It was shot on a mechanical (spring driven/hand-cranked) Bolex camera, with no sync-audio. The reason was because they were travelling with the mujahideen and shooting for months in places where there was no electricity; mostly around the Afghan/Pakistan border region in the majestic Hindu Kush mountains. Stanley's 1/2-hour long interview accompanying this film is a must-see. He describes the Afghan expedition, his meetings with the Afghan mujahideen, his deep admiration for them and his sadness at seeing them bombed into oblivion post-9/11. The film itself ends with the mujahideen victorious in the final battle for Jalalabad. The music score is lyrical and evocative and is easily the loveliest score written by Simon Boswell on these discs. It is inspired by Eastern European folk music (not native Afghan music) and the documentary also features the Trio Bulgarka singing "Oi Yano Yanke" from their "The Forest is Crying" album.
"The White Darkness" is a documentary Stanley made for the BBC as part of a series on world religions. Its focus is on the practise of Voodoo on the island of Haiti. Coincidentally, while the documentary was being shot, America invaded the island. The documentary ends up being an examination of Voodoo practise on the one hand, and a record of the American invasion on the other. Thanks to a particularly obnoxious US Army Colonel, it also becomes a story about superior American Evangelical Christianity coming in to trounce the devil-worshipping heathens of the island. The Colonel is so boastfully arrogant and self-righteous that one could only sigh with relief to learn that he was eventually "removed from command". Visually this film looks the best of the three and is presented in its original 1.33:1 fullscreen with good audio quality. Most of the documentary is in English with the French and Creole segments suitably subtitled. It also comes with a 17min long interview where, amongst other things, Stanley describes the American invasion and the surreal image of US Marines and "Armed Baptists" coming to evangelise the heathens.
The last disc of this 5-disc set is an audio-CD containing the soundtrack of "Dust Devil". I wish they had included the soundtrack of "Voice of the Moon" as well. It is probably the best thing Simon Boswell has written. The set is accompanied by three separate 12-page booklets, the first being a very detailed and informative production diary on "Dust Devil", the second containing equally detailed discussions on the 3 documentaries, and the third being a comic-book version of the film. The "Dust Devil" feature alone is worth the asking price for this release. Coupled with all the extras, this DVD is self-recommending.
Note: As we are reminded on every disc here, Richard Stanley is the Great-Grandson of the legendary explorer and adventurer, Sir Henry Stanley, who gave his name to the Stanley Falls (now Boyoma Falls, DRC), and the city of Stanleyville (present day Kisangani, DRC), searched for and rescued his even more famous fellow-explorer, David Livingston and is credited with the iconic line, "Dr. Livingston, I presume?"