Richard Stanley

Renegade filmmaker Richard Stanley had his first film taken away from him and re-cut. While studying at the Cape Town Film School, his 15 minute Super 8 film, Rites of Passage…was confiscated and re-cut by…[his tutor] for being “a cinematic wank”. Ever since then he has been running into skirmishes with the types who decide what movies should be. His Namibian serial killer/ghost story Dust Devil [1992] was cut by the distributors from 120 minutes to a barely recognisable 87 minutes. He disassociates himself from the film for UK band Marillion’s concept album Brave and most recently he was fired from the set of The Island of Doctor Moreau after four days (1).

With many films the director’s original vision fails to make it to the final cut. It seems that for Richard Stanley the filmmaking process is less one of creation than of compromise. The making of his debut feature, Hardware (1990), was relatively straightforward compared to his later experiences: still, apart from the investors requesting various changes to the script prior to filming, Stanley had to compromise on his choice of actors, reduce narrative developments due to budgetary constraints and make obligatory cuts to satisfy both the British Board of Film Classification and the Motion Picture Association of America.

Although well received on its initial release, Hardware created further problems for Stanley when Fleetway Comics sued, claiming that the narrative was based on their SHOK comic strip. The matter was eventually settled by giving SHOK creators Steve McManus and Kevin O’Neil an end credit. Ironically, following the success of Hardware, Stanley was offered Fleetway Comics’ flagship character Judge Dredd – but chose instead to develop what had initially been a student project, Dust Devil.

Stanley once again had to make compromises with his casting choices, and filming in the Nambi desert was predictably difficult. But none of this compares to the postproduction process Stanley had to endure. Stanley’s original cut, which he presented to production company Palace Pictures, ran for 120 minutes. Stanley then edited this down to 105 minutes. From here, the situation worsened as Palace Pictures went bankrupt:

The situation with Dust Devil is very bad. No one can legally sell anyone the rights to the movie because no one can figure out who to buy the rights from. That means that potential distributors do their best to investigate it for two or three months and then eventually get discouraged. Pirate video is the only way to see the real film (2).

Dust Devil was finally released in several versions running between 70 and 87 minutes (various sources suggest there are up to five versions in existence). These cuts reduce Stanley’s film to the most basic of serial killer narratives, removing the mythic overtones associated with the Dust Devil and his emotional relationship to the murders he commits. As a result any sense of his origins and purpose is lost, as is the notion that all of the characters are deliberately drawing themselves toward suicide. In an effort to rectify this situation Stanley personally invested £44,000 into restoring previously-cut footage. In March 1993, Dust Devil – The Final Cut received a restricted theatrical release before being made available on video.

Stanley hoped his next project would be an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, a script he had spent years developing, which would blend the philosophical with the horrific. Placing Moreau’s grotesque biological experiments in the contemporary context of genetic engineering, Stanley anticipated that his film would contain scenes of extreme medical and mutational horror informed by a critique of science’s desire to “create”, to become like God.

Stanley’s experiences on The Island of Doctor Moreau are well-documented, particularly in David Hughes’s The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made. Hughes chronicles the film’s litany of problems mainly from Stanley’s point of view: according to his account, the production began to collapse after lead actor Val Kilmer requested that his part be reduced by 40 percent (3). This situation escalated when Kilmer failed to appear during the first two days of the shoot. This, combined with a cast who had not had the opportunity to rehearse, resulted in a poor set of rushes.

As a result, Stanley received a message on the fourth day of shooting saying that he was officially “relieved of duties”. The project he had spent four years of his life perfecting had been taken away from him (4).

Meanwhile rumours began circulating that Stanley intended to harm the cast and crew and burn down the set (5). The Island of Doctor Moreau was finally released in 1996 and proved a commercial and critical failure, though the myths surrounding the film’s production and Stanley’s involvement with it continue to grow. The film is an odd mix of unusual performances (Val Kilmer’s seemingly drugged Montgomery and Marlon Brando’s pallid Dr. Moreau), ethical critique and mindless action – a curious spectacle, but by no means a wholly unrewarding one.

Stanley’s loss of control over the production is especially regrettable as Dr Moreau, with its central character of a man of science acting like a god, would have been ideal source material for a director all of whose films examine the function of religion within contemporary society.

The things that I’m exploring in Dust Devil and Hardware are probably better explained in Gnostic terms than Christian terms. When Hitch in Dust Devil tries to explain his motives its basically a dualist heresy in that in Gnostic terms…there is no good or evil only spirit and matter (6).

As this comment suggests, Stanley’s films depict worlds that are inherently sinful to the point where the traditional distinction between Good and Evil has vanished, leaving Spirit and Matter as the only meaningfully conflicting forces. As his vision has evolved this conflict has been rendered in an increasingly complex manner, allowing aspects of Spirit and Matter to be embodied by protagonist and antagonist alike. Although this duality can, at times, lead to inconsistency and confusion, it does allow further development of the director’s themes: for example, Stanley has repeatedly invested his female protagonists with masculine qualities and combined futuristic settings with archaic rituals.

In both Hardware and Dust Devil a single-minded individual murders without discrimination; both feature a tough female protagonist, the strong presence of ritual, and a duster-clad nomad as the harbinger of death. This continual reworking of themes and images is basic to Stanley’s work, starting with his first professional commissions, two promotional videos for the band Fields of the Nephilim: Preacher Man (1987) and Blue Water (1987).

Containing all of Stanley’s stylistic trademarks, the narratives of the Nephilim videos inaugurate Stanley’s search for Spirit in a world of Matter through a central character associated with both sides of this opposition. In Preacher Man the title character is obviously associated with the traditional notion of the Spirit but his appearance and actions immediately align him with Matter. Standing in a battered wooden pulpit from which he delivers his sermon, the Preacher (Carl McCoy) wears a worn black duster, welding goggles and a bio-mechanical hand, controlling his congregation of mutants with ritual and a whip.

Hardware

This inversion is typical of Stanley and repeats itself in Hardware and Dust Devil. In Hardware the killer robot, Mark 13, is a machine so presumably cannot be a spiritual being. Yet its ability not only to take life, but to resurrect itself, immediately invests it with religious significance. In addition Stanley incorporates specifically Satanic symbols into the robot’s design: its red eyes glow demonically, its name denotes a passage from the Bible in which Armageddon is foretold (“No flesh shall be spared”) and at the core of its circuitry lies a pentagram. Additionally, Mark 13’s programming is referred to as a BAAL code – Baal being the name of a pagan god of rain, thunder and the earth’s fertility. As well as clearly aligning the robot with a pagan or evil form of Spirit, this label ironically refers to both its original function and its hidden weakness – it has been designed for population control but has a technical failing in its insulating systems. Hence the film’s female protagonist Jill (Stacey Travis) finally succeeds in destroying Mark 13 by luring him/it into the shower (another of Stanley’s ironies, as the scene plays out like a reversal of the infamous shower sequence from Psycho [Alfred Hitchcock, 1960]).

Hitch (Robert Burke) the psychopath in Dust Devil, is also a spiritual entity driven by malevolent forces. Dressed similarly to the Preacher, he is presented as a supernatural version of Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name. For Michelle Le Blanc and Colin Odell, Hitch’s “purpose is entirely ritualistic and the modern world cannot explain [his] primitive brutality.” (7) Thus within Stanley’s cinematic universe the notion of the Spirit can be used to describe all that is supernatural, evil or primitive, while Matter describes not just reality but that which is also good and modern.

Here a further opposition emerges in Stanley’s vision: if the Spirit has been associated with masculine qualities then, as its opposite, Matter, must be feminine. Apart from his female protagonists, very few women appear in Stanley’s films. This tends to emphasise the gender of these protagonists and implies that their significance within the narrative will exceed the usual demands of genre.

The female protagonists of Hardware and Dust Devil – Jill and Wendy (Chelsea Field) respectively – are intelligent, determined and resourceful. They will fight for their beliefs as much as for their lives. As sexually available women, both succumb to the male protagonist (on equal terms) yet engage in conflict with the equally masculine threat. These are representations of modern women that transcend the generic confines of Stanley’s cinema.

An initial version of such a representation can, once again, be found in Stanley’s Nephilim videos. Preacher Man intercuts scenes set inside the Preacher’s unholy church with images of a cowboy on horseback. The Preacher’s sermon is interrupted by the arrival of this “cowboy”, who is revealed as a woman. Holding her sheriff’s badge aloft, she commands the mutants to rise up against this religious maniac. The video ends with the hanging of the Preacher, the final shot showing his legs twitching in their death throes.

I guess I’ve always been dominated by women. I’ve been surrounded by strong, aggressive pro-feminist characters. I think at the time I was probably entering too much into that point of view, that all male characters are overtly useless in the movies… These days I kind of regret being so tough on men (8).

To clarify the above comment from Stanley, it should be noted that male characters within his films are not necessarily weak, but are ultimately powerless to restore order to the narrative. This role-reversal is central to both of Stanley’s feature-length narrative films. It is the capability, understanding, and strength of Jill and Wendy that allows them to face their respective antagonists, who are terminated in violent set-pieces at the conclusion of each film.

In Hardware the homicidal robot is activated when it senses what it considers to be an illegal sex act taking place between Jill and her partner Mo (Dylan McDermott). Its killing spree, filmed through its thermal vision, includes the murder of the chief security guard and, finally, Mo. Reduced to its essential narrative elements, Hardware is an elaborate “stalk and slash” movie, with a relentless killer as its antagonist, onscreen sexual encounters shown from the killer’s point of view, ineffectual authority figures, and an androgynous heroine who eventually succeeds in killing the killer (9). Sue Short comments that “like the Final Girl of the slasher film, it is Jill rather than Mo who displays the courage and resourcefulness of a true survivor, realising the need to fight to stay alive.” (10)

Hardware

However, Stanley reconfigures these slasher film elements in line with his central theme, the function of faith in a faithless time. Each of the three main characters in Hardware has a different relationship to religious belief. Mo reflects on apocalyptic passages from the Bible, viewing Christianity as a prophetic guide to current society. His friend, Shades (John Lynch), is unable to deal with society’s gradual descent into squalor and retreats into a drug-induced trance in an attempt not to find answers but solace. Of the three, Jill remains the realist. Rejecting any belief structure, she barricades herself inside her apartment; her only contact with the outside world is through the television and her high-level security equipment. As Vera Dika says of the slasher film, Hardware “dramatises a struggle of interior forces, of opposing attitudes in a single society. Like the cowboy hero of the Western, the heroine engages in a justifiable act of aggression.” (11)Although Dust Devil features a similar narrative, its presentation of both its killer and his potential victim is complex and, at times, cryptic. Hitch is not a vengeful psychopath, but an ethereal being that has, for the duration of the narrative, taken the form of a man. His dialogue offers a rationale for his acts that is oddly sympathetic to his victims: Hitch considers the murder act and his subsequent ritual violation of the victim’s body a near-religious moment, for it releases the tortured spirit. Wendy is initially a weak character drawn towards suicide, and is only when she meets Hitch that she begins to find new meaning in her life. Ironically the activator of this change will also be her killer.

Dust Devil concludes with a stalemate. Finally understanding Hitch’s true nature, Wendy succeeds in killing him. As she walks away from his headless body, she stumbles and begins to stagger towards the sunset, her shotgun dragging behind her. The closing image of the film indicates that Hitch’s spirit has entered Wendy and taken her body for himself.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Nephilim videos is their central character, the Preacher, who at the start of Blue Water is ritually resurrected (still hanging from his noose) to continue his archaic rule:

Eventually the lead singer became a character called The Preacher Man, this frightening religious zealot in a post-holocaust world… He’s got a prosthetic hand, dresses in black with a hat and coat. Elements of the radiation contamination, the metal hand, the thing digging itself out of the ground, all that stuff from Hardware appeared in the Fields of the Nephilim videos first. Carl McCoy is the guy who comes of the desert [in Hardware]. That was their look. He had yellow contact lenses in that second promo. He looked like the same guy in Hardware. They are essentially the same character (12).

This iconographic character recalls the “Man with No Name” archetype from the Western: figures such as Harmonica (Charles Bronson) in Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968) who gives himself the names of his dead friends, and various supernaturally-tinged characters played by Clint Eastwood. Given such mythic antecedents, this character is an appropriate harbinger of death for Stanley’s narratives:

I’ve always thought that gunfighters were the first heroic serial killers. They went from town to town mowing people down. Hitch is kind of the Man with No Name crossed with Jack the Ripper, with a sort of shape shifting sideline (13).

Although they are associated with death and the supernatural, Bronson and Eastwood’s characters are essentially “good”, the violence they commit in the name of justified revenge. However, the “lone gunmen” in Stanley’s films initially seem to be bringers of death and nothing more. Hardware and Dust Devil both begin with the appearance of such characters, emerging out of the searing desert plains to threaten a fragile civilisation. Their hallucinatory emergence from the desert binds them to this landscape, a landscape that is traditionally associated with the uncivilised, the arcane and the mythic.

Dust Devil is as much about the landscape as it is about the supernatural. Repeatedly cutting away from the action to still images of the desert, Stanley methodically constructs a vision of this landscape as drained of life but still rich in myth. Described by the film’s narrator Joe (John Matshikiza) as “The Furnace Lands” (14), the barren wasteland of the Nambi is visualised as a vast space of ritual and sacrifice. The walls of its many caves are decorated in the language of the shaman, skeletal representations of our place in the order of nature. It is part of the world where ancient magic still lingers for those that choose to follow its spiralling path. It is a space in which it is possible for the wind to take the shape of a man, to emerge as a lone gunman walking through the haze of heat.

Dust Devil

Hitch’s emergence from the shimmering horizon line binds him to the landscape. He is more than just a passing wind; he is part of the desert’s history. As he and Wendy stand at the edge of a ravine, they gaze across a seemingly endless expanse which Hitch describes as the “Home of the Great Snake Father, created by the thrashing of his coils” (15). He knows and understands the landscape’s past and its mythical origins; his ritualistic killings are simply a continuation of that myth. Taking hold of his hand, Wendy silences him with their first kiss, as the camera slowly pulls away and the desert fills the screen. A sense of human insignificance in the face of such beauty lingers through the rest of the film, reminding us that although we may question the existence of the supernatural, in one way or another we must acknowledge the power of forces beyond our understanding.

Thus it is possible to view Stanley’s version of the Man with No Name as a representative of the past returning to haunt and corrupt the present. This relates to Stanley’s central notion of a conflict between religion and science: in Hardware the arcane past enters the technological present, in Dust Devil it is the mythic influencing reality, in both films it is Spirit against Matter.

In between making Hardware and Dust Devil, Stanley made his first documentary, Voice of the Moon (1990). Since its completion he has made two further documentaries, The Secret Glory (2001) and The White Darkness (2002). All three can be seen as further developing the motifs explored in Stanley’s fiction films; they are not incidental to his work but central to it. Each documentary is an investigation “into evil or into what Western civilisation commonly labels as evil” (16), as well as taking up Stanley’s concern with the place of religion in contemporary society.

Voice of the Moon, a study of a group of rebels in Afghanistan in the late ’80s, contains the fewest of the director’s recurrent motifs but stands out within documentary tradition for its rejection of the standard “voice of God” narration, replacing it with a musical soundtrack overlaid with recitals of Afghan poetry. A reliance upon the image is essential to this documentary and helps us locate it within Stanley’s work. By the director’s own admission, Voice of the Moon borrows most heavily from the Western:

I think Voice of the Moon is probably more Western than any of [my other films]. Its stuck in a world of mud houses and people on horses wearing poncho type apparel, and with its slide guitar soundtrack as well, its leaning that way… and all the dark faced children running out to meet the men on horseback and artillery fire going on over the hills. It reminds me of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly [Sergio Leone, 1966] a lot (17).

Such a comment illustrates Stanley’s approach to cinema: his films bring together a variety of generic mythologies, reimagined from a highly personal point of view.

The Secret Glory is also intriguing in both style and subject. The fascinating story of Otto Rahn, an SS officer who believed he had located the last resting place of the Holy Grail, is told through “an alchemic mix of archival and found footage, altered excerpts from classic films, interviews, voice-over, old letters, photographs and various other paper documentation.” (18) Again, the film illustrates Stanley’s concern with the survival of archaic religious practices in contemporary society.

Stanley’s latest documentary, The White Darkness, is perhaps his most overt exploration of this theme to date:

Commissioned by the BBC, filmmaker Richard Stanley spent three months in Haiti meeting priests, priestesses and the loa… [witnessing] first hand how intricately Voudou is woven into the fabric of political and cultural life on the island (19).

Stanley’s documentary follows Edelle, a priestess and Altes Paul, a sorcerer, as they embark an annual pilgrimage to a holy mountain. As Stanley travels with them, both their stories unfold, simultaneously revealing the complex and violent historical development of Voudou itself. Aside from the intimate ritual and possession experiences Stanley and his crew recorded, the documentary clearly grounds itself in reality by placing such events in parallel to the political situation in Haiti, namely its occupation by American forces.

Stanley kept a written account of his experiences whilst making The White Darkness. His entry for July 20th recounts his interview with Colonel Walker, the head of the American army occupying the island. Colonel Walker comments that

The holy sprit cannot compromise with Satan and essentially that’s what you do when you compromise with Voudou… It’s the light and the darkness basically. I believe you need a Christian consensus in the nation before you can have a democracy (20).

Later in the journal, Stanley records another part of this interview:

Colonel Walker and his men were recently called out when a Baptist missionary was hacked to death by his congregation in Citie de Soleil and even now seems genuinely bemused by the hostility with which he was met. “We came under spiritual attack. That’s the only way I can put it but even when they started rocking the vehicles and throwing stones I knew Christ was on our side. Christ was working in our group.” (21)

The White Darkness

Haiti, like the Nambi Desert in Dust Devil, has become the site of spiritual conflict. Perhaps, for Stanley, the continued existence of Voudou is confirmation of the mythic, that the possibility of the wind taking the form of a man is not just one that can operate within the realms of horror cinema. Thus, Stanley states in his journal that ethnobotanist Wade Davis’s work in isolating the drug used by Voudou sorcerers to create zombies proved “the existence of an extraordinary reality lurking behind the outlines of the myth” (22).In The White Darkness, the continued practice of Voudou is another instance of the arcane past interacting with the technological present, the mythic influencing reality. From slasher movie tropes to Western iconography to magical ritual, Richard Stanley’s cinema brings together a variety of generic and cultural traditions in order to explore our fundamental need for a belief system in increasingly destructive times. Whether his characters are fictional or real, Stanley shows humanity caught up in the endless quest for the mythic: for a Holy Grail or a Holy Mountain, for enlightenment or solace, for release or forgiveness, for Spirit in a world of Matter.

Endnotes

  1. Andrew Worsdale, “The Massacre of My Movies”, Electronic Mail & Guardian, May 2, 1997. Accessed at “Between Death and the Devil: The Unofficial Richard Stanley Website”, March 20, 2004.
  2. Gene Gregorits, “Total Abuse – Richard Stanley and the Devil”, Sex & Guts Magazine #3, 2001. Accessed at “Between Death and the Devil: The Unofficial Richard Stanley Website”, March 20, 2004.
  3. David Hughes, “Island of Lost Souls”, The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, Titan Books, London, 2001. Accessed at “Between Death and the Devil: The Unofficial Richard Stanley Website”, March 20, 2004.
  4. Hughes, 2001.
  5. Hughes, 2001.
  6. Paddy’s Pain, “KinoKaze – Report from the Underground”, Kinokaze no. 1, 1994. Accessed at “Between Death and the Devil: The Unofficial Richard Stanley Website”, March 20, 2004.
  7. Michelle Le Blanc and Colin Odell, Horror Films, Pocket Essentials, London, 2003, pp.45–46.
  8. Gregorits, 2001.
  9. Vera Dika, “The Stalker Film: 1978 – 81”, American Horrors, University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp.86-101.
  10. Sue Short, “No Flesh shall be Spared: Richard Stanley’s Hardware”, British Science Fiction Cinema, Routledge, 1999, pp.167–180.
  11. Dika, 1988.
  12. Gregorits, 2001.
  13. Mark Salisbury, “Dust Devil in the Wind”, Fangoria no. 117, 1992. Accessed at “Between Death and the Devil: The Unofficial Richard Stanley Website”, March 20, 2004.
  14. Richard Stanley, “Dust Devil – The Final Cut”, Palace Pictures, 1992.
  15. Stanley, 1992.
  16. Hechtman, 2003.
  17. Pain, 1994.
  18. Mitch Davis, “The Secret Glory”, Fantasia Festival 2003 online program notes. Accessed March 22, 2004.
  19. Richard Stanley, “The White Darkness”, Fortean Times, November 2000. Accessed February 24, 2004.
  20. Stanley, 2000.
  21. Stanley, 2000.
  22. Stanley, 2000.

About The Author

Based in the UK, James Rose is a freelance writer who specialises in contemporary horror film criticism.