Releasing on August 10th to DVD is director Scott Bunt’s 2008 debut feature SEA OF DUST. This modest production gained the attention of Horror Icons Ingrid Pitt and Tom Savini with its inventive script and has begun to garner well deserved recognition within the horror community. Embracing the ideology of the Midnight Movie as a badge of honor, Sea of Dust has started a slow and steady collection of accolades. Sea of Dust has won “Best Picture” at the Rhode Island International Horror Film Festival, and “Best of the Fest” at the Fright Night Film Festival and opened the 2009 Fangoria Trinity of Terrors Film Festival in Las Vegas.
Before you read on I must disclose that I worked on this film as the Key Production Assistant and Set Dresser. This was my very first paid job within the entertainment industry and honestly I’m excited about it finally reaching a widespread audience. I should note that while I have a personal connection to my contributions in this film, it in no way effected my review of its screening.
The film tells an adult fairy tale set in the Victorian era of the remote country village Hiedelberg and the Black Forest that surrounds it. An enterprising medical student Stefan Cristoph travels to the estate of Lord Byron to seek his daughter’s hand in marriage. His visit is surprisingly unwelcome as Stefan’s love is scorned by his hopeful bride’s father. It seems that there’s something sinister afoot in the Black Forest as the denizens of the nearby villages have become victims of unspeakable deaths.
After leaving the estate Stefan encounters Carla, a beautiful peasant girl in need of medical attention. Stefan takes her to the abode of Doctor Maitland, a physican who has been trying to uncover the source of mysterious cause of these recent villager deaths. Dr. Maitland was hoping for the arrival of Professor Sorell, an academic that might be able to offer answers to the cause of all this bloodshed.
Soon Stefan learns of the legend of Prestor John. An enigmatic ruler of the East, Prestor John was a king said to be an ally to the crusades. Religious leaders waged war in his name, slaughtering hundreds, thousands in a blood forged trail to spread the ideology of Christianity. The trouble was that Prestor John was a myth, fabricated to give reason and bolster support to the Crusades. But it seems that all the pain and life sacrificed in the name of Prestor John has caused the legend to become real, manifested as a supernatural being bent on leading an army against the world to deliver his vision of the kingdom of Christ; one of endless pain and suffering. Prestor seeks to fulfill his plan by the possession or subsequent elimination of all those that stand in his way.
Prestor wants to enlist Stefan as the commander of his army and lures Stefan back and forth through a dreamworld that leaves Stefan and the audience wondering what is truly real. Between the real world and the dream world that Prestor seeks to escape is where the victims of his devious plot linger in a purgatory of endless torture. Now Stefan must enlist the help of Carla, Dr. Maitland and Professor Sorell to band together against the rising tide of possessed villagers and find a way to stop the plot of Prestor John.
The script offers a multi-layered story told between dreams and flashbacks that examine the principles of religious beliefs. The theme examines what can be perceived and what can truly be real. Many would argue that the film is a blood dripping homage to a relegated sub-genre of horror. Some would say that it’s a satire meant to skewer the principles of fundamental religions and the motives they create for the harm we cause in God’s name. Still others can claim this is a black comedy in the same vein of EVIL DEAD; a bunch of Karo syrup soaked goofs running around the woods with a camera. Stepping back you soon realize that this film encompasses all those factors into a wildly imaginative story that challenges you to keep up. There are many elements that seek to offend and shock, but that’s what makes a good horror film; to have your delicate sensibilities questioned and assaulted. And there’s still plenty of laughs to be had by those jaded by gratuitous violence. The locations, many of them historical sights, offer a level of supreme believability when back-dropped against the fantastic costume design provided by Joanne Hass.
The cinematography is solid from DP Brian Fass. Hammer Horror was almost always categorized by its locked off shots where actors like Peter Cushing would deliver mouthfuls of monologues for the sake of plot exposition or character development. In this film that story telling device is utilized to draw out some pretty impressive performances. The actors have nowhere to hide, but within their characters, often delivering a performance that one would expect to be seen on stage rather than screen. Brian captures a fluid movement through the characters to offer a systematic pacing to the story telling which is truly highlighted by the editing.
Ron Kalish, the scene splicer from the horror classic SLEEPAWAY CAMP and Woody Allen’s early romps like BANANAS and SLEEPER, delivers a commendable job as the film’s editor. Walking a fine line between the pacing of Hammer Horror films and contemporary cinema, Ron and Scott deliver a project that blends the two epochs of film making into something noteworthy and refreshing from today’s multiplex offerings. Like trained chefs, these two take an old recipe and add new ingredients to cook up a film full of forgotten flavors that will leave movie-goers with a blood soaked palette and eager to explore more offerings from the Hammer Horror genre. The decision to have an on-set digital colorist sets Sea of Dust apart on many levels. Here digital technology is utilized to balance out a rainbow of hues that saturate the film in color schemes not afforded many horror films. This is a heavy nod to the Technicolor days were film stock ruled with an iron fist. But don’t think this is purely a gimmick, there are no cigarette burns or sprocket holes. The film has a sharp and crisp look that blends the aesthetics of yesterday with the technology of today. This is yet another testament to Scott in delivering the film he envisioned on his own terms.
Josh Turi and his special effects make-up take center stage with many of the film’s most memorable moments. Having served on bigger budget fare like I AM LEGEND and Saturday Night Live, Josh has a deep rooted love for the horror genre from his previous efforts like WENDIGO, CLASS OF NUKE ‘EM HIGH II: SUBHUMANOID MELTDOWN and the illustrious, yet short lived TV horror series MONSTERS. There are several gory segments that push the boundaries of low budget film making. The inventive spirit of Scott Bunt’s writing coupled with Josh Turi’s delivery offer plenty of carnage to be enjoyed. Having witnessed the time constraints and limited resources of these two, it’s an amazing display of the macabre in its finished product. Visual effects are utilized to give a dated appeal to the film through spectres and transitions between our world and Prestor’s. A favorite element is the score provided by Jasper Drew. Moody and almost melancholy, the music serves a a bridge between reality and fantasy with its eerie lullaby style. Harps, strings, and piano invoke a dreamlike transition between scenes of violence and absurdity.
The DVD Special Features include a Behind the Scenes look at the making of the film with interviews from stars Tom Savini, Ingrid Pitt, Troy Holland, Eward X. Young, Bill Timoney, and Darby Totten as well as director Scott Bunt and producer Pauline Bunt. A director’s commentary offers a peek into shooting at many of the historical locations of the film and the challenges overcome to deliver this motion picture to audiences. A Slide Show gives a glimpse into production while a Trailer compilation gathers all teasers that have tempted audiences until this DVD’s release.
Ultimately, SEA OF DUST is a very different horror film than what’s been offered in a long time. When was the last time someone actively pursued presenting Hammer Horror to contemporary audiences in the same stylings it was delivered almost 50 years ago? Dealing with controversial subject matter like Christianity in such a manner can easily offend, especially when paired with the violence and scenes of sexuality that would not have made it past the censors generations ago. Interestingly enough, there is no nudity in the film, which was a hallmark of many of these films, particularly Ingrid Pitt’s career. We’re treated to a different voice eager to share their love of the genre. It’s a revisit of a classic period of film making all too often overlooked and forgotten. There are no running zombies or sparkly vampires, instead it’s low budget film making going for broke and pulling no punches. There’s a harpy, exploding heads, an axe fight with Multiple Miggs of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, creepy kid twins, and multiple head stabbings. What more could you ask for?
You can visit the Sea of Dust official website for other information regarding press, interviews, and other updates.
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Be sure to head to the news stands for September’s issue of Fangoria Magazine where issue #296 features Sea of Dust.