DIRECTED BY: Scott Bunt
FEATURING: Troy Holland, Sarah Dauber, Tom Savini, Ingrid Pitt
PLOT: Prester John, a mythological crusader king, possesses the bodies of 19th century
Germans to manifest his sadistic religious ideology in this world.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Sea of Dust is a tough case: it’s definitely weird, but at the same time it’s neither polished enough to be counted as one of the best weird movies of all time, nor bad enough to earn the so bad it’s weird designation that could get it on to the List through the back door. The movie is worth a cautious recommendation for those who can overlook its ample flaws—bad acting, stilted dialogue, and an anti-religion message delivered with just a tad more subtlety than Religulous—and just want to soak in the b-movie weirdness of the “WTF?” third act.
COMMENTS: Much of the time, Sea of Dust is like a Hammer Studios period movie acted by community theater thespians, with the addition of spurting gore effects supplied by exploding-head maestro Tom Savini. As you watch the introduction where a rich landowner rejects a young medical student’s pleas for the hand of his daughter, your first thought will probably be “poorly acted and scripted.” That’s a shame, because the film gets better as the weirdness builds in later reels, and you may find yourself drawn into the movie if you can overlook the acting and dialogue and make it through the first half. In the actors’ defense, it’s hard to sound convincing when you’re asked to deliver lines like “I really do apologize, I’ve never tried to kill someone before. It’s very unlike me, I wouldn’t want you to think I behave like this all the time” just the way a 19th century German peasant girl who just been possessed by the spirit of a mythological crusader king would. (An even more challenging line delivery comes when the hero is washed up unconscious on a beach and awakened by a fisherman who inserts a wicked hook attached to a staff through his chin and drags him a few feet through the surf: mildly perturbed, he whines, “Was that really necessary? You poked a hole in me!”) If these descriptions make it sound like Sea of Dust is the work of incompetents, the look of the film belies that impression: the photography, lighting, costuming (lots of waistcoats and bodices), believable period sets, and editing are all strictly pro. Even the special effects, while obviously cheap, are effective: there are multiple gore effects (an exploding head, a pitchfork through the head), and there’s a fluid sequence where a steadicam rushes through forests and into other dimensions where a beautiful siren awaits, and another one where the camera enters a maggot-ridden brain through a puncture wound in the head. Even more importantly, for our purposes, there’s a lot of imaginative weirdness in the movie’s second half to recommend it. We get multiple flagellations, two finger-sucking scenes, a crucified Tom Savini with dilated pupils, surgery on a hollow Ingrid Pitt, a cat-woman “harpy” in a black latex bodysuit who urinates on torture victims, and an ending that involves dreams inside of dreams and should leave the viewer well confused about who has triumphed. At any rate, you have to give Sea of Dust credit: the film is overambitious, which is almost always a better thing than being underambitious. A movie’s reach should exceed its grasp.
The film’s villain, Prester John, was a “real” legendary king during the Crusades; he was said to rule a Christian kingdom to the east of the Holy Land. In writer/director Bunt’s vision he is a blatantly fictional creation of the kings of Europe during the crusades to lure volunteers into the wars. In the film, people’s belief in Prester John causes him to take on a real existence, though he can only effect this world by possessing the souls of others. Belief in Prester acts like a zombie virus in the affected villagers, but what’s unexplained is why the king would have a Sadean worldview, proclaiming pain is “the most delicious sensation” and perverting the Christian message into one that seeks to maximize suffering and therefore views inflicting cruelty as a holy act. No orthodox Christians appear to oppose the evil; the good guys are rational Enlightenment scientists, men of medicine. It’s not exactly what you would call a subtle or fair-minded allegory.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…the film’s budgetary drawbacks and Bunt’s inexperience actually work in SEA OF DUST’s favor. The quick shifts in tone and occasional awkward transitions contribute to the movie’s dream-logic quality, adding a surface layer of Lovecraftian surrealism.”–Mike Watt, Fangoria (DVD)