Sea of Dust (2008)


USA. 2008.


Director/Screenplay – Scott Bunt, Producers – Pauline Bunt, Patrick Rousseau & Noah Workman, Photography – Brian Fass, Music – Jasper Drew, Visual Effects – Sawas Paritsis, Makeup Effects – Josh Turi, Art Direction – Lora Parker & Rich Parker, Jr. Production Company – 309 Productions LLC


Troy Holland (Stefan Christoph), Tom Savini (Prester John), Darby Totten (Carla), Edward X. Young (Dr Maitland), Bill Timoney (Professor Sorel), Pete Baker (Chalmers), Ingrid Pitt (Anna), Sarah Dauber (Elizabeth Dunsten), John Correll (Lord Dunsten), Stuart Rudin (Ian the Woodsman), John Caponigro (The Fisherman), Celina Murk (The Siren)


The 19th Century. Young doctor Stefan Christoph travels to visit Elizabeth, the woman he loves, but is driven away by her father. Travelling on, Stefan meets Carla, a woman fallen in the woods, and takes her with him as he travels on in his mission to see Dr Maitland. At Maitland’s house, Carla tries to kill Stefan before they subdue and tie her up. Maitland explains that the locals are undergoing strange trances that cause them to exhibit bizarre and violent behaviour. He places this down to belief in Prester John, a legendary and fearsome Christian figure who appears to be becoming real and affecting people. Stefan takes Carla on to her home where her father tries to kill him. This proves to be a trap laid by Carla. Stefan is called by a siren who draws him into the water. He wakes up on a beach below the castle of Prester John. Prester John shows how he tortures souls to make them believe in Christ and tells Stefan how he wants him to become his great general. Stefan flees and tries to find a means to fight back against Prester John.

Sea of Dust was an ingenue effort made by filmmaker Scott Bunt and shot in and around parts of New York and New Jersey. The film was made on a low-budget via independently raised capital. Most of the names are unknowns, although Bunt has managed to bring in one or two with some genre capital – notably Tom Savini, the cult makeup effects artist on films such as Dawn of the Dead (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), sometimes actor and the director of the remake of Night of the Living Dead (1990), as well as Ingrid Pitt, the actress who gained a name for her roles at Hammer Films in works such as The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Countess Dracula (1971).

Sea of Dust is called a homage to Hammer Films in most reviews. At best, this is a surface comparison that fails to hold up. Here people are latching onto the presence of Ingrid Pitt but beyond the 19th Century connection, it is a comparison that seems strained. Moreover, Pitt seems old – she was 69 when the film was made. The years have not been kind to her – this was her last film role and she passed away two years later. She is a long way from being the seductive sex kitten she was in Hammer’s heyday 40 years earlier and often seems to have not much clue about what she is doing. The film chooses a vague mid-European 19th Century setting, although this is confused – we have a Lord Dunsten (which would suggest it is set in England), yet the hero has a German name and it is at one point said they need to go to Heidelberg (in Germany), while elsewhere all the accents are clearly American and the locations 19th Century American colonial architecture rather than English or European. In terms of tone, Sea of Dust resembles less the Hammer staple, which was all about the eruption of uncivilised chaos and brutish amoral savagery into the world of the Victorian propriety, than it does H.P. Lovecraft and his slow discovery of a world of the uncanny lying just beyond the bounds of placid New England.

Scott Bunt certainly gives Sea of Dust artistic pretensions that make it undeniably interesting. There are odd striking images – that of the siren (Celina Murk) standing on a beach clad only in two wisps of cloth she is holding to herself as she sings a song to draw Troy Holland to her; the strange journey through the forest with Troy Holland encountering mysterious twins and even a double of himself standing there; the uncertainty over whether Darby Totten is possessed or not; the scene where they go to patch up Ingrid Pitt’s wounds and discover that there are no organs or bones inside her body. Scott Bunk should be commended for tackling the mythical Christian character of Prester John (the first film to do so as far as I am aware), although in this interpretation Prester John is made a far more sinister character than he was according to legend. (In actuality, Prester John was a mythical Christian monarch whose legend emerged during the Middle Ages where he was said to rule a kingdom of great wonders somewhere either in India or the Middle East).

Despite moments of imagination, Sea of Dust suffers from an undeniable cheapness. When Troy Holland drowns at sea, he has simply been optically superimposed over water footage. Prester John’s torture chamber is so cheap that the production appears to have had no wherewithal to afford to either rent or fabricate manacles or torture instruments, resulting in the peculiar image of the torture victims all lying around bleeding on the floor or sitting in chairs. The irony of the film is also that, while it casts makeup effects guru Tom Savini, some of the gore effects – notably a pitchfork in the head that wobbles about – leave much to be desired.

At the end, Sea of Dust dissolves into the same failing of many low-budget horror films with artistic pretensions – the strange and unusual effects are given no explanation and all that we have is random surrealism that means nothing. The script delves into matters about religious wars, the torture of innocents in the name of Christianity and issues of salvation but the philosophical/theological points that it seems to want to make are obscure. The ending arrived at makes little sense. I fail to understand what significance the killing of Troy Holland’s love’s father (John Correll) holds. This is a character that is established as relatively peripheral and seems more a traditional conservative family head of the era than someone who is exerting an aura of evil, so why killing him changes everything to do with Prester John is entirely unclear.

Amid the cast of unknowns, Troy Holland makes for an appropriately callow-seeming lead. On the other hand, Holland’s acting consists of a series of strange and awkward facial expressions as though he is struggling uncertain of what he should be portraying at any one point. Often his desire to convey emphasis comes out as overwrought and over-contorted. The worst performance in the film comes surprisingly from its best known face Tom Savini. Savini has had a number of acting credits before, mostly of the cameo variety, he probably being best known as the biker gang leader in Dawn of the Dead. Here he seems woefully miscast in the role of a darkly charismatic force of evil. The role is one that requires the dark majesty that a Christopher Lee would have brought to it, whereas Tom Savini plays it more like a friendly local bartender who delivers everything through a distinctive rough-hewn New York accent.

Scott Bunt has not directed any other films, although did write the script for one other horror film The Before Time (2014)

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