Arthur Hiller, 1979
Starring: Nick Mancuso, David Warner, Kathryn Harrold
Corpses of animals begin to pile up on a Hopi Indian reservation in New Mexico, drained off blood, with strange bites and reeking of ammonia. Deputy Duran, the only police force in the area, begins to investigate. Abner, the old medicine man who raised him, claims to have cast a spell that will end the world. The next day Abner is found dead and a number of human corpses follow. The chairman of a nearby tribe wants to mine for oil on the area’s most sacred ground and tries to suppress the news of dead people and animals. A British scientist, bat expert Philip Payne, shows up to investigate, certain that vampire bats carrying a strain of bubonic plague are the culprits. When Duran’s girlfriend takes a group of missionaries camping in the desert and goes missing, Duran is forced to team up with Payne to destroy the bats.
For some reason this is one of the few ‘70s or ‘80s films about killer bats. Actually, let’s back up for a minute. I say, “for some reason,” because I think killer bats is a great subject for an animals attack film. But based on my viewing of Nightwing, it might be better in theory than in practice, which is to say that getting the effects right will probably never be possible. Because I don’t want to see CGI bats - ever - which is why I won’t watch more current dreck like Bats (1999), Fangs (2002), The Roost (2005), etc. Though I should briefly mention Chosen Survivors (1974), a nuclear holocaust survival film that just happens to involve ravenous bats. I wish I had had time to review this, because, like Nightwing, it has a lot of bizarre elements.
Accomplished Canadian director Arthur Hiller (The Out-of-Towners, 1970, Love Story, 1970, Man of La Mancha, 1972, and Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil, 1989) seems like the last person on the planet who should have made a movie about killer vampire bats, and after this tanked in the box office, he never attempted to make another horror film again. While I can’t pretend Nightwing is a good film, there are certainly enjoyable elements and a script that can best be described as brave. Penned by mystery author Martin Cruz Smith (who also wrote the novel), Smith is best known for Gorky Park, a spy-detective story set in Soviet Russia, which later turned into a series.
Nightwing has a surprisingly solid cast, headed by Canadian-Italian Nick Mancuso. Though he is noticeably not descended from any Native American tribe, horror fans will hopefully recognize him as the killer and creepy phone stalker from Black Christmas (1974). The lovely Kathryn Harrold (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Raw Deal, 1986) plays his girlfriend, possibly the only strong, non-irritating female co-star in any ‘70s animal disaster film. Steven Macht (The Monster Squad, 1987 and Graveyard Shift, 1990) plays the greedy, questionable chief of a rivaling Indian nation. Native Canadian and First Nation culture expert George Clutesi (he was in a few other movies, including the mutant killer bear film Propechy, 1979, where he plays a similar role) makes an appearance as the embittered shaman that kicks the whole thing off with a hallucinogen-induced ritual to bring about the end of the world. I feel marginally less guilty enjoying this film because there is at least one actual Native American actor in it.
But the best reason to see this is undoubtedly David Warner, who is absolutely bad ass. From his first moment on screen, you know he isn’t going to take any shit from the killer bats or the squabbling locals. He also gives a truly incredible speech about how his life’s crusade is to destroy the Earth’s population of vampire bats, because they are the only true manifestation of evil.
The combination of animal disaster elements, Native American mysticism and a dash of political drama and inept environmentalism make this film interesting, but flawed. The real plot arc is that Duran has to reconcile his rational, police persona with his spiritual tribal beliefs. The way he does this is by ingesting a large quantity of hallucinogens and then setting the caves on fire with a massive amount of natural oil. Fortunately the film avoids many Native American stereotypes that plague most films, but sadly presents most of the tribe members, especially the older generation, as out of date and purposefully holding their people back from growth and financial stability.
The special effects are certainly a weak point, even though Carlo Rambaldi was responsible for them. I grew up on a steady diet of Universal vampire films, so it’s pretty easy for me to choke down the whole rubber bat on a string ploy, though. The actors also don’t seem defeated by the cheap effects and give some believable performances. Probably the best scene - that also has the best effects - features a group of holier-than-thou Christian missionaries camping in the desert who are decimated by the bats, but actually do the most damage to one another in their selfish haste to escape danger.
This is no Night of the Lepus, but I still enjoyed it. It is not remotely a good film, but the combination of beautiful desert scenery, David Warner and Christians being eaten alive by vampire bats make this a must-see for fans of animals attack films. There is a basic DVD from Sony, though I encourage you to rent before buying.