As horror movies go, Nightwing fails spectacularly. Virtually everything about it is so thoroughly wrongheaded the picture almost defies the laws of chance, relentlessly making bad choices again and again with almost no redeeming qualities to justify its existence. Prompted, clearly, by the gargantuan success of Jaws (1975), instead of a Great White shark Nightwing concerns hoards of bubonic plague-carrying vampire bats.
Often confused with the similar (and similarly terrible) Prophecy, released just one week earlier in June 1979, Nightwing unwisely shoehorns ecological horror concepts and Native American issues to awesomely bad effect. The results are singularly boring and uninvolving. Reviewers at the time argued the film simply wasn't scary, but while the three set pieces involving the bats aren't too terrible, everything in-between sure is.
A manufactured-on-demand, Sony "Choice Collection" release, Nightwing is presented in a strong 1.85:1 enhanced widescreen transfer. The IMDb lists this as having a monophonic release when in theaters, and it clearly wasn't in early Dolby Stereo, but the DVD is definitely surround stereo, suggesting either 4-track mag tracks were made if not used, or maybe the soundtrack was remixed later using stereo elements. In any case the movie at least sounds good. A trailer, much livelier that the movie itself, is also included.
Nightwing attempts the not uncommon folly of combining genuinely science-based science fiction with ancient mysticism of an exploited, indigenous people and gothic horror. But all this genre hybriding only serves to undermine each component's effectiveness, in the end rendering everything unbelievable and absurd.
Nick Mancuso stars as Hopi Deputy Youngman Duran, who's investigating the suspicious death of cattle of sheep on a reservation in New Mexico. Duran is at odds with Tribal Council chairman Walker Chee (Stephen Macht) over the best way to serve the long-term interests of the tribe, especially when oil shale is discovered in the nearby sacred caves of Maskai Canyon. Medicine Man Abner Tasupi (George Clutesi, also in Prophecy), fed up with the white man's environmental meddling, decides to cast a spell to end the world.
Duran's white girlfriend, medical student Anne Dillon (Kathryn Harrold), is introduced, as well as British scientist Phillip Payne (David Warner) a Van Helsing-type obsessed with tracking and killing vampire bats that, he insists, take from nature but give nothing in return.
Adapted from the novel by Martin Cruz Smith (the author better known for his Arkady Renko books, beginning with Gorky Park), Nightwing fails in just about every way imaginable. For starters, at 105 minutes it's interminably long, especially considering the slightness of its plot and a complete absence of any build-up to the horror scenes or momentum generally.
Given that neither Mancuso nor Macht aren't Native American anyway, one wonders why bigger, more charismatic leads weren't chosen, actors who might have had a bit more luck transcending the terrible script. David Warner certainly succeeds at this, in long monologues about the "stench of ammonia" and "foul syrup of digested blood" bats "piss on cave floors" (his words), and selling the flying mammals as literally evil creatures. Though not a horror/sci-fi star despite significant films in both genres, Warner, like Peter Cushing or Vincent Price, is one of those actors who can sell ludicrous dialogue and make it compelling. (Among his character's more outrageous claims is that, according to the Koran, Jesus Christ created the first vampire bat.) His character also resembles a combination of those played by Richard Dreyfuss (scientist armed to the teeth with high-tech equipment) and Robert Shaw (obsessed exterminator) in Jaws.
The bats are realized through a combination of real bat footage, optical animation similar to that found in The Birds, and animatronic-type puppets and marionettes created by Carlo Rambaldi (King Kong, E.T.). By 1979 standards the results aren't terrible, but like other movies featuring bats they err in manipulating Rambaldi's creations more like large, graceful birds rather than real bats. Real bats are unsettling because when flying they're almost a blur, unpredictable and erractic, and resemble rats when inert.
The three bat set pieces, especially one with Mancuso, Warner, and Harrold in an electrified chicken wire cage when the bats attack, are actually pretty well done. However, far too much of the running time is given over to mumbo-jumbo about Indian curses, material no more authentic than that which brought the scowling radioactive tree stump to life in From Hell It Came (1957). And that was 35 minutes shorter.
Video & Audio
Despite some edge enhancement most noticeable during the opening titles, the 1.85:1 Nightwing looks pretty good, with all the nighttime footage far better than it ever could have looked on VHS. As noted above the uncredited stereo surround (featuring Henry Mancini's score) comes off especially well. There are no other audio choices and no subtitle options, and the disc is region-free. Extra Features are limited to a trailer, but it does a fine job selling such an inferior movie.
Although certain to disappoint, horror fans may want to see it anyway. My advice is to Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.