In the summer of 1979, the horror movie Nightwing was released to largely batty (or awful) reviews. The film was directed by Arthur Hiller who had not directed a horror film before or anything remotely close to one. Nightwing was based on the best-selling novel by Martin Cruz Smith which was actually quite good and well-conceived. Can’t quite say the same for the film! The poster however was rather cool, and I have this from my Dad’s days at a movie distributor.
Nightwing was set in New Mexico (where it was also filmed) and begins with some mysterious attacks on horses who have died near a Hopi Indian reservation. Nick Mancuso plays a sherriff named Youngman Duran Duran who investigates, and is pretty good here and looks the role. His character’s name was actually Youngman Duran, but I wanted to see if you were even paying any attention at all to my writing (I wouldn’t be). The horsies have bite marks and the smell of ammonia is telling us something evil is in the air.
Play dead! Oh, never mind…
Things get strange when Mancuso visits an elderly quack/medicine man living in poor conditions in the desert who babbles about casting a spell to end the world and that he will die that very night, but Mancuso chalks it up to nonsense-until he finds the old man’s bloodless body dead the next day-seemingly drained by bats. Turns out Mancuso was raised by this old man (named Abner) when his parents died.
Abner was a priest of the tribe and has powers that he uses for evil. Mancuso gives the old dude a proper burial. When the body starts to bleed (through a white sheet no less) it’s pretty freaky and Mancuso wonders why, as I would too. When Mancuso goes back to check the body the next day, it’s gone and he thinks the tribe did it, but has also been told ‘ol Abner has raised himself out of the grave. Why not.
By the way, here’s the theatrical trailer for the film:
Stephen Macht plays a Tribal Council chairman named Walter Chee who is always at odds with Mancuso. Chee has discovered a batch of oil shales in Maskai Canyon which is sacred ground for the tribe. Naturally, Chee wants to sell for the big dollars it will provide while Mancuso wants no part of it and knows it will led to trouble-especially disrupting sacred ground.
Chee wants to sell to an oil tycoon named Roger Piggott (where the hell did they come up with that name?) played by Ben Piazza. Of course we know this is money vs. honor and money won’t win! The oil people get scared off by the bats and wouldn’t you be a little iffy as well? So Chee is mad as hell and seeks revenge on Mancuso.
However, as all this is going on more attacks are happening throughout the area and our suspects? Vampire bats! One batty bat! Two batty bat! Ah-ah-ah! Is this man to blame?
Of course there’s a love interest played by Kathryn Harrold who is the local doctor with no staff, money or proper equipment to help the people in the run-down desert community. She and Mancuso have been slammin’ ham and even get in a hot spring-yet we see no nudity. This is a horror movie? Where be the skin?
Even weirder is the fact that Mancuso comes out of the hot spring and only puts the towel around his upper body and sits on a mountain rock ass-naked which would almost certainly burn his sack! And, why does she have a damn bathing suit as they swim? Major horror FAIL. Inexcusable!
When an eccentric Brit shows up (played by the always wacky David Warner) claiming this mayhem to be the work of vampire bats we know it’s time to rip off Jaws yet again. Warner is the expert with all the equipment, a hi-tech truck and fancypants talk. He also has one mission-to exterminate these damn bats! Warner has been tracking his winged friends and feels they are also carrying the bubonic plague.
Warner is actually fine here-he brings dignity to the cliched role and even gets an amusing, over-the-top monologue when describing why he does what he does:
“I killed over sixty thousand of them last year in Mexico. You really understand the presence of evil when you go into their caves. The smell of ammonia alone is enough to kill you. The floor of the cave is a foul syrup of digested blood. And the bats, up high, hanging upside down, wrestling, fighting, mating, sending constant messages, waiting for the light to fade, hungry for blood, coaxing the big females to wake up and flex their night wings, to lead the colony out across the land, honing in on any living thing: cattle, sheep, dogs, children, anything with warm blood. And they feast, drinking the blood and pissing ammonia. I kill them because they are the quintessence of evil. To me nothing else exists. The destruction of vampire bats is what I live for”. Get a life, pal!
“Hey David Warner, F.U. buddy! Suck on this, you British hack!”.
So, that monologue is just a tad like Quint in Jaws-and there’s even a scene where Warner, Mancuso and Harrold (who has been saved from the attack on the campers, but is dehydrated and burned) are in a caged-in fence luring the bats with radar to tag them and find their cave. Yeah, that’s not too familiar either! Sound like Jaws anyone?
The bats do indeed chew up the scenery when on camera (wasn’t that funny?), and don’t look all that bad in some scenes, but are truly laughable in others. Plus, in the major attack scene it really looks like piss poor as the bats are actually puppets on strings seemingly dancing in unison to some Bauhaus (“Bela Lugosi’s Dead” perhaps?).
But hey-people do get eaten by vampire bats at a campfire (and of course someone gets burned), and that’s good. There’s a hilarious scene where everyone is hiding in a van during they attack. The cowards (of which I would be one) do not let a woman who is being bled to death by the bats outside in the van, and when they leave they add insult to injury by running her over! Yeah!
The film suffers from poor pacing as the environmental angle and the quasi-religious bullshit is too much. Also, there’s just not enough attacks or bats (as bad as they look sometimes). Then, in some sort of connection with old man Abner, Mancuso trips for most of the last half hour on some sort of potent onion or something in the ground (maybe it’s from Jack In The Box?) and sees Abner’s spirit and tries to uncover why Abner did what he did.
It’s a bunch of idiotic crap and only Cheech (or Chong) could make sense of it. You don’t even care by the end. Something to do with a circle of rocks and closing the spell or maybe I just imagined it.
The climatic final scene takes place in the cave where our bloodsuckers dwell and those scenes look good, especially the bats sleeping-until the bats awaken. There’s a good scene with Warner hanging in the air on a rope that is stuck and he has to be cut down and fall quite a few feet or wait until the bats wake up for breakfast. He finally agrees to be cut down and falls to a broken leg or something like that.
The bats will awaken and attack, and it’s back to Bat Puppet Theatre. My friend who ordered me this on DVD for my birthday loves bats. I bought her a bat puppet last year, so we’re even. Sort of.
“If I shoot a puppeteer by accident is that okay?”.
Eventually, they are able to burn the bats and the cave with the very oil that Chee wanted to sell, disrupting the sacred ground (oooohhhh!). Perhaps the spirits got wind of the sale and were angry they didn’t get a better percentage so they unleashed vampire bats to kill off the sale. Whatever.
In the end, I can say Nightwing was very nicely shot and the desert and mountain scenery was used well. The legendary Henry Mancini (of The Pink Panther fame) did the score and it’s a pretty moody, effective one. The cast is very good actually and certainly better than the bats.
Nightwing is neither scary nor thrilling. There are some good elements here though. The direction is not consistent and there’s too many subplots, some of which are mildly interesting and others are as dull as a Yanni concert.
Arthur Hiller was the exact wrong guy to direct this, as he had done films such as Love Story and Silver Streak before. The novel by Martin Cruz Smith is very good, so I say read it. The movie will give you a laugh or two and maybe give you a decent jump here and there. After a very long time, Nightwing made it’s debut on DVD in 2012 and now I have it. Yay?
Above is the alternate poster. This scene did not occur unfortunately as we really could’ve used those boobs flopping around. Nightwing is nowhere near as bad as it’s reputation but I wouldn’t give it any awards either.
1. Carlo Rambaldi did the bat effects for Nightwing. He had previously worked on the King Kong remake and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Let’s just say Nightwing was not his finest hour.
2. Three people co-wrote the screenplay and one was the author of the novel that inspired the film, Martin Cruz Smith. They should be flogged.
3. I might be guessing here, but it was another 20 years before another “bats gone wild” film hit theaters, when the truly wretched Bats came out and ate mucho guano in 1999 with Lou Diamond Phillips.
4. “Nightwing” is a most awesome song by Black Sabbath on the 1989 Headless Cross album about a winged creature of the night. I thought it was based on this book/film but supposedly it’s about an owl. I got a friend of mine into this era of Sabbath (which is awesome music) recently. When he tries to sing this song it is more painful than the attack scene in the film! Horrendous!
2 beagles out of 4 for awfulness
Q: Should you see Nightwing?
A: Yes-it’s well made in some parts, mildly creepy at others and also idiotic at times and with bat puppets. Doesn’t that sound better than any Adam Sandler movie?