Nightwing - (1979)

The New Beverly has a real fun horror film triple feature at the end of the January calendar. An ecology horror / Native American mystic / Animals Attack triple feature from the late seventies and all three directed by studio stalwarts not known for directing horror. Michael (“The Quiller Memorandum”) Anderson’s “Orca”, John (“Birdman Of Alcatraz”) Frankenheimer’s “Prophecy” and Arthur (“Love Story”) Hiller’s “Nightwing”. “Orca” came out in 1977, and both “Nightwing” & “Prophecy” came out in 1979, and I saw all three during their original theatrical release (“Prophecy” I saw on a special Friday night sneak preview at the Mann’s Old Town Mall Cinema. Remember those?). Suffice to say none of the three work all the way through. In all cases the climax reduces the movies to a state of ridiculousness. In the case of “Orca” & “Nightwing” unfortunately so, because until they fly off the rails at the climax, they’re both pretty effective Animal Attack thrillers. However when the self serious “Prophecy” starts going ape shit crazy (or bear shit), is when it starts getting enjoyable. Of the three “Orca’s” the best. Though you could make a case that “Nightwing” is the classiest and you wouldn’t be wrong. And you could make the case that due to it’s bonkers bear monster alone “Prophecy” is easily the most fun, and you wouldn’t be wrong there either. Now while I dig the bear monster in “Prophecy” and Carlo Rambaldi’s Vampire Bats in “Nightwing”, I love the whale in “Orca.” All three films share symbolic connections of theme and genre and archetypes, so while I write about “Nightwing” I’ll refer to “Orca” and “Prophecy” in connection with “Nightwing.”

“Nightwing” is based on Martin Cruz Smith’s best selling horror novel of the same name. But the movie presents a very simplified version of the same story. Everything about this Columbia Pictures Production suggests a big studio high ticket horror film entry. From its choice of Arthur Hiller as its director (this film followed up two of his biggest hits, “Sliver Streak” & “The In-Laws”), Henry Mancini’s out of character score (far more moodier then Mancini is known for), Charles (“Pretty Maids All In A Row”) Rosher’s cinematography, and its heavyweight line-up of screenwriters, Martin Cruz Smith himself, Steve (“Save The Tiger” & “Hustle”) Shagan, and cult Texas cut-up Bud Shrake (“Kid Blue”, “Songwriter” & “J.W. Coop”). As well as a nice mix of appealing young picture leads, Nick Mancuso & Kathryn Harrold, and scenery chewing veterans like David Warner & Strother Martin, all giving their all.

A sinister (but not necessarily evil) Indian priest named Abner has alienated himself from the people of his tribe The Maski. Abner is played very well by Chief George Clutesi the only real Native American actor among the pictures main characters (Cultesi functions as a similar authentic presence in “Prophecy”, except in that film , as opposed to being presented as a dark priest that inspires fear, he’s presented as the village idiot). Both the tribal elders and the other Maski priests fear Abner’s great power. They believe Abner has the power to communicate with Ya-Wa. Ya-Wa is described by Strother Martin in the movie as “The Maski God, and a monster that guards the gate of life and death.” Abner lives in the desert, in isolation, away from the others of his tribe. Inside the tribe he has only one friend, The Chief of the Maski Tribal Police, Deputy Duran (Nick Mancuso), who was raised by Abner. Deputy Duran (and yes I call him Deputy Duran Duran) knows Abner is a great man, and a powerful priest, but also a hateful hearted old bastard. While visiting his surrogate father, the old man informs the young man, “I’m sorry boy, they all gotta’ die.”

“Who’s gotta’ die, Abner,” asks Duran?

Everybody,” Abner answers, “I must end the world.”

Abner intends to put an ancient curse on the territory. Then sacrifice himself to Ya-Wa, so the Maski God will bring forth its mercenaries, and destroy all who occupy their land. Pretty soon livestock is found slaughtered in ways that doesn’t bear the marks of any known indigenous animal. And then Duran finds Abner dead.

It’s not until David Warner shows up as a practically deranged doctor named Phillip Payne that the Native Americans learn that it might be vampire bats. Warner’s Dr. Payne has dedicated his entire life on a biblical like quest to exterminate vampire bats wherever they live and breed. He’s just wiped out thousands in Mexico, and has tracked the remaining survivors (all thirty thousand of them) to Arizona and one of the many caves inside the mountain range The Maski tribe consider their holy ground. From this point on the film becomes a pretty good high budget vampire bats attack flick. With Mancuso & Warner, & Kathryn Harrold as Duran’s love interest (a white doctor who devotes her time to the poverty stricken Maski people), trying to locate the cave where the bats are and destroy them.

The movie sizzles for most of its length due to Hiller’s camera moves, Charles Rosher’s modern day western photography, and Nick Mancuso’s legitimate smoldering sex appeal as the films tribal cop lead. And Carlo Rambaldi’s bats are great! As are his bat attacks! The greatest bats on strings in the history of cinema!  And Hiller does a good job depicting the poverty stricken Maski reservation. A community run by its tribal elders and priests, and the tribal cop is the only Native American authority with a foot in the modern world to represent the reservation residents.

Then there’s another place where “Nightwing” initially shines, the often ridiculous explanation in a animal attack film, of why exactly are the animals attacking? It’s usually a by-product of industrial pollution (like in “Prophecy”), or industrial science run amuck (like “Piranha” & “Alligator”). But refreshingly the movie (for awhile) takes Abner’s supernatural powers seriously.

“Nightwing,” rather then offer an explanation, poses a question. Are the the vampire bats a product of an unnatural migration of a species foreign to the territory, like David Warner’s unbalanced Dr.Phillip Payne claims? Or are the vampire bats Abner’s prophecy and curse come to fruition? Is this the wrath of Ya-Wa and the bats are his mercenaries? Mancuso’s doctor girlfriend Harrold survives a bat attack about mid movie, and when she relates her experience to him she describes it as, “the end of the world,” just as Abner foretold it, “I’m sorry boy, I’ve gotta’ end the world.” And this question section of the movie is the best part. But naturally it asks an interesting question only to come to an uninteresting conclusion.

Movies of this time had no problem laying all the blame on Satan, or that Catholic Priests had a inside track when it came to dealing with the Devil compared to all other religions. But taking the Native American priest and religion serious enough to be the ultimate culprit… that would be silly. Now naturally that’s what I expect from a late seventies ecology horror/Native American mystic/Animals Attack film.

But something about “Nightwing” it bugs me more.

Partly because you feel the movie wants it to be Abner’s curse.

It just doesn’t have the balls to commit to it.

But aside from the natural fun and terror of animals attacking, one of the most defining characteristic of the Animal Attack Genre, and one of it’s most enjoyable are the archetypes who appear and reappear in film after film.

First the male lead, who is (usually) completely ignorant about the animal in question, but due to circumstances is the one tasked to deal with the animal or animals or fish or fishes or bugs or worms or frogs. It’s (almost) always a person in some position of authority in the community under siege. Either someone in the medical profession, Robert Foxworth in “Prophecy”, William Shatner’s Veterinarian in “Kingdom of the Spiders”.  But more often then not, the hero in this genre is a law enforcement officer of some type. Naturally Roy Scheider’s Sheriff Brody in “Jaws,” Robert Forster, James Garner, and Albert Finneys’ Police Detectives in “Alligator,” “They Only Kill Their Masters,” and “Wolfen,” Christopher George and John Jarratts’ Park Rangers in “Grizzly” & “Dark Age,” and Timothy Bottoms’ Park Supervisor in “In the Shadow of Kilimanjaro.” And Nick Mancusos’ tribal cop Deputy Duran (Duran) is a fine addition to this subgenre trope, until the movie and especially Hiller sabotage him. Once our heroes (Mancuso, Warner, & Harrold) locate the bat cave (sic), that’s when the whole damn script falls apart. But the director’s biggest sin is allowing his lead actor to look so foolish. After Hiller does a terrific job of setting up Nick Mancuso as dynamic leading man for three quarters of the film, he directs him to over emote in the film’s big climax to such a degree that he just looks silly. And it’s really a damn shame because before that Mancuso really fills the screen and carries the film like a proper leading man (part of being a leading man is leading the story, leading the other actors, and leading the picture). But at the end it’s as if the whole movie conspires to sabotage his performance.

The other archetype that’s well known to lovers of the Animals Attack subgenre is the Animal Expert who (usually) loves the animal or animals, or is at least fascinated by them. This character understands the creatures, and has spent their lives either studying them or training them, and then spends the movie explaining them to the ignorant cop hero. This animal expert character is more often than not played by a beautiful woman. Charlotte Rampling in “Orca,” Tiffany Bolling in “Kingdom of the Spiders,” Robin Riker in “Alligator,” Kate McNeil in “Monkey Shines,” Katharine Ross in “They Only Kill Their Masters.” But sometimes these characters are male, Richard Dreyfuss’ Matt Hooper in “Jaws,” Richard Jackle in “Grizzly,” George C. Scott in “Day of the Dolphin,” and Tom Noonan in “Wolfen” (this is the character that’s most likely to tell you the name of the animal in Latin within their first or second scene). Then there’s that characters opposite number. The Hunter. The Exterminator. This character hates the animal in question, usually due to a personal experience, and is often times presented as unstable, and as dangerous and scary as the amuck running animals themselves.  Robert Shaws’ Quint in “Jaws,” Vic Morrows’ Quint clone in “The Great White,” Michael Douglas in “The Ghost and the Darkness,” Richard Harris in “Orca” (Harris doesn’t start off that way, but after the whale kills Keenan Wynn and bites off Bo Derek’s leg, he gets there). In “Alligator,” Henry Silva is presented as comic version of this character. And the only interesting thematic element between “Jaws” and “Jaws 2” is Roy Scheiders’ Sheriff Brody metamorphosing from the first archetype in the first movie, to the third in the second.

In Sam Fuller’s tough tale “White Dog,” Paul Winfield represents a complex combination of the second and third archetype. Winfield plays a black dog trainer who’s had past experiences with white dogs (dogs that have been trained to attack black folks). Winfield knows the dog itself is not to blame, it’s the vicious racist who trained him. But regardless of how the monster was built, it’s still a monster and too dangerous to live. Yet the trainers understanding of canine instinct compels him to try and remove the hate that has been instilled in the dog. More to prove to himself that hate can be surgically removed, than to save this particular dog. He’s tried to break three other white dogs in the past, and all three attempts ended in failure. And if he can’t break the dog, he’ll kill him.

In “Nightwing,” David Warner’s obsessed bat exterminator isn’t as complex as Paul Winfield, but he is a combination of the second and third archetype, and he is a lot fun. It appears Warner’s character Dr. Phillip Payne, who’s spent his life travailing the globe chasing down and destroying vampire bats, has been driven bat shit crazy in the process. He seems just as single-minded and bloodthirsty as the bats, and as unhinged as Richard Harris’ fishing boat captain in “Orca” (both Harris and Warner could of switched roles). But he’s not just a skilled hunter, he’s an expert on bats, with a degree and a grant from The World Heath Organization that funds his life’s work. Yet he seems every bit as possessed as the Indian Shaman Abner when he speaks of them. At one point Warner challenges Mancuso with the question, “You can’t seriously believe the bats are a direct result of Abner’s curse, do you? ”

Yet we have listened to Warner recite purple prose speech after speech that the bats are not just a species of animal, but evil on earth incarnate. So exactly who is the superstitious fool? Warner is hammy as all hell, but Warner’s British hammy presence comes across as an honorable approach to the material. It’s less of a choice on Warner’s part then it is full commitment to the character as written. Unfortunately like Mancuso, Hiller and the script betray Warner’s character.

After spending three quarters of an hour setting up Warner’s Dr. Payne as the Big Kahuna of bat killers, he proves to be completely ineffectual during the film climax in the bat cave (sic). But like I said, the whole movie goes to hell once they locate the bat cave. The film also gives us mixed signals about Dr. Anne Dillon, Kathryn Harrold’s character. The script starts out like it wants her to be more then a love interest. But even though she’s shown to be resourceful (she alone survives a bat attack that leaves her and a four man party stranded in the desert), she’s a love interest to be saved in the films last third. Even though she participates in the big climatic move against the bats at the end, she helps Mancuso put a bunch of black rocks in a circle.

It would be tempting to declare David Warner Movie MVP, but I’m afraid that title goes to Strother Martin trading post storekeeper Selwyn. Martin only has two scenes, and absolutely nothing to do with the bat plot. But his monologue in the trading post with the born again christians (who when the bats attack are shown to be savage hypocrites) about his forty years living amongst the “Indians” gives Carlo Rambaldi’s bats a run for their money as the best thing in the picture. Martin plays a former Mormon missionary who after a lifetime spent among the Native Americans he shares an understanding with them. He hates them, and they hate him. This is the movie Hiller and screenwriter Bud Shrake would make if they weren’t forced to fuck around with these bats. Watching Strother Martin’s scenes I started missing him, even though he’s been dead forty years. In the seventies if you went to the movies all the time you could expect to see Strother Martin four or five times a year. And I’m not talking about big showy roles like “Cool Hand Luke”, or “The Wild Bunch”, or “Hard Times.” But in roles and movies like this one – in an’ out. And he was always great, and he always made you smile, and he always left you wanting more. And when he died he left a hole in American Cinema that nobody else can ever replace. Maybe one of the reasons American Cinema in the seventies was so great is because we could expect to see Strother Martin four times a year.


Read Next

Big Wednesday