‘Nightwing’ (1979): ‘Jaws’-like horror outing is batsh*t crazy

Mill Creek Entertainment has continued the beloved “drive-in double feature” tradition with the spiffy Blu-ray release, Nightwing and Shadow of the Hawk.

By Paul Mavis

Now, Mill Creek hasn’t put an official title on the hardcase for this fun B-horror disc, like…Double Whammy Indian Shaman Shim-Shammy Smackdown! or Those Two Seventies Actresses That Audiences Thought Were the Same Person! But anyone into 70s horror will remember 1979’s bat-sh*t crazy Nightwing, directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Nick Mancuso, David Warner, Kathryn Harrold, Stephen Macht and Strother Martin, and loopy Indian medicine man thriller, Shadow of the Hawk, from 1976, directed by George McCowan and starring Jan-Michael Vincent, Marilyn Hassett, and Chief Dan George. Since I personally subscribe to the “Doublemint Twins” life credo, “Double your pleasure! Double your fun!” (that, and I need the do-re-mi), I’ll break the disc into two separate and tedious reviews.

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New Mexico, 1978. Maskai Tribal Police officer Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso) is called to a rancher’s property that straddles the Maskai reservation border with the more affluent Pahana tribe. There, horses have been killed and drained of blood by some animal whose bite is unfamiliar, and which left an overpowering smell of ammonia. The rancher also called slick Pahana Tribal Council chairman Walker Chee (Stephen Macht), who choppers into the site for maximum Anglo effect.

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Duran doesn’t like Chee, because Chee wants to do a deal with an oil company that discovered shale deposits in sacred, ceremonial Maskai Canyon. Chee genuinely wants to help his poor tribe with medicine, education, and modern conveniences, but Duran wants nothing to do with having his ancestors strip-mined for a buck. Now, one aspect of Anglo culture Duran doesn’t mind stripping is gorgeous med student Anne Dillon (Kathryn Harrold). Curiously, she’s incredibly frustrated because the Maskai have no money for a properly-stocked medical clinic (one that could be paid for if some oil got sold…). A group of Christian missionaries are on the way to visit the reservation, with Anne hoping to get a donation. After that, she’s splitting to Houston for med school, but she promises a jealous Duran she won’t even look at a White boy.

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Of course, all of this is meaningless because Uncle Abner (George Clutesi), the shaman who raised Duran, has decided “enough is enough” with the Anglos and their cities that spit environmental poison: he’s calling on the Maskai god Yehwah to end the world and start over, with the Maskai riding in high cotton. Duran doesn’t buy perpetually stoned-on-datura root Abner’s threat, but sure enough, some crazy things start happening…like attacks from bubonic plague-riddled South American vampire bats (which aren’t supposed to be this far north), including a deadly one on Anne and her missionary donators. Good thing WHO agent and biologist Phillip Payne (David Warner) is on hand with his high-tech Chevy Suburban, a self-avowed “exterminating angel” of the “evil” vampire bat.

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Back in the late 70s to mid-80s, there wasn’t a horror movie in my home town that I didn’t see opening night, and on June 22, 1979, Nightwing was no exception (I wouldn’t have been caught dead at Streisand’s The Main Event or The Muppet Movie…but I probably did pause a moment before passing on Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz). Even though I’m sure I watched Nightwing again on Showtime or maybe cable, the only elements that stayed with me over the years were the expensive sheen it had (for a horror flick), and those frightening bat attacks.

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As much as I enjoyed the grungy, low-budget horror efforts at the time (like Halloween or Friday the 13th, or all the grade Z stuff at the drive-in), I was also particularly intrigued with efforts to manufacture a more expensive, polished horror product that was aimed at mainstream audiences. After the smash successes of A-level outings like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Jaws, and The Omen, you couldn’t blame producers for trying to top the cheapo indies.

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That’s why you had the strange experience in the mid-to-late 70s of sitting in a movie theater and seeing big names scroll across the screen attached to projects that, 10 or 20 years earlier, would have been strictly B fillers. Suddenly, guys like Robert Wise (Audrey Rose), John Frankenheimer (Prophecy), Michael Anderson (Orca: The Killer Whale), John Boorman (Exorcist II: The Heretic), Richard Attenborough (Magic), or even John Huston (Phobia) were cranking out relatively high-budget low-level horror trash, with the most striking example being no less than Stanley Kubrick directing a derivative Stephen King potboiler.

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Nightwing’s director, Arthur Hiller, was an A-list helmer with several big hits under his belt (monster success Love Story and crowd pleaser Silver Streak), who could reliably deliver a commercially successful production on time and under budget. Specializing in comedies and drama, why Hiller was picked for Nightwing is anyone’s guess (I always suspect an anxious personal money manager with some bad tax news in these unlikely assignments), but horror was unquestionably one genre Hiller never revisited.

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Of course the irony is that most of these classier, more expensive horror outings stiffed at the box office, while the cheap stuff couldn’t help but make a profit. The $8 million dollar Nightwing was no exception, with its poor b.o. performance getting it yanked from the higher-end theaters within the first week of release (for comparison, the cult classic Phantasm, released the same year, cost a measly $300,000 to make…and wound up grossing over $12 million at theaters alone, with many, many more millions to come in video sales and rentals). Seen today, Nightwing isn’t the best horror movie of 1979 by a long shot (Alien)…but it’s not the worst, either (Lee Majors’ Killer Fish, perhaps?).

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Most critics point out Nightwing’s carbon copy lifting of Jaws’ structure and characters as its primary, fatal flaw, but “stealing from the best” is a time-honored exploitation tradition that shouldn’t surprise experienced reviewers (after all…where would Jaws have been without Melville?). Yes, Mancuso is the Roy Scheider character, having to become a “believer” in the evil existential threat of the bats/shark in order to become their destroyer. And Warner is a combination of obsessed, possibly batty shark killer Robert Shaw, and high-tech dilettante shark chaser Richard Dreyfuss, complete with a souped-up, electronic gadgets-laden 4×4, just like rich boy Dreyfuss’ boat. We even get a cage attack, much like the one in Jaws, only reversed (the bats are on the outside), and an explosive finale that’s as much metaphysical as it is purely visceral. Just like Jaws.

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What A-list scripters Steve Shagan, Bud Shrake, and Martin Cruz Smith (adapted from Smith’s novel) didn’t steal from Jaws is a sense of humor, and that’s what really keeps Nightwing from taking off. Nightwing’s tone is deadly serious, even downright somber and morose, and that’s a dead wrong approach for making a summer popcorn movie about killer vampire bats (possibly) being used by an avenging Indian god. It’s clear that the scripters and Hiller wanted to say something weighty to counter the fact (in their own minds, probably) that they were stuck making a gussied-up B horror flick.

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However, what they have to say is at the same time fuzzy and overly-familiar, and far too scattered to have an impact. The movie’s producer, Martin Ransohoff, had no such illusions about the project, desiring a “Jaws on wings” that would deliver big b.o. numbers. Too bad he didn’t ditch all the high-priced talent here and get some hungry kids from Roger Corman’s factory to deliver plenty of laughs and chills. I didn’t go to Jaws to get a message about the venality and cowardice of small-town politicians. I went to see the shark attacks. That message helped broaden the movie…but if nothing else, Jaws worked as a high-octane thriller. The message was at least secondary.

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Nightwing, however, talks way too much about things we truly don’t care about, because they’re so sketchily put forth. Uncle Abner wants the world to end and the Maskai to be cleansed of the White world, but I’m betting the vast majority of the White kids paying tickets to Nightwing didn’t want to hear that…and why should they have? Indeed, it’s a curious defect of Nightwing’s script in that the ostensible villain of the piece (outside of the bats), Walker Chee, is far more sympathetic than Duran the hero. Walker wants his tribe to emerge from the poverty of their reservation. He’s mastered Anglo society, and he wants to utilize the reservation’s resources for the Indians’ own power—both physical and political—while ditching the superstitions that hold them back. We may be asked to agree with Duran’s absolutist denial of having their burial place exploited…but it’s a tough sell in the face of the alternative: continued poverty and disease for the Maskai.

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We don’t even know what the hell Mancuso’s character believes half the time, and if we can’t get behind the hero, where’s the viewer’s involvement with the story? One minute Duran’s contemptuous of his doped-up uncle; then, he’s sentimental towards his memory…before he’s screaming at his laughing ghost that he’s not real. Duran doesn’t believe in Yeywah, but then he’s seeing his cave-dwelling ancestors in a drug-induced haze…before condemning a god he doesn’t believe in for killing all his people. Uh…what?

At one point, Duran delivers this to Payne: “One man’s superstition is another man’s religion,” which is all well and good…except we don’t know which way Duran goes on that facile bromide. It doesn’t help, either, that Mancuso, a terrific actor (I highly recommend Ticket to Heaven, and his 80s Miami Vice knock-off, Stingray), can’t seem to project any kind of conviction either way; he seems as lost as his character (oh, and if you want to condemn Nightwing for using non-Indian actors like Mancuso…go cram it. Actors act, regardless of the role. If I said Indian actors couldn’t play Shakespeare, how fast would I be pilloried in this ridiculous P.C. gulag we call today’s pop culture?).

But then again, characters who make sense aren’t Nightwing’s strong suit. Kathryn Harrold, who is currently giving me the whim-whams as heavenly stacked Nola on Retro TV’s reruns of The Doctors, occupies a rather strong subplot where she has to survive in the desert after the vampire bat attack. However, it’s scripted and shot as if it’s ultimately no big deal since she’s saved by Duran and Payne in the end (also, she had more chemistry with Pavarotti than Mancuso). Failing decent dialogue or a character arc, what kind of director puts an A+ p.o.a. like Harrold in a horror movie meant to sell popcorn, and then fails to give us even a glimpse or suggestion of nudity (Mancuso has his shirt off a couple of times—so what gives)?

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What Strother Martin is doing here defies explanation (he hates Indians, he loves Indians, I don’t know…and neither does he), but Stephen Macht (always a welcome sight on TV) is excellent at getting across the pragmatic Indian chief who’s trying to help his people…until the script turns him into a cartoony villain (and then poof! he just…disappears from the film in the final reel). Nightwing’s most enjoyable turn comes from David Warner, as an exterminating angel who sees vampire bats as the embodiment of biblical evil (who cares if the movie is overselling the dangers of vampire bats? Tell PETA your troubles…). Warner’s lines would be hilarious coming out of most actors, but he sells them—what a pity the whole movie wasn’t about him.

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And that just leaves the bat attacks, which are far too few in number for this kind of summer flick. Still, they’re done with style and a nasty, mean-spirited tone that I found quite scary again on my 70 inch monitor. Reviewers today bitch about the level of Nightwing’s special effects (some of the background opticals of the flying bats are iffy), but I had no problems with Carlo Rambaldi’s horrifying little animatronic creatures. We know the first attack is coming when the Christian missionaries start talking about “blasphemy,” but Hiller executes a shock cut to a screeching bat that made me jump. Not relenting, Hiller stays focused on the bats attacking their prey, with long, cringy close-ups of the bats tearing flesh away from their shocked, screaming victims. No cheats here.

It’s truly an unsettling sequence, and worth the wait, what with the believable frenzy and panic of the missionaries (the cowardly men ditch the women), and even a nasty coup de grace as one of the women is run over by the fleeing van (even then Hiller doesn’t stop, giving us a terrifying shot of a bat crawling out of the driver’s shirt, screeching and screaming as he makes his way up to his neck). The cage attack is a real nail-biter, too, beautifully edited for maximum tension as the bats force their way into Payne’s caged-off 4×4. These sequences alone are worth the price of admission.

Unfortunately, Nightwing’s cave attack finale doesn’t match up to these superlative shock sequences; the suspense is palpable as Duran works to free Payne and destroy the cave. Pity we never get a believable look at the overwhelming horde of bats in their lair, which has been promised throughout the movie’s run (Nightwing’s biggest unintentional laugh comes when Duran celebrates the victory of the “old ways” over the harm that would have come from commercially developing Maskai Canyon…with an apocalyptic ammonia and oil fire spewing toxic fumes into the air for all to enjoy). Nightwing needed a whole lot less of the speechifying and the serious thoughts and the Indian jibber jabber…and a whole lot more bat attacks.

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PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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