by Marc Kandel
“Nightwing” is another childhood favorite for me enjoyed on the HBO/TBS “we have nothing else to put on” loop many a Saturday afternoon. Nostalgia factor aside, I am of the firm belief that this one is a keeper. We have capable leads handling a difficult yet substantial script, an arresting score, and a director who knows how to build up an effective, compelling atmosphere. “Nightwing” exists as a much better movie than it deserves to be.Nightwing is the story of an Indian Reservation in New Mexico (yes, folks, that's Indian- its 1979, and we are about a decade away from calling it Native American in the vernacular, so fucking deal) under assault by a colony of freakishly large vampire bats crawling with bubonic plague. Now lets deal with the elephant in the room right off the bat (no pun intended…really), and let you know that there are more than a few "Jaws" parallels. The life of a town is at stake, torn between protecting the culture and health of its people, vs. turning profit from corporate business ventures (strip mining holy ground for oil wells, against Amity's swarming tourist season), and there are even a few corresponding characters a la Chief Brody and Quint, to name a few. But the parallels don’t really get in the way of this story- there’s plenty of fun to be had, and there is some capable exploration in the film apart from the animal menace in the form of western values vs. native tradition and science vs. mysticism, carried off by hard-working lead actors really doing their job- a rarity in this difficult genre.
"Bubonic Bats vs. Peyote Hallucinations.and Shrieking Christians"
Our protagonist, Deputy Youngman Duran (played with fire and conviction by Nick Mancuso), is a decent man trying to do right by his tribe and the people he cares about. The reservation stands to gain great wealth from the oil discovered in their holiest of grounds if only Duran and the elders of the reservation would allow Peabody Oil emissary Walker Chee (skillfully portrayed by Stephen Macht), to start mining operations. Chee is part of the tribe himself, but he has embraced white culture and the spirit of the dollar, finding it his way out of the dying slum he perceives his village has become. The oil for him ostensibly represents education, technology, and a better life for his people, a dream he will do anything to actualize, even if it means leaving rich, spiritual history behind. The bats further complicate Chee’s plan, spreading black plague through the corpses of their victims to the living population, forcing Duran to quarantine the town. Quarantine would destroy the oil deal, and Chee makes the decision to leave Duran to the wolves… or bats in this case, to stall public knowledge of the epidemic until he can push the mining deal through. Again, a nod to “Jaws,” but hey, we’ve come this far, right?
Representing the opposite ends of the science/religion spectrum are Duran’s Uncle, Abner Tapusi (George Clutesi), and Phillip Payne (the revered David Warner taking on the “Quint” role), Abner has a very simple solution to the oil question and his people’s plight- he’s chosen to end the world, claiming he has unleashed a dark, ancient force that will destroy the white man’s world and allow his people to reclaim their glory. If you haven’t guessed by now, the force is the bats. Interestingly enough, Abner becomes one of the first victims of his plague, a human sacrifice to break open the gates of the netherworld and free the evil. Payne is the foil to this ideology. He arrives on the scene pursuing the colony, which he claims have migrated from South America, fanatically dedicated to stamping them out. There is no arcane mystery behind the bats to Payne, they are simply a species existing outside the norm, giving nothing back to their environment, spreading plague and death, and he has the science to destroy them. David Warner is at his supporting-character best here, and yes, I know of the plentiful and varied B-grade schlock with his name attached, but make no mistake, this is one of the finer actors on stage and screen, and he invests Payne with vigor and dedication.
Special mention should also be made of Kathryn Harrold, who plays Duran’s girlfriend, Anne Dillon, a student working her way through grad school by taking tourists out on desert jaunts. While Anne ends up in need of rescuing in typical damsel in distress fashion, she is definitely more self-sufficient than many of her fellow supporting female horror colleagues, and gives us some fun lessons in desert survival in addition to pulling her own weight in the climactic moments, proving romantic interests don’t always have to be incompetent, vacuous lumps.
So are the bats supernatural? Well, yes…and no. One of director Arthur Hiller’s best touches in this film is the way that both ideologies are melded together and yet kept vague enough to let the viewer decide. When Duran and Payne finally team up to face the bats, each has his own solution, utilizing Payne’s science, and Duran’s knowledge of tribal ritual. Duran even goes so far as to get stoned on a desert plant, the datura root, to induce visions during the final confrontation- not your typical solution to an animal infestation, but definitely creative. So the other worldly occurrences could simply be attributed to hallucination, yet when we reach the finale, we are eerily reminded of Abner’s prophecies and manipulations.
The strength of the film is that these other mystical and political elements, apart from the horror film going on, are addressed in an intelligent, dignified manner, which in my eyes, avoid many of the racist, caricatured pitfalls of film and television dealing with the Native American people in any fashion. You will notice a distinct lack of any Indians speaking like Tonto, or frothing up sage Raven/Fox wisdom in ridiculous Yoda-like fashion. That’s not to say there are no stories or profundity to be shared, it’s just that they are handled with sincerity, rather than a verbal crutch needed to lend depth to a stereotype. Indeed, we don’t even have to suffer through an Anglo Saxon hero connecting (or rather allowing we, the cracker audience to relate) to the poor, wronged savages a la Dances with Wolves or even The Last Samurai-just the opposite- we even get a Native American as the leading man (Mancuso is actually a native Italian, but he convinces)! Even our wicked shaman, Abner- is not cut from the same cloth as the crazy, ranting witch doctors of old- when we first meet him, he is actually very jocular and likable, and full of tenderness for his nephew- more an eccentric relative, than slavering, wicked hooga-booga Injun priest. Yeah, I said hooga-booga. Wanna fight?
The fact that the film juggles these various issues extremely well kicks this movie up a few notches on the ladder from its core as a mediocre bat attack film. It also helps that there is some respectable writing at work (Martin Cruz Smith, the author of the novel of the same name, lent his talents to the screenplay), providing the compelling back-story that might even stand up on its own merits, sans furry bat puppets- think TNT original picture. Happily, we get both the drama and the bat attacks.
In addition we are treated to some truly inspired scoring from Henry Mancini, who arranges a haunted journey through music, evoking not only the power of the ancient world, but the mysteries of twilight hours and the stark loneliness of the desert. This is part of the reason I am so warmed to this film- for once we see effort being made to make a picture better than it is, and in a rare exception, I believe it works.
Ironically, the biggest weakness of the movie is the bats. Rubber Puppets…what else can I say? Now in good creature movie tradition, we don't see the beasties for a good bit into the film. Their passing is noted only with high-pitched squeaks and shrills and the panicked scramblings of the colony’s victims (sheep, cattle, ranchers) as they dash for shelter out in the open desert. The bats’ presence is also effectively punctuated by the actors reacting to the eye-watering fetor of ammonia wafting from the torn, exsanguinated, corpses of cattle and people caught in the bats' feeding pattern (the bats piss the digested blood out as ammonia). This is done to great effect at the start of the film, and the tension is built up capably until that cathartic moment we actually witness the culprits. And look, even the puppets are utilized very well on an occasion or two if not consistently, effectively conveying the creepiness of having this bubonic flea ridden rodent crawling on your naked skin.
Despite the obvious blue screened fraggles on fishing wire, the actors remain committed, the attack scenes are fun and vicious, the climax is tense and nail-biting and hey BONUS, a recreational vehicle full of irritating Christian Missionaries full of piss and vinegar is scattered and decimated, and the panicked holy-rollers do more damage to each other than the bats themselves in their frantic attempts to retreat from the siege. One particularly apostle goes so far as to abandon his comrades and ends up crushing a particularly annoying holier than thou type, who makes the poor yet understandable choice of hiding under their RV, right before our resident hypocrite makes a doughnut across the middle of her spine in his fumbled escape. There is a really great POV shot of the ill-fated bible beater seeing the tire rolling inexorably towards her, which has become the signature moment of this movie when it is remembered. It should be noted that Jesus does not help anyone in this instance. The bats, however, seem to be having a perfectly lovely time, and in the end, that is really the point.
Everybody loves a "Nature Strikes Back" flick. People just can't seem to get enough of their fellow human beings impotently flailing at birds, bees, trees, frogs, hogs, wild dogs, ants...more ants... shit, lost the assonance train. Nothing rhymes with ants. Hmmn… Ah, yes Plants! Shit, I already said trees. Ok, basically any beast you can train, cgi or puppet to act pissed off at mankind gives the folks in the audience a vicarious thrill dealing with some very basic primal fears. When this is executed correctly in film, you have a "Jaws" or “The Birds” on your hands- a terrifying, visceral look at how man is hardly the only creature on this planet, and certainly not the dominant one in certain circumstances. When its done wrong...uuurgh... well, lets just say its been done wrong lotz und lotz. For every “Jaws,” there are about three "Shark Attack 3: Megaladon" lead balloons out there. And no, I don't just mean the feculent "Shark Attack" trilogy, no, I could also site such recent crapplesauce as the TBS dog “Red Water,” and the Sci-Fi channel's recent “Shark Hunter,” failures all. Oh, and let us not forget the soulless, yet frustratingly competent "Deep Blue Sea" (really great animatronic/cgi effects give that entry some big points, save for the fact that they should have been used in a better film). So go ahead and make it five or six turds for every gold bar, and look I didn’t even need to talk about the Jaws sequels. Hell, Sci-Fi Channel is going nuts with the "nature attacks" concept. They have been dealing out sloppy, cgi angry beast films to their viewers like some bad-movie croupier in recent months- the entire lot being thoroughly boorish, unimaginative, and altogether unwatchable.
All the more reason to revisit Nightwing, an animal attack movie I feel is on the higher end of the spectrum, rising above its dated effect limitations by utilizing acceptable if not dazzling horror technique, solid performances, and some surprising intelligence and depth. And believe me I am the first to admit to being in the severe minority on this one. Nightwing has taken its share of lumps both at the box office and from many a critic. But hey, it is certainly better than the bungled, rehashed modernization of the theme, "Bats."Like any difficult genre, there are the winners and the losers. Nightwing as a winner in my book, but the cloud of my nostalgia does not extend to everyone in my reading radius, so for all of you out there, check out this honorable mention in a junk-ridden genre.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=9058&reviewer=358
originally posted: 03/24/04 03:07:04