A look at the underrated 1979 evil bat thriller
Director Arthur Hiller’s NIGHTWING is one of a handful of films that trade in the terror of killer, disease-ridden bats, a loose, unofficial subgenre that seemingly doesn’t command much fan enthusiasm. And while 1974’s future-shock chiller CHOSEN SURVIVORS remains my winged-rodent romp of choice, NIGHTWING flies not too far behind.
Based on the intelligent novel by Martin Cruz Smith (who also co-wrote the screenplay), NIGHTWING casts Canadian actor Nick Mancuso (DEATH SHIP) as Youngman Duran, the Deputy of a New Mexico Indian reservation who is investigating a spate of animal deaths, the beasts’ corpses savaged and drained of blood. As the attacks continue, Duran soon realizes that a horde of vampire bats have descended on the community and have now targeted human beings as their next food source. Enter the great David Warner (THE OMEN and so many other classic films), who plays a manic Van Helsing-esque biologist named Payne who has devoted his life to combing the earth and annihilating vampire bats for no other reason save that he firmly believes they are evil incarnate. He’s especially disturbed by the idea of them shitting out the excess blood they drink, a noxious notion hammered home by Payne’s operatic monologues and Warner’s wild-eyed readings of them. It’s hard to nail down a definitive eccentric performance by Warner but this one comes close. It’s truly….bat-shit!
Anyway, Duran and Payne set out to wipe out the colony, whose members are not only killing their victims but spreading a sort of black plague. Worse, the hateful mini-monsters have supernatural ties to a suicidal medicine man who has called-on the creatures on his deathbed to wipe out the world. It’s this mystical, apocalyptic pulse of NIGHTWING that gives the film its strongest fascination and if Columbia Pictures had marketed the movie as more of a dark fantasy film and less of a blood-spattered, post-JAWS man vs. nature horror movie, more critics would have been kinder. Because upon release, they were anything BUT kind and this lack of press respect helped bulldoze NIGHTWING’s presence and reputation into the abyss. But there’s so much to admire about the movie, from the lovely location photography, the impressionist Native lore, Mancuso’s solid lead turn (Mancuso would have been a bigger star had this film and his failed American network TV series STINGRAY been more successful), Warner’s scenery chewing and a few choice bat-attack sequences. One of them sees the members of a Christian camp get obliterated by the bats, a manic, bloody (for a PG film) scene that mixes weird blue-screened bat footage with close ups of Italian FX maestro Carlo Rambaldi’s super-cool vampire vermin puppets and mechanical props, the likes of which are probably left over from his stint on Paul Morrissey’s immortal FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN.
NIGHTWING isn’t a great horror movie per se, but it’s a pretty great movie full stop, one that deserves a much bigger cult fanbase.