Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Nightwing (1979)

Nightwing is one of those movies that I saw on late-night TV years ago and became inexplicably obsessed with in the time since. Though I could remember very little of it, and I'm not really sure I even saw the entire thing, the film induces hardcore nostalgia whenever I think back on it. A killer bat movie set in New Mexico starring Nick Mancuso, David Warner and Kathryn Harrold, it's jumbled pro-nature/anti-big business message comes across as corny nowadays - but it's worth a watch for a number of reasons.

Nick Mancuso plays a Native American sheriff that spends his time trying to mediate between the local farming community and a shady industrialist (played by Stephen Macht) who has turned his back on his people by signing on with an oil company in order to turn the entire stretch of land into a giant mine. After a number of cows and horses are found mutilated on farms in the area, the evidence attracts an expert in vampire bats (David Warner), who believes that a new colony of vampire bats has settled in the area and are attacking the livestock. Naturally the oil company isn't too enamored with this kind of publicity, and ignore the warning that their work may be disturbing the bats, which proves to be a big mistake as an old High Priest (George Clutesi) calls upon the bats to take vengeance on those who have moved into the area.

It's kind of hard for me to write an unbiased review of this movie because the instant I pressed play I felt a warm glow of nostalgia. There's something about it I can't put my finger on exactly, but no doubt the beautiful scenery and has a lot to do with it, as well as the fact that everything is shot in a soft focus that is somehow very comforting. The movie was directed by Arthur Hiller, which is surprising because well, it really feels like a B-movie in places - but it definitely bears the mark of a more accomplished director. It's so nicely shot, in fact, that when the frankly terrible bat-attack scenes arrive it seems like they're taken from a different movie altogether.

See, the problem is that if you're going to make a horror movie that's filled with a lot of talk about the environment, you've gotta have the goods to back it up, and unfortunately Nightwing fails on this count. The bat scenes are cheap and amateurish without exception, in particular a camp-fire attack that's full on belly-laugh material. As is always the case, the shitty effects add to the enjoyment for me in some ways, but if the bat attacks had been less comical the movie would probably be held in higher regard today. There are so many blatant "bat on a string" moments it's kind of hard to believe, and I can only imagine how the actors must have felt filming these scenes. It's a shame because it kind of feels like there's no pay-off following all the dubious mysticism and dumbed-down environmentalism.

To say Nightwing is a little muddled would be an understatement. It constantly swings between two storylines in an attempt to ram it's eco-friendly message home while still trying to maintain the atmosphere of a horror movie. It makes the same mistake as many other disaster/horror movies from this period in focusing far too much on it's message, which definitely harms the flow of the film. There are a a number of totally bizarre plot turns, my favourite being Nick Macuso's decision to eat some kind of psychedelic root and spend the final half hour of the movie basically tripping balls and seeing visions of the old High Priest. Some of the dialog is a tad ridiculous also, and all the half-assed mysticism becomes a little tiresome by the time the final showdown arrives.

Despite it's massive flaws, I still love this movie in a weird way. The performances are mostly decent, in particular David Warner who always lends weight to any role, despite some pretty awful dialog here about devoting his life to killing vampire bats and the like. Henry Mancini's score is great also, and the "feel" of the movie goes a long way to creating that odd nostalgic atmosphere that I keep banging on about.  If they'd toned down the heavy-handed environmentalism and concentrated on creating decent bat effects Nightwing could have been a classic creature feature, but I'll still take it as it is.

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