Nightwing (1979)

*. You’ll often see Nightwing described as one of a sub-genre of horror films about nature biting back. What got the ball really rolling for these “when animals attack” movies was the success of Jaws, which came out in 1975. Martin Ransohoff, producer of Nightwing, said he wanted it to be “Jaws with wings.” That’s not quite what he got.
*. I’d like to say it’s at least an interesting idea, poorly executed, but in fact it’s a really stupid idea. The basic premise, that there’s this giant colony of vampire bats living in a cave out in the deserts of New Mexico, is so far-fetched that even scientist Phillip Payne (David Warner) has trouble selling anyone on it. The way the bats attack also seems sketchy. As I understand it, vampire bats usually just sidle up to sleeping animals and drink some of their blood surreptitiously.
*. Making matters even whackier is the way that the bats, who are also infected with bubonic plague, have apparently been summoned by a Native medicine man to protect his tribe’s sacred places. So in order to defeat the bats our hero Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso) has to consume the root of a psychotropic plant and receive visions from his ancestors. So yes, it is a stupid idea.
*. Actually, Nightwing can be further pigeonholed as a particular type of angry animal movie, mixing ecological concerns (an oil company is trying to develop the sacred lands) with Indigenous mysticism. Other films we might lump it together with include Prophecy and Wolfen. They are all very silly.
*. Still, it might have worked. It might have been good, stupid fun. Or at least given us a memorable moment like the exploding sleeping bag in Prophecy, or an interesting hook like the wolfvision stuff in Wolfen. Unfortunately, Nightwing is mostly just dull.

*. A lot of the blame lies on the odd choice of director. As Channel 4 remarked, putting Arthur Hiller in charge “is the most interesting thing about the project. A filmmaker who has made a speciality of showing reverence for platitudes has no jurisdiction over a piece of schlock nonsense about bat-killers in the Arizona desert.”
*. This was Hiller’s only horror movie and he clearly had no feel for the material. Oddly enough, this is something else Nightwing shares with the other movies I mentioned, as Prophecy was directed by John Frankenheimer and Wolfen by Michael Wadleigh. Frankenheimer I can sort of see, but even he was slumming it. The others were real stretches.
*. The bat attacks (and there is really only the one attack scene, along with some shots of the bats flying around at the end) have dated badly. Today we’d do such work with CGI, and it would look better. But even in 1979 I think the effects here would have been considered primitive. To make the obvious comparison, they’re nowhere near what Hitchcock did in The Birds.
*. The movie’s lone bright spot is David Warner as the Ahab/Quint figure, “one of the five acknowledged experts in the world” in tracking and exterminating vampire bats. You don’t even have to pay him to go after the colony. It’s just what he does. I was expecting him to give some speech at the end where he’d say how vampire bats killed his family and he’s been on a quest for vengeance ever since, but it’s actually simpler than that. “I kill them because they’re the quintessence of evil,” he says. “For me nothing else exists! The destruction of vampire bats is what I live for. ”
*. Given how loony the plot starts to get, the cheesy special effects, and Warner’s turn as a baticidal zealot, Nightwing should be a lot more enjoyable. Instead it’s been largely forgotten, and for good reason. It still has some moments of charm, like Mancuso turning up his truck’s car radio when Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” comes on, but in the end it’s mainly just a silly and uninteresting mess.

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