The seventies saw a minor boom in creature feature films after the box office success of Jaws. Hence, we had movies such as Orca (1977), Tentacles (1977), The Pack (1977) and Piranha (1978). If an animal could eat you or potentially pose any threat to people, someone somewhere would make a movie about it. Usually a bad one. A few of these even dared to stray into other hot topics of the time such as pollution and protecting the environment. Some would even invoke mysticism and folk lore to facilitate their protagonists. Nightwing is one such curious genre hybrid which combines vampire bats, shale oil mining and Native American culture in its clumsy and unsubtle plot. It’s a somewhat odd undertaking, directed by Arthur Hiller. His previous work included Love Story (1970) and Silver Streak (1976), so he was not the first person you’d expect to see associated with such material. The film doesn’t work well as either a horror movie or an exploration of social issues, but like so many movies from this era, it is of interest mainly due to its sheer incongruity.
Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso), a deputy on an Indian reservation in New Mexico, investigates the death of several horses on a local ranch. The bodies are covered in small bites, drained of blood and there is a strong smell of ammonia. Tribal Council chairman Walker Chee (Stephen Macht) is keen to keep the matter quiet, as he is trying to negotiate the mining rites to oil shale deposits that have recently been discovered in nearby canyons. Canyons that also happen to be sacred to the local population. Abner Tasupi (George Clutesi), an ageing medicine man and Duran’s uncle, tells him he’s unleashed forces that will remove the White Man from the land and restore things to how they use to be. Duran dismisses such ideas, but as further death occurs including his uncle, begins to think otherwise. However, the arrival of British scientist Philip Payne (David Warner) points to a more tangible answer. The caves in Maskai Canyon are home to a swarm of deadly vampire bats he’s been tracking.
Nightwing efficiently sets out its stall within the first fifteen minutes. The audience is presented with a beleaguered law enforcment official, a corrupt business man and an obsessed scientist. This is quickly followed by a heavy dose ersatz Indian mysticism and the ubiquitous love interest, via local nurse Anne Dillon (Kathryn Harrold), who runs the town clinic. It’s all formulaic content that’s common to genre movies. There is also an attempt to address some deeper issues regarding the treatment of indigenous peoples by the Federal Government, as well as some nods towards institutional racism. But it’s far from convincing and or subtle. Especially in light of the fact that so few of the main cast are of the correct ethnicity. The film then proceeds to offset the subsequent vampire bat attacks with wider supernatural explanations, but never fully commits to them. The use of datura root as a hallucinogenic offers a “get out of jail card” to the film’s mystic elements.
As for the vampire bat attacks, they’re initially kept off screen until the first major set piece of the movie. This involves a group of Christian missionaries who are visiting the reservation and considering making a substantial charitable investment. It is one of the better plot elements. The attack takes place at night around the camp fire and features animatronic bats created by Carlo Rambaldi (E.T and the 1976 version of King Kong). There is also an optical overlay of a swarm of bats that further adds to the scene. It doesn’t quite work and certainly the rather static close ups of Rambaldi’s bats are far from convincing. However, the effects work is of interest due to the technical limitations of the time. Certainly, the blood flows in this sequence with the victims panicking. One falls into the camp fire while another hides under the camper van, only for it to run over her. Later in the movie Duran, Payne and Dillon construct an anti-bat cage from steel scaffolding and wire mesh. The technical shortcomings of the animatronics are more apparent here.
There are some genre stalwarts in the cast. David warner is suitable driven and even has a Jaws-eque monologue about the inherent “evil” of vampire bats. Sadly, his character has little back story. Strother Martin also appears as the local store owner as does Charles Hallahan as one of the Christian missionaries. But overall the screenplay by Martin Cruz Smith, Steve Shagan and Bud Shrake does the bear minimum and lacks any depth, or standout features. Although the desert locations are strikingly shot at times by Charles Rosher Jr. there is no overt sense of danger from the environment. Nightwing may well have benefitted from a more experienced genre director at the helm, who could have focused more upon the horror elements, rather than trying to expand the scope of the story into wider socio-political themes. However, I still find movies of this kind that hail from the pre-digital age to be of interest. The seventies were a far more experimental time for cinema and studios were prepared to try different things and straddle multiple genres. Nightwing should therefore be filed under such.