Nightwing (1979)




On a blazing American Indian reservation in New Mexico, cattle and horses are found badly maimed and drained of blood. Local Chief Walker Chee (Stephen Macht) would like very much for this problem to go away, as the reservation land has been discovered to be oil-rich and he wants to make a quick killing on the sale. He hires Philip Payne (David Warner) to track down the colony of vampire bats responsible, and destroy it. Meanwhile Deputy Duran (Nick Mancuso) is on the trail of both bats and oil money, which he believes are responsible for a spate of seemingly unrelated deaths. Mancuso joins forces with Warner to locate the colony and finds a rather novel way of taking care of business.

There is an apocalyptic element to Nightwing - that the bats cause bubonic plague, which is in danger of being spread to the entire United States unless they are contained. This however is downplayed in favour of the danger of oil money to the lifestyles of natives on the reservation; in fact, several older members of the community welcome and prepare for this end of the world, as they call it; for them the oil is the end of a way of life and therefore a cultural apocalypse. Mancuso's struggle with these older Chiefs is less interesting than his interaction with David Warner: for my money the film's strength lies in Warner's performance as Philip Payne, an updated Van Helsing, paid by the World Health Organisation to travel the globe to exterminate colonies of vampire bats. Warner is on great form here; by turns obsessive, bitter and utterly friendless as he goes about his business. In fact, I would have dispensed with Mancuso altogether, and allowed Warner to do his thing.

I'm not familiar with Martin Cruz Smith's original novel, but the film is typically 70s fare treated with that era's obsessions - environmentalism, hallucinogenics, race and identity politics, and worst of all, stereotyping, where even the behaviours of a living creature are drawn from the headline rather than the article. The bats themselves appear mechanical and unconvincing, though several in-flight swarm sequences are eerily reminiscent of John Boorman's locust plague in Exorcist 2: The Heretic; and we all know what happened to that film.

In the end, like a midnight version of The Birds, Nightwing flits along the edge of your nerves before crashing into the back projection. I liked it. More, I felt it.

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