Sony // 1979 // 105 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // April 19th, 2013
The day belongs to man. The night is theirs.
Nightwing is a unique horror entry, frequently grouped with the likes of Jaws or Piranha. Inspired by the "nature goes bezerk" concept that became so popular in the late 1970s, this one shows us vampire bats terrorizing an Indian reservation in New Mexico. They kill animals, move up to people, and all while an oil company tries to figure out a way to get their hands on land that has great hidden reserves of the black gold. The film differentiates itself because it's an Indian hero, with tribal deputy Duran (Nick Mancuso, Under Siege) trying to solve the case on a reservation. He reminds me a great deal of Roy Scheider in Jaws, but at least he gets the cultural depth adding to the mysticism of the proceedings.
Behind the bats are the struggles of an Indian culture trying to fit into a modern America, which gives Nightwing more melodrama than most scary stories. On hand is creepy happenings mainstay David Warner (The Omen) who likes to call the bats "vampires," just to sound a bit more spooky every time he lectures anybody about their threat. Like Van Helsing, he's the guy who is going to find the bloodsuckers just because he likes to make the world safe from them. Unfortunately, he's caught up in the soap opera of what the Indians should do to fight off the white men, and that is not his battle. He's just there for the bloodshed and the leathery winged monsters that swarm at night.
Nightwing moves at a slow purposeful pace, and there are only four or five actual thrill sequences. Even if that's are not enough, these bat attacks are pure cheesy fun, in the tradition of true drive-in style. The filmmakers employ a mix of practical effects, cartoon animation, and rear projection to accomplish what looks like Hitchcock's The Birds gone batty. You can see strings on puppets, and it's all good-naturedly scary, as it should be. The end result is B-movie all the way, but this was 1979. Luckily the cast and a Henry Mancini score save the other bits, as the film shifts into the serious part of the story. If you're coming for the bats, just know they're funny scary rather than serious spooky.
Sony is releasing Nightwing through their "classics" label which means consumers will find they get a Made-On-Demand (MOD) DVR rather than the traditional mass-produced retail DVD. This should still satisfy fans who first viewed the film during its endless run on premium cable channels in the '80s. It'll look just like you remember, except in its original widescreen format rather than crappy pan and scan. The dark shots are a little too murky, there's a constant wash of grain, and colors look washed out thanks to old film stock. Every now and then, I did notice nice visual moments with vivid colors, but they never lasted long. Overall detail is soft, which helps the bats when they're coming at the camera, but may frustrate viewers following the narrative. The audio is an unimpressive Dolby 2.0 Mono track, but it serves the visual presentation respectfully. The only bonus feature is a vintage theatrical trailer. Chapter stops are ten minute advances in the film and the disc does not offer a menu of scene selections to choose from, so you're on your own.
Nightwing is an odd mix of social commentary and nature-gone-wrong horror that has the good sense to showcase unique elements to spruce it up. Vampire bat movies are not common, and setting it all on an Indian reservation allows for preachy politics to enter the narrative. I can't think of any other film that allows an indian reservation to be ravaged by leathery winged bloodsuckers. True fans are going to grab this one for its nostalgia. After all, this was from the days when we were lucky to have fifteen channels of cable television, and Nightwing was likely running on at least one of them. It's a product of its time, but once the bats do their thing it does get fun.
A guilty pleasure that mixes flying rats with the trail of tears.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated PG