The ‘70s saw the return of lot of environmental horror. Not just the mutated monster insects borne of atomic testing, but the twisted and nasty things that can come about when man mucks about with nature and nature decides to fight back. Most notorious among these may be John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy involving mutant bears going Jason Voorhees on campers and scientists. On the far end of this spectrum comes the Ray Milland as industrialist eaten by amphibians in Frogs. Somewhere in the middle lies Nightwing because, like the vampire bat referred to in the title, the movie is neither fish nor fowl.
While investigating a series of unusual cattle mutilations, Deputy Youngman Duran of Hopi Maskai Tribe (played by a still-Italian and not-fooling-anybody Nick Mancuso) runs up against tribal councilman Walker Chee, who wants to sell the holiest of holy land to an oil company after shale has been discovered there. Because of this, tribal medicine man Abner tells Duran that he’s decided to end the world and will be dead that very night. With enough on his plate already, Duran, raised by Abner and used to this sort of talk, dismisses his claims and returns home.
The next morning, Abner is dead on the floor of his cabin. A few miles away, a shepherd is found trampled and some of his flock have been mutilated in the same way as the cattle. Duran fights against his own ingrained tribal superstitions that the deaths may be in some way connected to Abner’s curse. But it doesn’t help that, as Duran buries Abner, the corpse begins to bleed through the shroud. Meanwhile, a scientist named Philip Payne arrives on the reservation after tracking a species of South American vampire bats to the same Maskai Canyon where drilling is to begin. The bats are carrying bubonic plague, which is what has been killing off not only livestock, but a missionary group as well. This leads to a harrowing climax tying science and religion together as Duran and Payne team with local Doctor Anne Dillon to exterminate the bats and stop the spread of the disease through the species’ migration.
Based on the novel by Martin Cruz Smith (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Steve Shagan and Bud Shrake) and directed by Arthur Hiller, is at times poignant, disturbing, beautiful and ludicrous. There are even moments when it achieves “all of the aboveness”.
By the end, Duran isn’t fighting just nature, but peyote-induced visions of Abner and other departed Maskai who want to see the world ended before the White Man eliminates all “humanity” (referring to all American Indians). Wrapped in trappings of environmental horror, Nightwing explores some heady subjects including the subjugation of the Native Americans by both whites and their own kind and just how strong superstition can be in even the most rational of men.
But chances are, if you stay for the debate, you’ve come for the bats and let me tell you… the years have not been kind to Nightwing. Created by Carlo Rambaldi, the man behind the naked monkey look of E.T., the fledermauses are okay en mass in the air via front and rear projection, swarming around shrieking Bible thumpers like flapping piranha, but in the frequent close-ups, where a single bat hangs in mid-air screeching at the camera, you expect the animation to kick in and transform said bat into Bela Lugosi. If you have a phobia about the spasmy little disease-ridden mosquito-eaters, then the swarming scenes may prompt you to put a box over your head, otherwise, they alternate between cute, silly, and fluttery masses. When tribal politics becomes more fascinating than a bat attack, you know you’re in some serious guano (which is primarily ammonia: fun fact learned from watching Nightwing!).
The cast is very game for the story—which is helped by Henry Mancini’s score—elevating it beyond such latter-day tepid fare as, say, Bats with Lou Diamond Phillips. While you may think that Mancuso is the sore thumb sticking out in Nightwing, the surprise is that it’s really Warner. He gives lines like, “I live to kill bats,” a little too much gravity. Most of the time he comes off like a mad scientist about to put Schlermy Beckerman’s brain into the body of a gorilla (see The Man With Two Brains for that reference). He’s a freelance bat exterminator with endless funding and kudos to Duran for pegging him as a madman during their initial meetings, though the plot demands that they team up for the climax despite all logical conclusions.
Still, it’s well-worth your time to seek out, if only for Hiller’s sweeping shots of the New Mexico deserts and mesas and the admittedly nail-biting sequence inside an electrified mesh cage. Columbia Pictures had high hopes for the production, releasing a photo-novel along with Cruz Smith’s source book, Nightwing didn’t fare too well at the box office (notoriously bitchy Vincent Canby referred to it as “third rate”) but became an HBO staple during the early ‘80s. Oddly, the generation that grew up with it screamed louder for a DVD release of Flash Gordon, so Nightwing can only be had in full-frame VHS, though a nicely-letterboxed print does show up occasionally on cable, but then it’s arbitrarily mutilated to accommodate commercials. But if you run across it, give it a shot. I promise you that Mancuso is no worse an Indian than Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles. Isn’t that good enough?