Thursday, January 24, 2013

Nightwing (1979) dir. Arthur Hiller

Logline: A dying Native American medicine man's spell may or may not have unleashed a colony of literally bloodthirsty vampire bats on a Hopi Indian reservation in New Mexico. Regardless, the bats have tossed aside their usual cattle snacks for more challenging human prey. What to do about this dilemma sets the leaders of two tribes in the reservation at odds, but they'll have to join together if they hope to avoid the fangs of a cruel death.

Animal of Choice: Thousands of bubonic plague-carrying vampire bats that may also be the harbingers of the end of the world.

Thinking Ecologically: The central ecological issue in the film is curious because of how completely the character's actions regarding it ignore actual ecology. We witness a philosophical disagreement between a reservation deputy, Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso), and a Tribal Councilman, Walker Chee (Stephen Macht), about the fate of some recently discovered oil shale located in the reservation's sacred canyon. Duran (and his tribe's elder, the medicine man Abner (George Clutesi)) wish to see the canyon untouched at all costs. Chee, who views himself as a progressive, cosmopolitan representative for the tribes, wishes to sell mining rights to an oil company so that he can use the money and recognition to bring his people into the modern world and provide them with resources currently unavailable to them. (Though Chee himself proves to be less than honorable, his argument that the standard of living for the tribes could be improved by this sale isn't totally without merit).

One would imagine that part of Duran and Abner's insistence on maintaining the canyon as it is and as it always has been would be the desire to preserve its geographic structure along with its desert flora and fauna. But no: to prevent the oil company's mining, our heroes Duran and Abner conspire (the former through action, the latter through ghostly spirit) to destroy the canyon. By setting the underground bat cave on fire with the shale and the bat's ammonia-like droppings, Duran and Abner reduce the bat colony to cinders and set the entire canyon ablaze, resulting in a fire near-apocalyptic in size that Duran triumphantly touts "will burn forever." It's troubling that our supposed heroes would value the symbolic significance of the canyon over its physical existence, and are more than willing to sacrifice the land itself for the notion of its purity.

Thinking About Animals: The bats of Nightwing might be the film's least interesting feature. Their time on-screen is limited, and what we're told about them doesn't quite match reality. David Warner plays Phillip Payne, a self-designated "Exterminating Angel" who uses grant money to travel around the world and kill as many thousands of vampire bats as he can. He labels these flying rodents the "quintessence of evil" and backs this title up with the claim that unlike every other creature on earth-- which all in some way exist in a symbiotic give-and-take relationship with the environment-- vampire bats give nothing but only take and destroy. (Other species of bats at least do the environment the favor of eating massive quantities of insects). Of course, Payne's claim is neglecting the fact that although vampire bats do drink blood, this action rarely kills their prey (usually large mammals who don't miss the small amount of blood that the bats draw out) and though they do occasionally carry and transmit rabies to their prey through their otherwise harmless bite, my search has revealed no evidence for bats' ability to carry the bubonic plague, as the film depicts. So Payne's assertion of their being pure "evil" feels somewhat exaggerated. The film also gets wrong random facts about vampire bats, like their purported ability to consume 1.5x their own body weight in blood (it's closer to 1/2 their body weight).

Evaluation in Brief: Known for well-regarded films like Love Story (1970), The Hospital (1971), and The In-Laws (1979), Arthur Hiller has his directing filmography oddly smudged by the inclusion of Nightwing. (Though, to be fair, it's not quite as perplexing an inclusion as the Joe Eszterhas-scripted An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn (1997), one of his latest credits). The film is a peculiar choice for Hiller's particular talents, and unsurprisingly Nightwing rarely succeeds as a horror or thriller film in light of them. Limp and undramatic scenes of rubber bats attacking frazzled actors aren't about to set anyone's pulse rate into a frenzy. More of the running time is expended upon tribal tensions than bat terror, but because the characters are only a shade darker than "thinly sketched" the film never elevates itself into the realm of legitimate and engrossing drama. A confused and rather forgettable entry from the first wave of the Animal Terror subgenre that neither embraces its exploitation foundations nor commits itself to fully exploring its less fantastical human conflict.

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