NIGHTWING (1979) Reviews and overview

‘The bats of hell let loose on the Earth…’

Nightwing is a 1979 horror film about killer bats that plague an Indigenous American reservation in New Mexico.

Directed by Canadian Arthur Hiller (The In-Laws; Silver Streak; Love Story) from a screenplay co-written by Steve Shagan, Bud Shrake and Martin Cruz Smith, based on the latter’s novel, the movie stars Nick Mancuso (Entity; Rise of the Gargoyles; Death Ship), David Warner (In the Mouth of Madness; Waxwork; The Omen), Kathryn Harrold (The Sender; Vampire 1979), Stephen Macht (The Legend of Bloody Mary; Watchers 4; Graveyard Shift) and Strother Martin (Sssssss; The Brotherhood of Satan).

The soundtrack score was composed by Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther). The bats were created by special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi who also worked on A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), King Kong (1976), Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Cat’s Eye and Silver Bullet.

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Plot:

Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso), an Indigenous American deputy in New Mexico, investigates a series of cattle mutilations. Abner Tasupi, an ancient and embittered medicine man reveals that he has woven a spell to end the world that very night. However, Youngman assumes Tasupi is simply under the influence of datura root. Next morning, Youngman finds Abner’s bloodless body on the floor of his shack, and nearby he discovers a dead shepherd and most of his flock.

Youngman’s faith in tribal beliefs and superstitions leads him to suspect the unexplained deaths may be connected to Abner’s spell. English scientist Philip Payne (David Warner) is certain they are the work of vampire bats infected with bubonic plague. As bats spread throughout the area, swarming through a missionary group’s campsite and infecting everyone in their path, Philip and Youngman join forces with Anne Dillon (Kathryn Harrold), a white medical student who runs a clinic on the reservation and is in love with Youngman. They track the bats to their cave…

Reviews [click links to read more]:

” …you’re just not going to believe David Warner in Nightwing; he gives John Carradine a run for his money. The bats don’t get nearly enough work to make this movie as entertaining as it should be, but it’s still worth a look for fans of unusually hapless Jaws knockoffs, or for great lovers of exceptionally bad performances by normally good actors.” 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting

” …it’s a while before we actually see any of the nocturnal nasties, but what an entrance they make! As soon as the campfire scene begins, prepare for Final Destination-style shocks galore. This is Nightwing’s standout scene and rivals anything in Hitchcock’s The Birds for squealing, twittering, hair-tangling horror, and nothing else in the film really comes close to matching it, unfortunately (although there’s a wild, fiery climax).” Anchorwoman in Peril

“While this movie was destroyed by critics in 1979, it has acquired somewhat of a cult audience ever since. If you’re looking for a slow boil about ecology and the plight of our indigenous peoples that suddenly gets awesome when bats swarm a campfire and an old woman gets set ablaze good news!” B&S About Movies

“Remember Bats with Lou Diamond Phillips? Well, Nightwing is like its’ father, kinda. Not a bad movie, but Bats was way better. This one is kinda slow and has the silliest looking bat attack scenes you ever groaned at. All in all, it’s a decent flick. The American Indian sideline is cool and kept me more interested than the bats really.” Buried.com

“Quite why Hiller was selected to direct this suspense shocker is the most interesting thing about the project. A filmmaker who has made a speciality of showing reverence for platitudes has no jurisdiction over a piece of schlock nonsense about bat-killers in the Arizona desert.” Channel 4

Nightwing unwisely shoehorns ecological horror concepts and Native American issues to awesomely bad effect. The results are singularly boring and uninvolving. Reviewers at the time argued the film simply wasn’t scary, but while the three set-pieces involving the bats aren’t too terrible, everything in-between sure is.” DVD Talk

” …an animal attack movie I feel is on the higher end of the spectrum, rising above its dated effect limitations by utilizing acceptable if not dazzling horror technique, solid performances, and some surprising intelligence and depth […] Nightwing has taken its share of lumps both at the box office and from many a critic. But hey, it is certainly better than the bungled, rehashed modernization of the theme, Bats.” eFilmCritic

“The end of Nightwing almost achieves a fever pitch of bad-movie kitsch, when Mancuso goes into some sort of drug-induced trace while summoning up the ancient spirits who’ve been driving the bats batty, but reaching that brief moment of amusing awfulness requires sludging through an hour and a half of unredeemable guano.” Every ’70s Movie

” …the movie never quite becomes an unwatchable snoozefest; but it never really gets exciting, scary, or convincing, either. It does serve as a nice background movie for working a crossword puzzle, as you can proceed with the full confidence that nothing is going to become so involving (in either the puzzle or the movie) that it will totally distract you from the other task at hand.” Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings

“The bat effects are mostly pretty bad! Carlo Rambaldi, who would later animate a piece of poo and name it E.T., made little bitey bat puppets that look rather stiff, and the optical effects of bat swarms (Flocks? Packs? Colonies?) are as translucent as an old shower curtain and about as threatening! The direction doesn’t help much – it’s fairly clear that Arthur Hiller wasn’t all that interested or able to make a proper, scary horror picture!” Ha ha, it’s Burl!

Nightwing is still pretty damn solid, it has held up extremely well for being almost 40 years old. Its suspenseful, respectful of the Native Americans it portrays, for the most part, the performances are fine and even, even Warner, whose bat-hunter is a bit twisted, plays Payne as a dedicated scientist who realizes how dangerous a plague-carrying bat is. While I admit that calling them “evil incarnate” is a bit extreme, the fact that maybe Abner supernaturally called them, well maybe Payne has a point.” The Inner Circle

” …extremely well-paced and great fun. […] the film is a great exploration of social change and race relations…Nightwing is an interesting and smart movie.” Lee Gambin,  Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, BearManor Media, 2018

“I do like David Warner and the story isn’t bad.  Unlike most of these things, there’s just not much in the way of the animals […] If you get into the story and all, this will work for you.  I should note that we get a scene roughly an hour in where the guy working with Mancuso just plain stops to recap the last 10 minutes. Yes, I was there – thanks! Nightwing is less weird and obtuse than bad.” Mondo Bizarro

“Mr. Hiller (“The In-Laws,” “The Hospital,” “Love Story,”) is credited as the director of the film but it looks as if it had been put together from a child’s instruction book. The screenplay, based on a novel by Martin Cruz Smith, is terrible and the special effects third-rate.” Vincent Canby, The New York Times, June 29, 1979

“Overly talkative and often lazily paced, this never really takes flight and is sabotaged by a muddled subplot involving the supernatural. Lead Mancuso tries his best, and David Warner (from 1976’s The Omen) lends a classy touch. But they can’t save this sinking pile of guano.” The Terror Trap

“Hiller’s direction simply plods to a corny and unsatisfactory ending after getting bogged down in subplots concerning whale-oil prospectors, Indian religious mumbo-jumbo, and inter-tribal rivalries.” Time Out New York

“Actor George Clutesi, fresh from his role as a native American seer in the equally insipid Prophecy, once more finds himself in a similar part. All of the attempts to make this nonsense scary are ultimately defeated by cheesy special effects and gaping logical holes in the script…” TV Guide

“Completely so-so this is with Warner giving an above average hammy performance to try and make us forget that there’s not nearly enough bat attacks and when they do show up they have weak effects and suspense. The first full-scale bat attack (on the tourists Mancuso’s girlfriend Kathryn Harrold is camping with) is totally silly apart from the cool “speed bump” moment…” The Video Graveyard

“Everyone on the cast is actually very good, selling the material even the story veers into soap opera territory. Unfortunately, the patronizing tone and the worshipful depiction of Native American culture is laid on too thick for Nightwing to work as a monster movie, and the B-movie elements are too prominent to allow the film to become the deep statement on Indian life that it wants to be.” Watching Horror

Choice dialogue:

Youngman Duran: “One man’s superstition is another man’s religion!”

Cast and characters:

Nick Mancuso … Youngman Duran
David Warner … Phillip Payne
Kathryn Harrold … Anne Dillon
Stephen Macht … Walker Chee
Strother Martin … Selwyn
George Clutesi … Abner Tasupi
Ben Piazza … Roger Piggott
Donald Hotton … John Franklin
Charles Hallahan … Henry
Judith Novgrod … Judy
Alice Hirson … Claire Franklin
Pat Corley … Vet
Charlie L. Bird … Beejay (as Charlie bird)
Danny Zapien … Joe Mamoa
Peter Prouse … Doctor
José Toledo … Harold Masito (as Jose Toledo)
Richard Romancito … Ben Mamoa
Flavio Martinez … Isla Laloma (as Flavio Martinez III)
Lena Carr … Pregnant Woman
Virginia P. Maney … Old Squaw
Wade Stevens … Ambulance Attendant
Robert Dunbar … Helicopter Pilot
John R. Leonard Sr. … Helicopter Pilot

Filming locations:

Bonanza Creek Ranch – 15 Bonanza Creek Lane, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico

Filming dates:

19th April 1978

Fun facts:

The tribe in the film is referred to as “Meskwaki”, though this is actually the self-designation for the Algonquian-speaking Native Americans in Oklahoma.

More bats on film

Trailer:

  

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