Written by: Mark Pavia & Jack O'Donnell (screenplay), Stephen King (story)
Directed by: Mark Pavia
Starring: Miguel Ferrer, Julie Entwisle, and Dan Monahan
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman(@brettgallman)
"He was wearing a big cloak he was. Red as a fire engine inside, black as a woodchuck's asshole outside. And when it spread out behind him, it looked like a goddamn bat's wing it did."
Even if they donít always bear the most succulent fruit, itís hard to ever knock the imaginative seeds of most Stephen King stories. The man just has a knack for clever hooks, even when heís working within the framework of existing lore. Case in point: The Night Flier might be yet another vampire story, but itís quite unlike any other, simply because its bloodsucker flies a plane from town to town to seek out and devour its victims. It might not sound like much, but it has enough mileage for a pretty solid short story. A feature film adaptation, on the other, hand? The mileage definitely varies, but first-time director Mark Pavia did a fairly respectable job of it on a limited budget back in the late-90s, when the King adaptation scene wasnít quite what it once was. You wonít mistake The Night Flier as one of the absolute best King adaptations, but itís one of the better ones from this era.
Like the short story, The Night Flier is framed by an investigation by Richard Dees (Miguel Ferrer), a deeply cynical tabloid reporter whose shameless methods and cantankerous disposition precede him. Heís seen better days: once the star of the front page, his irrelevant stories are now buried in the margins of the Inside View. Sensing an opportunity for his star reporter to get his groove back, editor Merton Morrison (Dan Monahan) comes to Richard with an irresistible story involving a serial killer thatís left a trail of bodies up and down the eastern seaboard. Whatís more, the guy calls himself Dwight Renfield and claims to be a vampire. Unconvinced, Richard passes on the story until newbie reporter Katherine Blair (Julie Entwistle) starts to uncover evidence confirming the rumors. Rather than work with his new co-worker, he swipes the beat from her and embarks on an investigation that soon becomes a swirling descent into madness.
The Night Flier is one of those mystery movies where only the characters themselves are in the dark. We know Richard is actually chasing a vampire because we see a mysterious man fly into rural airfields and leave the attendants ripped to shreds. Our eyes--and the eyewitnesses Richard interviews--confirms he wears a cape and is so furtive that nobody who encounters him can even recall that he was there. Clearly, something bizarre is going on, and, even though the script lays out everything for the audience, itís still somewhat compelling to see the pieces fall into place as the full picture comes into focus. It helps that Ferrer is our guide through it all: he was one of our most unsung actors who rarely landed leading roles despite his immense, versatile talents.
He brings an absolute conviction to Richard, a self-admitted, unrepentant asshole with no qualms about exploiting sordid material for a headline. He dives headlong into the reporterís growing mania, starting the ordeal as a jaded burn-out but ending it swept up in this impossible tale. Spitting bizarre, film noir-esque dialogue into his tape recorder, he narrates his journey and paints the portrait of an increasingly desperate man. When he must finally confront the impossible, his sudden vulnerability sells the horror more than the outbursts of graphic violence. Rich isnít exactly a good guy, yet Ferrer brings the lightest touch of warmth and humanity, putting the film on a bit of a different trajectory. Its climax is more of a bummer than it is a rousing, crowd-pleasing crescendo of gory comeuppance, Without Ferrer at its center, I doubt The Night Filer leaves so strong of an impression.
Pavia does a nice job otherwise, staging some vicious violence (with a nice assist from KNBís visceral gore effects) and capturing some moody atmospherics. Thereís a great moment during Richardís investigation that he catches a glimpse of a dog peering down from a rooftop, implying that Renfield is using supernatural powers to keep tabs on the reporter. The Night Flier itself is the movieís one concealed card, so Pavia patiently reveals the particulars surrounding the vampire. We get a glimpse here and there of his Dracula-style garb, plus hints of other strange powers, like telepathy and hypnosis. Renfield remains an enigma until the climax, when Paviaís camera playfully reveals the vampire, playing up his invisibility in mirrors when a puzzled Richard sees blood impossibly pissing into a urinal behind him. Itís a prelude to Renfieldís ultimate, ghoulish reveal, where he also unveils his nefarious plot to drive Richard mad. Not content to just suck his blood dry, he subjects the reporter to a black and while hellscape where undead ghouls roam through a foggy, mirror netherworld of an abandoned airport.
Paviaís stylish flourishes here provide a worthwhile payoff to an otherwise creaky affair. Arriving at this burst of panache first requires sitting through the often repetitive routine of Richard interviewing witnesses and piecing together accounts of Renfieldís exploits. Some prove to be more interesting than others, such as the side story that finds the fiend pulling an ederly couple into his orbit before feasting on their flesh. The woman is so held under his sway that she swoons for Renfield, adding an unexpectedly tragic dimension to a story about a flight-by-night vampire draining people of their blood. Katherineís presence creates another layer of conflict that isnít present in Kingís story; sheís a total invention of a script that never quite figures out what to do with her. At best, you might expect her to be the protagonist: a wide-eyed new reporter who isnít ready to glimpse the horrors of the world. At worst, you might expect her to become the Scully to Richardís Mulder (or vice versa, I guess), with the two forming a team for this bizarre investigation. Instead, The Night Flier kind of punts, keeping Katherine around mostly to fulfill a bleak ending that tries to say something about the cynical, cyclical nature of human behavior. Itís an ambitious leap that doesnít quite stick the landing just because Katherine isnít well-developed enough as a character for it to land.
As such, The Night Flier leaves you with the familiar feeling that it might have been better off as a short, or, better yet, as a segment in a King anthology. I wouldnít be opposed to someone revisiting it in that format (maybe even as an episode of the revived Creepshow), but I also have the nagging feeling that there is just enough meat on the storyís bone that it might not be any better served that way, either. Instead, letís just say Pavia gave it his best shot and left us with a cool, often unsung little King adaptation from an era that was mostly lacking them. Itís certainly good enough that I still canít figure out how it took him nearly 20 years to direct the equally unsung Fender Bender. Apparently, though, if he had it his way, he and King were going to produce Fear of Flying, a direct sequel to The Night Flier that would have continued the story and peeled back the curtain on Renfieldís origins. Maybe itís for the best that didnít happen: one thing I love about The Night Flier is the title characterís enigmatic nature, something King especially emphasizes in the short story. The film thankfully follows suit, leaving viewers with that signature King insistence that true horror is inexplicable. It flies in under the cover of moonlight, lurks among us, then strikes without leaving a hint of where it came from--or where itís going.
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