As mentioned ad nauseam; Stephen King adaptations come in all shapes and sizes. From maxi-sized mini series to star-strewn, high profile block busters, the author’s works has crossed mediums, genres and (and we’ll get to this momentarily) budgets, meaning there are few avenues that King’s prose has left to infiltrate. Famously, if are an aspiring student filmmaker and you want the rights to adapt one of King’s short stories for festival use, you can gain the rights to do so for the amount of $1 and thus become one of big Steve’s “Dollar Babies”. I only bring this up because maybe if the makers of The Night Flier had gone down this route, maybe they could have stretched it’s budget a little bit further…
Unnecessary cheap shot aside, I’m the last guy to complain about movies made with meagre means; as a matter of fact, I love them. The lower the budget, the more chance you have of finding something odd, imperfectly formed and wholly memorable and this tale, collected in 1993’s Nightmares And Dreamscaped, that features a bloodsucker with a flying licence is by turns enjoyably original and trashily stupid.
Simply put, Richard Dees is sizable sack of shit. This hard smoking, hard drinking, walking, talking lack of morals is a successful reporter for one of those scummy tabloids that scream at you from the shelves from a Seven Eleven and are filled with lurid murder stories and barely edited crime scene photos. Dees is tasked by his equally bottom feeding editor (who has all the positive attributes of a tarantula who sells porn to kids) to follow up on a bizarre crime story that involves a person or persons unknown who flies their private plane into small airfields in the middle of nowhere, violently murders whomever is around and then hops back into their plane and buzzes off elsewhere to rinse and repeat.
Swiping the story out from under a wide eyed newbie, Dees hops in his plane and attempts to unravel the mysteries of this serial killer he dubs The Night Flier, but as things progress he starts to suspect things are much weirder than just a simple nutter in a plane. His victims all sport a sizable hole in their jugular (those who haven’t had their head torn completely off, I mean) and most have had their bodies drained of blood and it becomes fairly apparent that this aeronaught assassin is a vampire; a hypothesis that’s further cemented by an eyewitness account stating that the killer wears a long cape that’s “fire engine red on the inside and black as a woodchuck’s asshole” (gotta love those old timers from Maine, ayuh). However, this particular vampire, who goes by the nom de plume of Dwight Renfield (sic), knows full well that Dees is on his tail and leaves warnings and vivid nightmares telling the reporter that maybe backing the fuck off is something the reporter should be adding to his diet of booze, fags and underhanded betrayal. But if nothing else, Dees is a determined man and nothing is going to stop him from bringing in this story – not even the prospect of having his throat opened like a tin of beans.
If anything, The Night Flyer feels like an extended episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker or even an 80’s horror anthology TV show like Tales Of The Darkside or Monsters, featuring flat cinematography, dull sets and a workman like script that’s substantially enlivened by it’s lead performance – yet, for some reason I found myself not entirely able to write The Night Flier off completely.
Maybe it’s because it’s so cheaply made (a shot of Ferrer supposedly flying in his cockpit in front of an obviously painted sky is laughable for the 1970’s let alone the 90’s), or maybe it’s because the film completely and utterly embraces it ludicrous concept full on despite the fact that horror had long moved on into the realms of smug teen meta thanks to Scream, but there’s something endearingly throwback about the whole enterprise.
In fact the best metaphor I have for the film is the monstrous design of Renfield himself. Striding around in a long black cape that even Doctor Strange would deem as too on the nose, he has the striking profile thanks to his bat-like features and sports a goofy looking center fang that extends out from his yawning mouth. To say that he looks like a rejected concept from a background creature from From Dusk Till Dawn would be cruel, but also admittedly be fairly accurate too and that’s The Night Flier in a nutshell; it’s creaky as hell and doesn’t particularly make a whole lot of sense, but it’s off-beat repurposing of established tropes (something King does very well) makes it feel like a tiny, ugly island in a sea of perfectly coiffed 90’s slashers.
Admirably giving this flick way more effort than it probably deserves is Miguel Ferrer who trots out his remarkable deuche with all the odious panache he reserves for all the other world class turds he’s played throughout his career. He single handedly manages to keep the whole enterprise level over some fairly choppy turbulence and is nothing less than a driving force in a film that’s shot in such a basic manner.
The gore is satisfyingly plentiful and the film’s climax has a neat sort-of twist ending that almost verges on being creepy but also feels like it should played out by the cackling puns of the Crypt Keeper and the end credits of Danny Elfman’s Tales From The Crypt theme…
Yet as I stated earlier, the film, for all it’s lumpy imperfections, gets a pass from me primarily because it treats it’s eccentric premise so casually, like it’s the most normal thing in the world. Although, once you consider that the film is based on the works of a man who hung stories in the past on such preposterous plots as a Lovecraftian portal situated within the boot of a Buick and a flesh eating mangler, the notion of a pilot vampire isn’t that absurd (although if he’s half-way to being a bat, shouldn’t he be able to fly anyway?).
Cheap but cheerful, The Night Flier is miles away from being classic King but completists may find a single watch is enough to stock up on their frequent flyer mileage when it comes to the man’s film adaptations.
Although, I do have to tip my hat and give massive props for the script writer for not taking the easy path and have someone say that the killer’s flown in for a bite… you sir, are a far stronger man than I.