THE NIGHT FLIER has a premise that could only really come from a Stephen King short story: a vampire (Michael H. Moss, ROBOCOP 3) – old school, with a Dracula cape and everything – pilots a small plane, and goes around to different small airports drinking people’s blood.
The protagonist is Richard Dees (Miguel Ferrer, ROBOCOP) the star asshole at a shitty tabloid that seems to be a cross between The Weekly World News, TMZ and A Current Affair with a more sick and bloodthirsty edge, as well as an apparent belief in the tall tales they’re selling. He’s introduced checking the new issue, seeing it doesn’t have the photo he wanted, and yelling “WHERE’S MY GOD DAMN DEAD BABY!?” So he’s a purist about his scumbaggery.
He seems to think he has some kind of artistic integrity, even though he’s a soul-less purveyor of degrading filth. He wants to do a story about a famous country singer dying of AIDS (not a sympathetic one, it sounds like), but his editor Merton Morrison (Dan Monahan, Pee Wee from the PORKY’S trilogy) tries to get him on this vampire story. He’s perfect for it because he has his own plane and knows how to fly it – the John Travolta or Harrison Ford of the grocery store impulse buy set. But he says vampire stories are a dime a dozen and stubbornly refuses until a newbie reporter, Katherine Blair (Julie Entwistle, who I’m very surprised isn’t in more things), gets the ball rolling. He gets jealous, they give him the assignment and the poor woman is totally screwed over.
This type of kind-of-relevant, kind-of-dated media critique was not unique in the ’90s, and it’s easy to picture an asshole reporter character like this in a supporting role, or as the lead in a horror anthology story who starts to learn his lesson at the end but then gets cruelly punished. To have him as the lead in a feature film, though, and to never seem to come close to seeing the light, is unusual enough to make the story pretty compelling.
The naive, hard-working Katherine (a character not from the short story I believe) seems like she would normally be the lead, who would either overcome the assholes at the paper or almost do so and then ironically turn into one of them at the end. Instead we just come back to her occasionally, feel bad for her getting treated poorly, and hope she beats Dees to this story in her subplot. It seems perfectly natural when she finally proves herself useful to Dees and they pool their resources in a fact-finding montage. So (SPOILER) it’s pretty funny when in the next scene the dick locks her up in a closet and ditches her. Don’t worry, he’s gonna get what he has coming.
Although the monsters and things in this tabloid are very different from today’s bottom-feeding celebrity harassment trash, there are definite parallels to NIGHTCRAWLER. There’s even a scene where he comes across a car accident and poses one of the bodies for his photo. Of course, in this version we can piece together that the crash wasn’t as random as it seemed, it was caused by the vampire.
Hats off to this vampire for not fitting the Anne Rice mold or the FROM DUSK TILL DAWN/JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES backlash of the era. He uses many of the tropes from Dracula, including sleeping in dirt (inside his plane!) and hypnotizing his victims. An old lady happily welcomes him as he tears up her husband. We later learn that she knew in advance that he was coming and got her hair done up special and stuff. He also has some kind of telekinetic power like Dracula. We learn this because Dees stages a photo of a victim’s tombstone by smearing some of his blood on it. When he does he and the vampire seem to see each other, like in JAWS: THE REVENGE when she steps in the water and the shark senses her. Nice move, dumbass.
Dracula also can turn into wolves and moths and stuff, which helps explain the creepy ass scene where Dees is investigating a murder site and suddenly sees a vicious dog on the roof of the place, watching him! It doesn’t even have to be the vampire, or run after him, to be scary as shit. Just seeing it up there would freak me out.
One of the vampire’s supernatural qualities is that people have a hard time remembering him, or even seeing his face. I really like how long and how many different ways the movie obscures his face. I figured it was to hide the disappointment of him being some soap opera cheeseball, but then when they finally do show him he has a cool animatronic monster face and a different manner of sucking blood than expected. His jaws are pretty serious, and he also has claws. This makes for some pretty vicious gore by KNB FX. He’s slashing faces and ripping off heads and smearing blood around.
It’s produced by Richard Rubinstein, who did the George Romero movies, and somehow it makes sense, it fits into that world of the lesser-but-still-good Romero stuff like MONKEY SHINES and what not.
First time director Mark Pavia has some nice touches. I like how he stages it when reporter and subject finally come (sort of) face to face. It happens in a public restroom after Dees pukes into the sink and is looking at himself in the mirror. The vampire has no reflection, so he just sees an invisible man peeing blood into the urinal! Then each of the mirrors crack as the vampire walks past them.
He comes up behind Dees and talks to him. We keep cutting between his non-reflection in the mirror…
…and his Dracula collar behind Dees.
After the whole confrontation the vampire leaves and Dees runs after him yelling that he needs to see his face. See, he could’ve just let him go and lived his life, but curiosity killed the cat, some motherfuckers always tryin to ice skate uphill, etc. He couldn’t leave well enough alone.
By the way, the vampire uses the pseudonym (we assume) Dwight Renfield. It’s funny to see Dees running after him yelling “Dwight! Dwight!” I would’ve felt stupid calling a monster “Dwight,” but I guess you have to call him something. Maybe he could’ve said “Hey! Hey buddy, come back!” Or maybe, “Hey mister!”
Anyway, I only wish I liked Dwight’s voice a little better. He has a good Candyman type of otherworldly presence. A real deep scary voice would’ve brought it all the way there.
The movie does go a little Clive Barker in the climax in the way Mr. Dwight forces Dees to take a look into Hell or something. Pavia switches to a beautiful black and white reminiscent of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD or CARNIVAL OF SOULS.
I think I tried to watch this years ago and thought it was like a shitty cable movie. I guess I’ve changed since then, because this time it really clicked. The viewing was inspired by a really good interview with Pavia on the Shockwaves podcast. He tells the story of how he got to make THE NIGHT FLIER but then didn’t make another movie until this year’s FENDER BENDER.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.