Have Bat Plane, Will Travel


As someone recently remarked to me, once you leave classic-era movieland, the rules tend to get broken. Such an axiom can apply to the 1997 film The Night Flier, which is about a vampire with an airplane. That’s the movie’s major prop, and gimmick, a black Cessna Skymaster that the title character uses to jet around. No more changing into the usual bat, wolf, or stream of fog when on the hunt. So passé. Instead, our bloodsucker pilots his vehicle to various feeding grounds at dinnertime. Yes, right on the cusp of the 21st century, vampires have decided to Get With It. Who needs rubber wings or a steam machine when you can take to the skies in rich man’s style (and still flaunt a snazzy cloak). It’s a nice touch, even to the plane’s all-black decor (occasionally splattered with gore after a busy night). And there’s an in-joke for classic-horror buffs: our nocturnal Rickenbacker goes by the name of Dwight Renfield. No prizes for guessing what that refers to.


The Night Flier comes out of another era in American horror cinema, that of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, when it seemed every other cinematic frightfest was adapted from the works of the writer Stephen King. Mr. King was the horror godfather of these decades, his name next to a title blessing it with success; he pretty much became a brand all to himself. I’m not a Stephen King fan, but I liked this adaptation of one of his short stories, which I came across during late-night YouTube hop-scotching; and, while it’s rather mild with the scares, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Though the film’s obviously low budget, its script and acting aren’t bad; and it also looks good (even if you do see the boom mike dangling like a set of male genitalia in a few shots), awash in a cool, metallic-blue gleam as if the celluloid was buffed with silver. That cold-steel look has become overused in horror, but in this film’s case it fits. Its story is about coldness, its subject is cold, and especially cold are its main characters, not one of whom is likable. Which I found appealing. 

Leading the film in the cold-mean-bastard department, and holding it together, is its star, Miguel Ferrer, lookalike son of José, who plays his role, an ambitious journalist out of the Kirk Douglas playbook, in the hip, insouciant manner of a Rat-Packing rat. Rattiness is right for his character, a first-class stinker who snaps his ever-present camera at every scene of blood and mayhem he can find. How much of a stinker is he? Commenting on the suicide death of a colleague, he observes it “made for a killer headline.” He also desecrates a grave site for the sake of a scary photo. But Ferrer grasps at the subversive essence of stinkerhood, which is: we’ll forgive the louse anything as long as he entertains us. And Ferrer entertains. He’s cool, but he also burns; he barrels through the film like a Cessna on nuclear fuel, a hot red wire searing the edges of its blue-white sheen. We may not like this sonovabitch (who kicks down a door at a crime scene just to snap the right picture), but we do root for him. Energy always attracts; it pulls us into its orbit by the sheer force of its suction, and Ferrer’s zest in his part sucks us in willingly. We’ll follow this stinker wherever he chooses to go. 


Ferrer’s reporter works as the star scribbler for a National Enquirer-style tabloid called Inside Edge, whose headlines focus on mutant babies, psychic dogs, and extraterrestrial visitors: “a cultural microscope,” says its editor, “focusing in on the collective unconscious of the American populace.” In other words, sleaze fodder to catch the bored eyes of shoppers wilting on long supermarket lines. So a serial-killing, plane-flying vampire who taxis into rural airports to suck dry the surrounding inhabitants is prime feed for consumer ennui. Dogging Ferrer’s footsteps as he pursues this story is a newly hired girl reporter (Julie Entwisle), seemingly as fresh and clean as the early morn, and just as annoying. At first, that is. The kid wants to learn; and the older, and vastly more cynical journalist unbelts to this just-whelped-and-still-damp-from-the-afterbirth lassie a few tricks of the trade—“Never believe what you publish and never publish what you believe.” That’s before he locks her in a motel-room closet (“you lose,” he sneers as he turns the key), and then heads out to track the vampire on his own. Chivalry be damned; Ferrer allows only himself to win in the reporting game.

What pleased me about the movie is that, although it has few surprises, it doesn’t track in the expected clichés with its two main characters. The girl doesn’t appear in King’s original story, and I feared a sentimental softening of a straightforward horror-cum-journalism plot. But fortunately no sappy love interest develops; there’s no rescue of helpless dame from bloodsucking jaws. Characters remain true to who they are, right to the bitter finish. Ferrer’s newshound stays a smirking, snide, acid-in-his-veins shitheel, interested only in his byline (and getting at film’s end what he probably deserves). And the eager girl finds within herself a core of tough, scorched-earth ambition that Walter Burns might appreciate. “You lose,” are her final words as she snaps a photo of Ferrer’s mangled body—the photo and its accompanying story that will earn her her own byline. Even the monster isn’t as interesting as these two. Like I said, the film’s as cold as the silver-blue tones of its cinematography, and I like that. It breaks the rules. 


The Night Flier is flying around on YouTube; so take a flyer on it.

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