Blu-ray Review: NIGHTWING and SHADOW OF THE HAWK Double Feature

A pair of strange 1970’s dark fantasy films come to Blu-ray from Millcreek Entertainment

Director Arthur Hiller’s NIGHTWING is one of a handful of films that trade in the terror of killer, disease-ridden bats, a loose, unofficial subgenre that seemingly doesn’t command much fan enthusiasm.  And while 1974’s future-shock chiller CHOSEN SURVIVORS remains my winged-rodent romp of choice, NIGHTWING flies not too far behind. Millcreek Entertainment’s pairing of this bat-attack non-classic on Blu-ray with the ultra-obscure, similarly Native American-steeped creeper SHADOW OF THE HAWK has been labeled a bummer by some collectors who are sneering at the lack of special features (not even a trailer is present), but this writer is indifferent. The important thing is that NIGHTWING looks fantastic here – better than I’ve ever seen it, anyway – and as it’s the movie that matters most, I’m rather stoked by this release.

Based on the intelligent novel by Martin Cruz Smith (who also co-wrote the screenplay), NIGHTWING casts Canadian actor Nick Mancuso (DEATH SHIP) as Youngman Duran, the Deputy of a New Mexico Indian reservation who is investigating a spate of animal deaths, the beasts’ corpses savaged and drained of blood. As the attacks continue, Duran soon realizes that a horde of vampire bats have descended on the community and have now targeted human beings as their next food source. Enter the great David Warner (THE OMEN and so many other classic films), who plays a manic Van Helsing-esque biologist named Payne who has devoted his life to combing the earth and annihilating vampire bats for no other reason save that he firmly believes they are evil incarnate. He’s especially disturbed by the idea of them shitting out the excess blood they drink, a noxious notion hammered home by Payne’s operatic monologues and Warner’s wild-eyed readings of them. It’s hard to nail down a definitive eccentric performance by Warner but this one comes close. It’s truly….bat-shit!

Anyway, Duran and Payne set out to wipe out the colony, whose members are not only killing their victims but spreading a sort of black plague. Worse, the hateful mini-monsters have supernatural ties to a suicidal medicine man who has called-on the creatures on his deathbed to wipe out the world. It’s this mystical, apocalyptic pulse of NIGHTWING that gives the film its strongest fascination and if Columbia Pictures had marketed the movie as more of a dark fantasy film and less of a blood-spattered, post-JAWS man vs. nature horror movie, more critics would have been kinder. Because upon release, they were anything BUT kind and this lack of press respect helped bulldoze NIGHTWING’s presence and reputation into the abyss. But there’s so much to admire about the movie, from the lovely location photography, the impressionist Native lore, Mancuso’s solid lead turn (Mancuso would have been a bigger star had this film and his failed American network TV series STINGRAY been more successful), Warner’s scenery chewing and a few choice bat-attack sequences. One of them sees the members of a Christian camp get obliterated by the bats, a manic, bloody (for a PG film) scene that mixes weird blue-screened bat footage with close ups of Italian FX maestro Carlo Rambaldi’s super-cool vampire vermin puppets and mechanical props, the likes of which are probably left over from his stint on Paul Morrissey’s immortal FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN.

NIGHTWING isn’t a great horror movie per se, but it’s a pretty great movie full stop that deserves a much bigger cult fanbase.

The second half of Millcreek’s Nativesploitation double bill is indeed 1976’s SHADOW OF THE HAWK and while it’s the lesser picture of the pair, it’s still a mature, thoughtful supernatural drama and it co-stars regal actor Chief Dan George (THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES), who adds much gravitas to the horrific hokum. Shot in Canada by veteran TV hack George McCowan and co-written by Norman Thadeus Vane (1983’s FRIGHTMARE), SHADOW OF THE HAWK stars DAMNATION ALLEY’s Jan Michael Vincent at his handsome leading-man peak as a half-Native American young man who is enlisted by his ailing grandfather (George) to do battle with an evil witch who is seemingly causing nature to rebel against man. With stunning photography, eerie hallucinatory imagery and a brisk pace, this is an odd, entertaining chiller, which – like NIGHTWING – has elements of a traditional eco-thriller, but is more steeped in lore and fantasy. It’s well worth a watch. Plus, Jan Michael Vincent (and his stunt double) battles a possessed bear and wins, so there’s that…

As previously mentioned, Millcreek adds nada in the way of bells and whistles to this double feature and simply lets the gorgeously transferred films exist on their own, offering them at a reasonable price with attractive packaging. This is a solid, firm handshake release showcasing two of the 1970s strangest and most entertaining sorta-horror movies.