The Night Flier (1997)

Read or viewed, horror is a purely escapist diversion, and a passive experience at that. Especially with films. Seldom is the intellectual effort a book requires is demanded by horror movies, and I don’t think we necessarily watch them to be scared or for the vicarious fear. This makes the question of what constitutes a good horror movie? a futile inquiry. Perhaps the subjectivity of the answer is why no one — not for lack of trying — was able to produce a definitive answer. I believe elements of an unfriendly fantasy is what the viewer seeks. We know the writer is full of shit, but we partake in the charade. We’re complicit in the act, and in a way this makes us participants, unlike readers. Also, the line between preposterous and credible in a horror is often uniquely defined by the observer. I guess what I want to say is we consume horror for our own reasons. And this gem of conspicuous 90’s sleaze went under the radar as far sheer entertainment and adherence to source material. Stephen King’s The Night Flier.

That an institution of King’s once infallible bankability to film studios eventually found its cinematic home in a B-movie may sound like contrarian hyperbole. Look at the Shining and Carrie remakes. Along with the originals, they flank an underwhelming run of interpreted content excluding the non pure horrors of Misery, Delores Claiborne, the Shawshank Redemption, and the Green Mile. But there are plenty of reasons to make this among your annual must-watch picks on Halloween, or at least a change-up one year. Like, check the run time on this bitch! At 90 minutes it feels way shorter than the same 90 minutes of the more deserving Night of the Living Dead. Not to say that if you thought soccer was boring then Night Flier would take less time to endure suddenly equates Romero’s deeper film to the slog of a 0-0 tie, but merely to imply that not all 90 minutes feel the same for the same reason different ties can be entertaining also. The Night Flier is as busy and full of developments as the Living Dead. And it lacks the immediate and lasting impact of rich in subtext titles like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alien, or the Shining, but in between trick or treaters’ interrupting you, or pausing to reup on the sugar buzz, you won’t miss or lose much in he way of flow. Let’s face it, this is a holiday commercialized beyond recognition of its origin so in that spirit break away from traditional selections, would ya? Night flier is a throwback to the eighties, and possibly is still stuck there but it still is a well-executed mystery horror that mirrors its source as a steady buildup toward a showdown of some sort.

I saw it on TV midway through then specifically sought the collection the short story — to which movie it served as the basis for — was published in. Again it wasn’t until years later that I finally watched it, but as you can see Stephen King short fiction and I go some ways back. I’d rate that collection third best (again, a subjective declaration) in a four-piece anthology released over two decades, featuring stories King sold when he was making every last ink ribbon count. This was shit from the sixties and seventies. Of his novels, I have only read ‘Salem’s Lot, Rose Madder, and Gerald’s Game and can’t say with conviction that with horror, novels don’t translate that well to the screen. But I am more than inclined to that idea if that makes any sense. Maybe it is prejudist inclination at work. I mean, too much controversy is fueled over what was left out as you can’t structurally fit novelized content inside cinematic constraints. However quite a chunk of his short fiction now looks as the untapped well with the mis-hits many of the later novel adaptations have been.

With short fiction, the opposite can be taken to be true, although that’s theoretic. But, is it? Filmmakers would have less to work with necessitating their involvement in the writing process by having to create more of the narrative. Sometimes you end up with much ado about nada. Other times it works. Here, it does. I would imagine, however, authors of the original material may find flattery in the interpretation a director will have gone through to fill a feature length. Mark Pavia made his directorial debut with this, and has done nothing since. Rumors are gaining traction he’s set to direct the the adaptation of the Reaper’s Image, you guessed it, another Stephen King short story. It is enough to suggest that King liked Pavia’s work in ‘beefing up’ the Night Flier short story to collaborate with him in another adaptation.

Editor’s Note: I’ve previously also mentioned the Reaper’s Image in my Oculus piece, so check out the movie and the story. You can find a PDF of it.

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Okay so four-hundred words is long enough an intro. Miguel Ferrer plays Richard Dees, a cynical reporter for the Inside View. Inside View is a tabloid specialized in gore and sensationalism that will also heed your claims of brushes with the occult and extraterrestrial. Blood is their literal lifeline. Dees is the veteran of a lineup of reporters that just grew by one. Enter Katherine Blair played by unknown (one time actress?) Julie Entwisle. Dees calls her Jimmy, a reference to Jimmy Olson. The latest lead seems to point to a serial killer who travels in a Cessna Skymaster and thinks he’s a vampire. People in and around small airstrips in rural Maine have seen the plane land in the evening, and always gone before the cops show up the next day. And the marks on the bodies indicate an attempt at drinking their blood. Oh, and Dees also has a flying license, so right out of the gate, a collision course beckons to be charted before the FAA catches wind of the case and it becomes a national story.

New to the film version are Merton, the Editor in Chief, and Jimmy, in addition to some non-speaking extras and side characters that provide ‘witness’ accounts. When Merton breaks the lead to the story, Jimmy is in his office for an induction. He offers it to Dees first. Dees had just chewed a female coworker’s head off for tampering with his latest piece, the newest in a long spell away from the magazine cover story. It’s quite the impression he or Inside View could impart on a newcomer, and a launching pad for how we’ll identify with a character set to carry the film later. Dees’ role is a generally angry, pissed off burnout and Ferrer is very convincing in it. He scoffs at the vampire story but changes his mind when it’s offered to Jimmy. Not to show he’s convinced of this loony being what he thinks he is. He is merely thinking what he’s thinking he is. Distraught at having to now wait longer to prove her mettle, Jimmy acquiesces though without foregoing any determination to get her feet wet elsewhere.

The film owes its impact largely to the sustained suspense of keeping the Killer always a step ahead as the characters follow the blood trail.. basically play catch up. Renfield is never revealed and the plot is mostly instead devoted to the chase and Merton’s ploy to play Jimmy and Dees off one another because of how differently cynical they towards the killings. For example Jimmy’s skepticism is rather of the scientific variety whereas Dees is more of the jaded type looking for the perfect spin because what’s eventually ascertained in this field may have a logical explanation. The dialogue contains much of King’s irreverent verbal dexterity, dished for the most part by Dees himself. The putdowns and wisecracks are quintessentially King. You hear a few of those when Dees talks into his tape recorder to log his investigation, and in diatribes and taunts directed at Dwight Renfield, itself a self-styled moniker taken from other vampires, more luminous antecedents in cinema. Jimmy also gets her share of the abuse since Dees is quite the unlikeable prick in the tried and tested King short fiction mold. Other nods to King’s universe and works litter the film in the form of Inside Views’ cover story headlines that adorn the magazine’s Wall of Fame. I just threw that in to sound like a buff, which I’m not! I really didn’t pick up on any reference, that was all IMDb’s trivia page! Frankly, the camera doesn’t linger on any cover long enough to make out the text. And I’m not that obsessed in the film nor movie trivia to deliberately seek them out.

Employing flashbacks to recount ‘witness’ testimonies, the transition shots are possibly the weakest technical aspect. The camera tilts up over the shoulder then dissolves into the past scene. Yet elsewhere and overall, the film scores major points for you to overlook them. I suppose you could embrace them as part of the demonstration. Warts and all, right? The score is terrific for a B-movie production, dominated by a piano leitmotif that is interpreted by a string reprise. A couple of songs feature but those blare from a radio or a jukebox nearby. They’re nothing you’d recognize, which is all the more effective, because, why have something popular distract the audience from the story? Renfield is seen briefly in flashbacks but he remains ever the peripheral specter, cape, kit and caboodle, never encountered head on not with a lasting visual description. The Cessna itself is revealed as described in Dees’ interviews but Renfield’s another case. And what a payoff. A few features in vampires from myth and lore not only simply appear, but are used to heighten the fear, like the mirror thing. The vampire portrayal here is a rare ode to the putrid Nosferatu types, and a welcome variation on the nobleman seducer because the cape made it to the costumes wardrobe. The Night Flier is not a cult classic by any means, simply an underrated adaptation King fans and horror fans would enjoy. Not to spoil the film, but in lieu of the loosest of threads — left untied? — is added in the film, there is something in the way of subtext in an overt analogy thrown in as a reward. But that was taken from the story. Trick or treat? How about both, madafaka!