Beyond the Slimy Wall: Nightwing
By Stephanie Star Smith
July 22, 2004
We here at BOP are an eclectic group, and our tastes in movies run from the serious cinephiles to the foreign-film aficionados to niche film lovers. Thus was born the idea for this weekly column, devoted to horror films of all shapes and sizes, but concentrating on those B- and C-grade films that mainstream reviewers disdain, but are the bread-and-butter of every spook movie lover's viewing. So come with me as we venture beyond the slimy wall, uncovering the treasures - and burying the time-wasting bombs - that await those who dare to love the scare.
Animals eating people movies are one of my favorite sub-genres of horror films. There's just something so satisfying about watching Mother Nature wreak havoc on human kind. Of course, AEP films also have a lovely set of rules: there's always at least one person, sometimes two, who know what's happening but not exactly why; there's always some dastardly type, usually a corporate head or slimeball politician, who has something to hide, and that something more times than not is at least possibly responsible for the animals running amok; there's always a major attack right in the middle of some important event the corporate head/politician is having that slaughters lots of red-shirts and forces the bad guy to admit the good guy is right and allow said good guy to take action; and, of course, the good guy - and thus humanity - always wins. The AEP even shares a rule in common with slasher films: usually the first person or persons that get et are nubile teenagers having sex - or at least making out - somewhere remote when the first attack occurs. Plus, it's always amusing to watch the red-shirts get munched along the way, and wonderfully cathartic when the corporate head/slimeball politician gets devoured, something else which nearly almost always happens.
This week's offering is a slightly different take on the classic AEP, in that it mixes Native American mysticism with its When Animals Attack elements. The animal in question is the vampire bat, in this case a particularly large colony that has made its roost in caves that were once sacred ground to the tribe. Now a developer wants to seize the land and turn it into commercial real estate, reaping large quantities of money whilst destroying one of the last vestiges of the tribe's heritage. Most of the tribal elders think this is a grand idea, and most of those very few who aren't really thrilled figure there's not much they can do about it.
And here is where the mysticism comes in. One ancient former elder, the grandfather of our protagonist, a Native American lawman on the reservation, doesn't want to see this happen. In centuries past, his people revered the bat as one of their patron spirits, and he calls upon that spirit to prevent the development of sacred ground. Which the developer and the tribal elders find quaint but wholly ineffective...until the bats begin to take their toll on area livestock. Before you can say "winged evil spirits", the tribal elders die mysteriously in their meeting lodge, a group of missionaries trying to turn the heathen Indians into Christians is attacked in the desert, and a rather obsessed Englishman has come to the reservation to warn our lawman that he's got no real idea what he's dealing with.
There are two divergent paths of interest with Nightwing. First and foremost is that, unlike many AEP flicks, it's based in reality. Although it is rare for vampire bats to attack humans, it has been known to happen, and while they almost never directly cause human deaths, the diseases they pass along - including rabies - are quite deadly. And there are documented cases of especially large colonies of vampire bats decimating herds of cattle and sheep in the Americas, and although the three different species vampire bats are not native to North America, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that a mating pair might have escaped from a laboratory or perhaps migrated across the border to New Mexico.
Of course the other fascinating aspect of Nightwing is its setting and focus on Native American spirituality and mysticism. Several scenes are depictions of vision quests, and the peyote that often fueled these searches for the right path plays a fairly prominent role in the story. And while the ending isn't entirely the result of paranormal intervention, an argument can be made that just maybe, the crazy old grandfather was right. Certainly his goal was accomplished in the end.
Possibly the best thing about Nightwing, though - well, apart from the Native American cultural aspects, which I found fascinating - is that it never takes its audience as simpering idiots. While you don't have to be a quantum physicist to follow the action, neither does the film rely on the Idiot Plotline to succeed, and there are some genuine moments of suspense and terror in the film.
Of course, after viewing Nightwing, you might not find it quite so easy to convince yourself that the fluttering of wings you hear overhead in the dead of night is just a bird. Having a film haunt you in that manner is high praise, indeed.
I see by the shadows falling from my bust of Pallas that our time is up. Until next time, then, when we will once again venture Beyond the Slimy Wall.