To quote the tagline from Eureka! Entertainment's press release: "A killer creature double feature as two terrifying tales take flight with fright!".
Let's begin with 1979's NIGHTWING.
We open to the tranquil plains of the Hopi Indian reservation in New Mexico, home to the Maski tribe. It's a bright, blue-skied day where horses run freely, the trees sway gently and all seems well with the world. Over a radio, we hear a local DJ advising listeners that a swelteringly hot day lies ahead.
Enter deputy sheriff Duran (Nick Mancuso), who's been called to friend Joe's (Danny Zapien) ranch to inspect the carcass of a horse which was attacked in the night. Between them, Duran and Joe can't establish just what killed the animal - the numerous bite marks dotted all over its torso are unlike anything they've seen. And why is there such a strong smell of ammonia lingering around the place?
Consequently, Joe has gone against protocol and also enlisted the help of the neighbouring Pahana tribe, much to Duran's chagrin. As Joe says though, the Pahanas have access to far more resources such as helicopters and qualified animal doctors. "All we got here is a bunch of goddamn priests chewing datura root ... and you!" he yells at Duran as one such helicopter lands nearby right on cue.
Emerging from said helicopter is Chee (Stephen Macht), the Pahana reservation's chairman. He's brought a vet (Pat Corley) who inspects the dead mare and also admits to be flummoxed as to the identity of its attackers. He likens the bite marks to those of piranhas.
Duran storms off but not before Chee reminds him that any seemingly shady business schemes he involves himself in are actually attempts to bring money into both of their communities and benefit both tribes. He's currently looking into the possibility of there being oil to be mined in the nearby Maski Canyon.
Duran decides to brighten his day a little by grabbing a large bottle of wine and paying a visit to local medicine man, and old family friend, Abner (George Clutesi). Rather disconcertingly, Abner claims to have concocted a spell that will end the world by the close of the day. He does, however, also admit to having spent the afternoon smoking that aforementioned datura root ... so Duran doesn't take the old fella's claim too seriously.
Elsewhere in Duran's life, he's in a relationship with idealistic missionary Anne (Kathryn Harrold) - a white American with aspirations of bringing modern luxuries into the Indian communities, such as a hospital for starters.
But let's not deviate. The world doesn't end that night, but Abner's life does - Duran finds him dead the following morning, covered in similar bites to the opening horse. A local farmer also witnessed his livestock being decimated by some unknown airborne force during the night.
Following a visit to a nearby hardware store ran by white settler Selwyn (Strother Martin), Duran returns to Abner's residence to bury his old friend. He's alarmed to find British scientist Phillip (David Warner) there, hovering over Abner's corpse while giving it close inspection. Duran sends him packing, despite Phillip's insistence that he can potentially help save this community.
Shunned by Duran, Phillip visits Chee instead - where he warns that "I have reason to believe that a vampire colony has settled in a cave somewhere in this territory". He's talking about vampire bats, which are potentially carrying the bubonic plague. He claims to have been pursuing migrating vampire bats for several years, killing off colonies where he can, but constantly seeking the few that got away each time. Chee is initially sceptical - not least of all because those caves are precisely where he hopes to find his fortune in oil. Crucially, however, their conversation ends with Phillip suggesting that the tell-tale signs of vampire bat attacks would be animal carcasses having been drained of blood and a strong smell of ammonia in the air ...
It's not long after this that Phillip's theory is confirmed in our first vampire bat attack set-piece which sees a group of visiting tourists (first seen in Selwyn's store) falling foul of the fluttering, bite-happy fuckers.
Perhaps Chee, Phillip, Duran and Anne will have to join forces to combat this unearthly threat?
Winner of the Worst Picture gong at The Hastings Bad Cinema Society's Bad Movies Awards ceremony in 1979, NIGHTWING is actually a fairly decent if largely low-key extension of the "nature runs amuck" films which surged in the wake of JAWS's success.
It benefits from keen location cinematography, sincere performances and an intelligent script which straddles the line between eco-horror and the supernatural surprisingly well. It also addresses political issues such as the native American plight: their existence on low resources and their status as second-class citizenship; the perception of antiquated superstitions and rites; the manner in which Chee calls his own Indians "dumb and poor" because he's striving for more, having gone to "white schools" and is living in relative luxury as a result of a proper education. Contrary to the initial perception of him being the villain of the piece, he's trying to bring his people into the 20th Century with schools, proper housing etc. The more cynical Duran is resistant to change, fearing a superficial world of Disneyland proportions. It's a double-edged sword, and the script negotiates it with decorum.
Helmed by LOVE STORY director Arthur Hiller, NIGHTWING is an unusually intelligent take on pulp material for its time. It takes a definite unexpected supernatural bent during its final act, while keeping one foot firmly planted in more practical territory. It's a lesser entry within its genre on one level, but also an overlooked one with more to offer than it’s previously been credited with. It also has a great cast (Ben Piazza is also buried in there somewhere).
NIGHTWING may move a little slow for some tastes, and the bat attack scenes are admittedly ropy by today's standards (although the effects were overseen by Carlo Rambaldi of ALIEN and FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN fame, so at least we're spared the indignity of rubber bats noticeably hanging from visible strings), but it stills works as quaint mixture of creature feature, superstitious melodrama and culture-clash commentary.
As for 1976's SHADOW OF THE HAWK ...
Three words (two if you're being pedantic about the hyphen) should draw any curious observers towards this film ... Jan-Michael Vincent.
Train-wreck of a human being that he became, he actually acquits himself well here as Mike, the Westernised grandson of indigenous shaman Old Man Hawk (Chief Dan George).
We first meet Mike enjoying his new life in the city, where he's a successful young businessman with a busy social life and an eye for the ladies. One evening during a house party, Mike's visited by veteran Hawk. The old guy appeals to Mike for help, insisting that he's embroiled in a mystical war against a witch called Dsonoqua (Marianne Jones).
After some soul searching, Mike comes to the conclusion that he can't turn his granddad's request down - especially when a voodoo-based attack on the aged fellow leaves him visibly ailing - and so he determines to take a sabbatical from his high-living lifestyle and return to his tribal roots. Once back in his old environment with Hawk and pretty, potential love interest Maureen (Marilyn Hassett), Mike starts to suffer disturbing visions of apparitions with long white hair and the like.
Mike really begins to step up to the task at hand when Hawk is bitten by a poisonous snake, and their time remaining to combat Dsonoqua's otherworldly threat is significantly cut short.
SHADOW OF THE HAWK works more along the lines of a culture-clash/passing-of-the-torch crossover, flirting with horror motifs while ultimately emerging as an action-adventure movie containing supernatural undertones. Performances are good across the board, with George's stoic presence taking top honours.
Elsewhere, director George McCowan paces the action well, while there's some really nice FX work for its era. A standout moment is when one of Hawk's magical spells results in a car getting trashed mid-drive; I still can't figure out how that effect was achieved.
This formidable double-bill is brought to us on UK blu-ray by our friends at Eureka! Entertainment as part of their Eureka Classics series. We were sent a screener disc for review purposes.
Both films are presented uncut (105 minutes and 24 seconds for NIGHTWING; 92 minutes and 19 seconds for SHADOW) and in full 1080p HD resolution. Their 16x9 transfers respect the original aspect ratios, which are 1.85:1 in both cases. Both films benefit from clean prints, fine grain and natural filmic textures. Colours are strong on both transfers, while blacks are stable and motion is smooth across the board. There is a slight inherent softness to detail in NIGHTWING's transfer, with SHADOW unexpectedly emerging as the stronger visual proposition of the two. Overall, this is the best by far I've seen either film looking. Both films are presented as MPEG4-AVC files.
In both cases, English audio is available in LPCM 2.0 stereo and sounds fine, unremarkable perhaps but reliable and clear. Optional English subtitles are available on both features for the hard-of-hearing.
The disc opens to a static main menu page. As is customary with Eureka! releases, there are no scene-selection menus. However, each film does have its own share of remote control-accessible chapters (11 for NIGHTWING; 10 for SHADOW).
In terms of extras, both films benefit from an audio commentary track.
The one for NIGHTWING is provided by film historians Lee Gambin and Amanda Reyes. Gambin takes the lead for the most part and, following a brief opening where they both reveal how they were each introduced to the film (nice early name-check for TERROR IN THE AISLES, which is returned to later in the track), proffers a wealth of technical and background information at a near-breathless pace. Reyes holds her own, approaching her analysis of the film from a more overtly political perspective. Issues of genre (eco-horror; Indiansploitation etc) are also given agreeable coverage throughout this enjoyable, highly knowledgeable track.
For SHADOW, we benefit from the insights of film writer Mike McPadden and Wisconsin Film Festival programmer Ben Reiser. This has a chattier, more anecdotal flow to it, but still offers a wealth of illumination.
We also get "Oil and the (Geo) Politics of Blood", an audio reading by professor and author John Edgar Browning from his previously published 2015 essay of the same name. This plays, commentary-style, while NIGHTWING plays. As the title suggests, this is heavy on the political subtext for the bulk of its 37-minute duration.
Both film's original trailers are present and correct. In each case, the 16x9 widescreen presentations are nice and clean. NIGHTWING's trailer is 95 seconds long, while SHADOW's is 2 minutes and 56 seconds in length.
The first run of this release (2,000 copies) also comes with a limited-edition collectors' booklet, and an O-card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling. The 20-page booklet is a colourful affair. It contains a thorough essay on NIGHTWING by Craig Ian Mann, an essay on SHADOW offering further thoughts from Gambin, and blu-ray production credits. Peppered throughout with eye-popping photographs and poster stills, it's a very attractive addition to the overall package.
Eureka! have produced a very generous proposition here, offering two interesting films with some interesting extras and very attractive packaging.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Eureka! Entertainment|