Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Night Flier

    When it comes to movies, there's one thing that will always make me happy: A large amount of character actors, and as was probably obvious after my review of Stephen King's The Stand miniseries I'm also a huge fan of both TV (and straight to video) films and Stephen King, so it just feels wrong that I've not done much after The Stand. Tonight, I'm correcting that by shining some light on something I'd consider an underrated gem.

    For those unfamiliar with the King story, "The Night Flier" was a short story he wrote in 1988 about a reporter for a Weekly World News style tabloid hunting down a serial killer who stalks people at night after flying to small airports and hangers in his black Cessna Skymaster. This, along with The Jaunt, has always been one of my favorite King short stories just for the uniqueness of it. Both the main character, who gave us the perspective of just the absolute scummiest tabloid reporter, and the idea of something horrible that has to travel by plane, were just so interesting and out there that the story just really stuck with me, and I remember fondly thinking back to it anytime I'd see an issue of Weekly World News in the checkout lane of a grocery store.
RIP, you beautiful thing you.

    The 1997 adaptation, pushed out directly to video by New Line Cinema, was written and directed by Mark Pavia, who sadly never did another full film, and stars Miguel Ferrer in the title role, who Stephen King fans will remember as Lloyd in The Stand miniseries. He's easily one of my favorite character actors, and I really wish I got to see him in more films. He just does filthy, scummy, greedy people so well. They also brought in veteran special effects artist Howard Berger, who'd previously worked on Misery, From Dusk Till Dawn, In the Mouth of Madness, Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness, and many other awesome horror flicks, so I expected some pretty pretty good effects despite the low budget and the direct to video nature of the film.

    The film opens up with a small country airstrip at night. The only man operating it notices a small black airplane landing, goes to investigate, and gets attacked quickly by something offscreen that hits his head with the door then slices his face up. Right off the bat I'm a slight bit worried, as the effects for the face slicing are pretty damn poor. But hey, it's a pre-credits sequence, I should be used to those being pretty lame in these kinds of movies. It also gives a good ideal of the film quality we're in for, which is to say usual TV movie fare. I'm fine with that, personally.

Thank god he's just jam beneath a thin layer of skin.

    After the title screen kills off the first character of the film, we're left to meet our main character, and man, even by King standards, he's the king of assholes. Richard Dees, as played by Miguel Ferrer, is a cold-hearted, money-focused journalist for Inside View, a tabloid whose primary focus is on uncovering satanic cults, sex scandals, aliens, the paranormal, all that good stuff. King fans may remember the name popping up in a number of other King works, including Richard Dees himself who popped up in The Dead Zone as a skeptical reporter who wanted to interview Johnny Smith. This man is basically every horrible thing people like to think about tabloid reporters and paparazzi, all rolled up into a mean spirited, hate-filled package, and man does it really carry the film.

"No, you tell -your- bitches to leave."

    Of course, for every protagonist, even an asshole protagonist, we need an antagonist, and that's sadly that's a bit of a weaker point to the film. Richard Dees walks into his boss's office, angry because a photo of a dead baby he took wasn't used in the latest issue, to find that his boss, who I can only describe as the product of an unholy union between Rick Moranis and the wacky foreign guy Vigo the Carpathian possessed, is welcoming a new employee: Katherine Blair, as played by an actress who never actually got another role. We're also introduced to the boom mic, you'll be seeing a lot more of him than either of these two guys.

"Just dropping in to say hi."

    Why do I say this is a weak point? Well, in an effort to pad out the content of the novella into a 90 minute film, we've got a sort of cooked up rivalry between Richard Dees and a new reporter who is basically his opposite: a happy, peppy, annoying girl that he nicknames Jimmy Olsen. They're pushed into conflict by their quirky, camp gay boss who hopes that with the two of them working against each other he can corner the market on their big new story, the eponymous Night Flier. It's not that bad of an idea, but it feels really forced and, in the end, it feels like the character of Katherine didn't need to exist. She's not all that interesting, she doesn't actually drive the plot at all despite essentially being the antagonist (the actual night flier is more like the film's macguffin than anything.)

Also I fear she'll tell me the story of how her dad died in her chimney while dressed as Santa Claus.

    Elsewhere, in another little county airstrip in the dead of night, we get one of the film's first actually creepy scenes. An old woman wanders around in a trace, face just completely full of bliss with a zombie like stare, eventually witnessing the bloody death of a man. Her expression doesn't change the whole time. The actress does such an amazing job conveying someone that is just completely under a spell, it reminds me of a time where vampire movies were actually good, the terror of something beastly that could take your mind before it took your life. I love it, and it's one of the non-Dees reasons why I love this movie.

"The blood on my hands is just delightful!"

      Initially Katherine takes over the story, and manages to wow her boss with her magical understanding of computers and the internet, making her some sort of super journalist. Sadly for her, after a failed attempt to get on Richard Dees good side at the dive bar he hangs out in, he explains to her just how horrible the place they both work for are, going into detail on how the insanity they all deal with caused the death of the reporter she was replacing, and then he finishes it all up by taking the job from her. What a guy, Dees. In retaliation, Katherine rips up a ticket that she had to fly out and interview one of the night flier's witnesses, tossing it in the air like whimsical slow-mo confetti in what may be the dumbest scene transition I've ever seen.


    Dees flies out to the scene of the murder from the first film and we get the second greatest character this film has to offer, and easily one of my favorite performances in a King movie, just for how laughably weird and fun this guy is. Ezra Hannon, as played by John Bennes (the Reverend in Children of the Corn 2), tells his side of the story with a thick, old timey Boston accent and some of the strangest phrases I've ever heard, like comparing Dwight Renfield's (the night flier) cloak as being as dark as a woodchuck's asshole on the outside. Every word this man says, and the way he says them, is just pure gold, and I wish the film could just be about him.

In fact, just stop reading, watch it, then read the rest in his voice.

    According to Ezra Hannon, his former co-worker and the first victim, started acting peculiar after the black aircraft landed one night, much like with the earlier scene we saw of the woman lost in a trance. Ezra catches him cleaning the night flier's aircraft the day before his death, a service they've apparently never offered before, and noticed a strange mound of dirt, insects, and worms underneath the aircraft. It's more standard vampire fare, but just the way the actor tells the events is just amazing, and something I cannot put to words. If you need a reason to see the film beyond Richard Dees or that box art, then let Ezra Hannon be that reason.

And hey, the effects budget shows up again!

    After the greatest interview ever, Richard Dees decides that he needs to balance his work with more opportunities to be an asshole. He goes off to the graveyard to snap some shots of the previous victim's tombstone. He finds that it's just not scary looking enough, so he kicks it over, slices open a finger, and spreads blood on it. Like I said, probably the biggest asshole in King history, and he's not even the monster of the story. He then goes to the morgue and bribes the mortician so he can get shots of the victim's corpse. Because he's a classy motherfucker like that.

He also runs into the most metal graveyard worker of all.

    It's at this point the film decides to bring in some antagonism. Wacky boss wants his story out sooner so he sends off Jimmy Olsen to hunt down any leads she can, and Richard finds that he's being stalked by someone or something that is leaving bloody warnings for him, though he initially assumes that they're just people who are angry over his prior dickery. If it was anyone else, I'd say that was a funny conclusion to make, but I've only known the man for less than an hour and even I want to kill him. To nail that little bit in, the scene right after this is him happening upon a terrible car accident, and deciding to pose the corpses for photos. I'm not joking.

If he had a time machine, he'd use it just to photograph Hiroshima as it happened.

    Richard arrives at the scene of the second murder of the film, interviews a (sadly, nowhere near as awesome or colorful) local about the incident, and goes as far as to break into the crime scene to get some close up shots. It's essentially the same story as before: The night flier flew in and put the couple that owned the strip under his control. What really sells the scene is the previously mentioned female victim, who does such a good job in her scenes. I think the film probably would have been better off devoting more time to the flashbacks than to the other people at Dee's paper.

Can we please have a supernatural Golden Girls show? Please?

    Sadly that all needs to wrap together somehow. Richard and Katherine end up in the same motel and, after some pressuring from Dee's, she agrees to work together with him to track down the night flier once and for all, and share the story. Cue a montage of the two of them trying to call up sources and failing repeatedly. It's pure filler, it's not very amusing, but it finally ends when they ring up someone at an airport who quite obviously lies about the night flier being there. The two get ready to head off and capture him, but of course Richard Dees is a dick, so he wraps Katherine up in a blanket, locks her in the motel room's closet, and flies off alone. What a guy. Balki's character in Langoliers shot a kid and he was still less of an asshole than this guy.

Rupert Murdoch, you've got some competition.

    Night Flier kicks off the final act by having Richard arrive at a fairly large airport this time, completely devoid of any signs of life, and with the black Cessna Skymaster out front. He investigates it and finds the previously mentioned soil, some old timey artifacts, and other items that reveal that Dwight Renfield is, most likely, a real vampire. Richard has no emotions beyond assholish bitterness, however, so he just takes some photos and heads into the airport, because really, I guess it's hard to be surprised by anything when you're too busy looking for a puppy to kick.

Those maggots? Still more human than Richard Dees.

    Inside the airport it's a complete massacre, dead bodies strewn about everywhere, blood on the walls and floor, limbs missing. The special effects budget really kicked in for the final third of this movie, and it all looks pretty damn nice. It's not until he pulls a necklace out of a corpse's mouth, something he saw in a dream earlier in the film, that he finally discovers a feeling that isn't complete and total misanthropy: pants shitting terror. He uses this moment of euphoria to trip, slide up on some blood, and fall flat on his ass while panicking. I don't think I was supposed to, but I cheered, I fucking cheered the first time I saw this scene. I've never been so glad to see someone fall flat on their ass.

It's a shame airports notoriously have such lax security.

    Richard runs off to the bathroom to puke in the sink, only to be interrupted by the sight of an invisible man peeing blood into a urinal. I want to say that again. In the mirror, he sees an invisible man peeing blood into a urinal. This is the single greatest vampire reveal in film history. Can you imagine of Keanu Reeves realized Gary Oldman was a vampire because while he was taking a dump he didn't have a reflection in the bathroom mirror? If you couldn't before, you are now. You're welcome. Thank you, Night Flier, for giving us this moment.

I don't even have a joke. Vampire. Pissing. Blood. Jesus.

    It's at this point that the titular night flier finally meets up with Richard. He stands behind him in a way where we can't see his face, beyond mangy hairs sticking out past his silhouette, and a monstrous, inhuman hand that he uses to take Richard's film. He warns him to stop following him, and that if he ever encounters him again he will swallow him whole, but that he will let him leave today unscathed because he feels that the two are very much alike, because they really needed to hammer it in just how much of a monster Richard Dees is.

If only he didn't have that cliche, cartoony cape.

    Not satisfied with getting a chance to live, Richard forces Dwight Renfield to show him his face, and we're shown the full brunt of the special effects budget of the film. I'm serious when I say that this thing scared the living shit out of me when I first saw it. It wasn't like I wasn't prepared, it's right there on the box cover, but there's just something so horrifying about seeing it in motion that just really bothered me. I would easily call this one of the best vampire designs I've ever seen in film, and it saddens me I've not seen as many unique depictions. The two gigantic fangs, one per row of teeth, is an interesting take, and I love the weird sort of... monkey-bat-bear look of him.

"Hopefully this doesn't get spoiled on the VHS box!"

    Dwight forces Richard to drink some of his blood, sending him into a black and white, fog filled void full of all of the corpses he's photographed in his own personal hell. Sadly the whole scene feels pretty silly, and it's obvious that they ran out of budget at this point. He begins freaking out, chopping at them with his axe, at which point we cut to the real world, where the cops have walked in to find Richard swinging his axe at the corpses Renfield had left at the airport. They assume that he's responsible and hold him at gunpoint, asking for him to freeze.

Okay, who left out all this dry ice?

    At this point the film remembers Katherine, who arrives just in time after her fun closet adventure to find Richard being held up by the police. He screams at her and charges with his axe, only to be shot to death by the two police officers. Proving that assholium is incredibly contagious, the film ends with Katherine placing  the blame for all of Dwight's murders on him, cementing Richard Dees as the Night Flier, and guaranteeing that she takes his place as the star reporter for the Inside View. There's also some cutaways to Dwight turning from monster to human to monster, then back to human, possibly implying that by doing what he did to Richard, he has regained his humanity. We'll never know, as the movie ends here.

Probably should have kept him a monster.

    Altogether it's a fairly heavily flawed movie, but it's still something I really love. It's an interesting concept, it's got some really interesting concepts, the effects are pretty damn good at times, and it's certainly better than the likes of Langoliers or Tommyknockers. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys Stephen King, and anyone that would like to see an interesting take on vampire movies. Just keep an open mind, since this is a low budget, direct to video flick.

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