There have been so many movies based on Stephen King stories that I’m honestly quite surprised at how many of them I’ve seen. Save for a handful of the awful miniseries from the late 90s/early 00s, I’d say I’ve seen just about all of them. Still, occasionally one will slip through the cracks, awaiting my discovery.
The Night Flier managed to travel below my radar for some time, most likely because I’d never heard of the short story on which it was based (collected in Nightmares & Dreamscapes, one of the few anthology collections by King which I do not own). Going in, all I had to work with was the cheesy box art and the knowledge that it was a made-for-TV movie (HBO, to be precise), so my expectations weren’t especially high. If King is a master of nothing else, it’s turning a blind eye toward the quality of the movies based on his stories (unless we’re talking about The Shining or The Lawnmower Man, two of the rare instances where he gave a damn about the honesty of the adaptation).
And yet, to my astonishment, this actually turned out to be one of the better King-based horror films I’ve seen and a genuinely good vampire story in its own right.
Richard Dees (Miguel Ferrer) is a reporter for the Daily View, a tabloid rag that’ll print anything so long as it shocks the public. Dees is dirty, underhanded, cruel and cold-hearted; stopping at nothing to get the story he wants. With his career spiraling in the toilet, Dees hops on the opportunity to track down Dwight Renfield (Michael H. Moss), a serial killer soon dubbed “the Night Flier”: A mysterious man in a Cessna Skymaster who swoops down into desolate airfields in the dead of night, kills everyone on the premises and then flies back into the darkness as quickly as he came. As Dees tracks the Night Flier across the Northeast coast, stepping on whoever gets in his way, he comes to find there’s more to his prey than he had expected. As Dees draws closer to the truth, he discovers that the Night Flier has been keeping a close eye on him the whole time.
The Night Flier actually puts a fairly clever twist on the vampire genre, at least in regards to the villain’s MO. A bloodsucker traveling the country in a plane, landing at airstrips at night and eating everyone he can find might not sound like enough to carry a 97 minute-long movie, but you’d be surprised. Dees’ chase pads things out nicely, drawing the action out but not the point of losing focus and becoming boring. There’s enough horror dropped about before the climax to keep you from losing interest.
The character of Dees is what keeps the movie feeling fresh, as he’s such a tremendous asshole and anything but a typical protagonist. There’s nothing “good” about him, and the more ill deeds he performs over the course the film, the more you can’t wait to see him get his comeuppance by the conclusion. It’s a refreshing break from the norm, as you aren’t so much rooting for the guy to succeed as you are for him to die, which is a change of pace I’ll gladly take over bland protagonist archetypes (whom I usually want to die for all the wrong reasons).
The vampire of the film, Dwight Renfield, is a bit of a mixed bag. Director Mark Pavia employs some inspired techniques to display his tremendous power during the conclusion, with especially great use of mirrors and a urinal. At first, the vampire’s face is shrouded in darkness, but the little you see is more than enough. Unfortunately, he shows his full visage at the very end, and while the initial reveal was cool enough, once his countenance begins to linger on screen, all you can notice is how rubbery it looks. Making things worse, they display his image so prominently on the box cover that the big reveal is pretty much ruined before you even start the flick.
The Night Flier is packed with Stephen Kingisms, which I used to hate but have come to enjoy. You’ve got references to Derry (birthplace of It), a more-or-less New England setting and even a guy who talks just like Jud Crandall from Pet Sematary. Also, like a lot of King’s short fiction (or media based on his short fiction), there’s little to no background on the villain. All you get is a brief glimpse of a photo album onboard his Skymaster, indicating his age. I’ve always preferred King’s short fiction over his (often times needlessly wordy) novels and the mysterious creatures seen within them is one of those reasons. The Boogeyman wouldn’t have been nearly as cool if we knew what it was or precisely where it came from, and I feel the limited history given for Dwight Renfield in this movie was more than enough. The flick was more about Dees, anyway.
The Night Flier is a movie that I shamefully never really noticed, but I’m glad to have it in my collection. If you haven’t seen it by now, perhaps turned off by the awful box art or the relative obscurity of the story it’s based on, take some relief in knowing that it’s actually pretty good. I imagine most any Stephen King fan or vampire enthusiast in general would get a kick out of it.
Screenshots courtesy of Movie-Screencaps.com