Nightwing & Shadow Of The Hawk Review
Better known for making uproarious comedies starring the likes of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, director Arthur Hiller took a rare venture into darker territory with Nightwing (1979), which blends eco-horror with a heavy dose of mysticism. Adapted from a novel by Martin Cruz Smith, the story unfolds on a Native American reserve in New Mexico, where tribal lawman Youngman Duran (an earnest Nick Mancuso) has been called to investigate a series of unexplained deaths on Maski land, where carcasses of livestock are found covered in strange deep bites and reeking of ammonia.
A weighty sub-plot finds honourable Duran drawn into a conflict with unscrupulous official Walker Chee (Stephen Macht), who knows that there is valuable shale oil in the nearby Maski canyon and is determined to sell the mining rights to a greedy corporation – even though it will encroach on sacred land and betray his people. Chee tries to justify his actions by explaining that it will generate much needed income to the local area. Considering the film is more than 40 years old, it interestingly touches upon themes pertinent to this day - the expansion of drilling on New Mexico's public lands continues to hit the headlines, due to its devastating impact on the environment.
Tribal elder Abner Tasupi (George Clutesi) – much feared by the other priests - loathes all the intrusion from outsiders, confiding to Duran that as a result he has decided to end the world by summoning evil. The officer is sceptical about this confession at first, yet when the old shaman’s lifeless body is inexplicably discovered the next day, he feels compelled to uncover the truth and determine if Abner’s curse is responsible for the recent mysterious events.
One man who does not believe in such superstition is oddball specialist Phillip Payne (David Warner) who suddenly arrives on the scene enquiring, “do the words Desmodus Rotundus mean anything to you?”, with a sinister glint in his eye. It emerges that he has been tracking a huge colony of vampire bats that have taken up residence in a nearby cave, and which now threaten to spread a deadly plague. Payne has dedicated his life to killing bats around the world – for no apparent reason - and this self-proclaimed “exterminating angel” thinks he can now save the day. Payne’s monologues about bats are so descriptive – and brilliantly delivered by Warner – that when we witness them for the first time, expecting to be filled with terror, it only leads to disappointment.
Sometimes less is more, which certainly would have helped this film at times. An early sequence when bats can only be heard circling overhead is suitably unnervingly – credit to the work of sound designer Stan Shaw. A subsequent scene that clearly shows them attacking a missionary group lead by Duran’s lover Anne (Kathryn Harrold) is so poorly realised, it almost derails the entire film by revealing some woeful visual effects. Veteran Carlo Rambaldi – best remembered for creating ET – designed the fluttering bat FX that only manage to look convincing in short bursts. Showing large numbers of them for any length of time was clearly a step too far, more likely to incite giggles than screams. Later scenes involving Duran and Payne joining forces to tackle the bats and avert disaster are much better handled, even if effectively building suspense never seems to be Hiller’s strong suit.
Director Quentin Tarantino is a fervent fan of the film, proudly screening a 35mm print during 2020 at the New Beverly Cinema, which he now runs in LA. While not without flaws, there are still strong elements to enjoy: it is finely shot, benefits from well-drawn characters and has a great Henry Mancini score. Nonetheless, those coming to this expecting to be scared witless might come away feeling particularly short-changed.
Shadow of the Hawk (1976) provides a further serving of the supernatural, which finds Old Man Hawk (Chief Dan George) leaving the confines of his Native American reservation and heading for the big City, where he desperately seeks help from grandson Mike (Jan-Michael Vincent). It seems that Dsonoqua, a 200-year-old sorceress, has risen again to threaten the indigenous people. This helps to explain the horrifying vision of an eerie masked figure that has been plaguing Mike’s daily life, when all he wants to do is get on with his office duties. While he may not be very acquainted with the ancient rituals of his ancestors, Mike agrees to escort his grandfather back home into the wilds, accompanied by reporter Maureen (Marilyn Hassett), and face up to the tyranny of evil that awaits.
The presence of the wonderful Chief Dan George – who only began acting in his sixties - certainly adds value and his interplay with the engaging Vincent works well. The film also makes good use of some rugged location work around British Columbia, throwing in all the expected cliches along the way, including the trio having to negotiate a particularly rickety rope bridge many feet above a river. A few key action sequences lose their effectiveness due to some remarkably poor editing and stunt doubling – a sequence where heroic Mike grapples with a huge bear is more likely to raise a smile.
Director George McGowan – who previously made the eco-horror Frogs (1972), works hard to keep this cheap Canadian effort lively, in spite of some lulls in the second half. It is mildly creepy at times, but never truly frightening. A standout scene involves Hawk building an invisible wall, seemingly only with a handful of dirt, to stop an “evil” car pursuing them. Despite providing a fun journey, the film ultimately runs out of ideas, or money – or perhaps both as it fails to deliver a satisfying conclusion.
This entertaining double bill comes on a single disc, the films making their HD debut in the UK courtesy of Eureka Entertainment. Both are presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and the image is free from any obvious signs of damage, exhibiting only some slight filmic grain. Neither film has been previously available on DVD in this country – Shadow of the Hawk is so obscure that it never even acquired a video release.
The original mono soundtrack is maintained and is similarly free from discernible defects throughout. English subtitles are included.
An earlier 2018 US disc release from Mill Creek was disappointingly barebones. The new UK edition on the other hand is an improvement offering some insightful new extras.
Nightwing – Brand new audio commentary by film historians Lee Gambin and Amanda Reyes
Shadow of the Hawk – Brand new audio commentary with film writer Mike McPadden and Ben Reiser
Oil and the (Geo)Politics of Blood – Audio essay by John Edgar Browning
A limited edition collector’s booklet featuring essays by film historian Lee Gambin and film scholar and author Craig Ian Mann [not available for review, first 2000 copies]
Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling
Dir: Arthur Hiller | Cast: David Warner, Kathryn Harrold, Nick Mancuso, Stephen Macht | Writers: Bud Shrake (screenplay), Martin Cruz Smith (novel), Martin Cruz Smith (screenplay), Steve Shagan (screenplay)
Shadow of the Hawk (1976)
Dir: Daryl Duke, George McCowan | Cast: Chief Dan George, Jan-Michael Vincent, Marilyn Hassett, Pia Shandel | Writers: Herbert Wright (screenplay), Lynette Cahill (story), Norman Thaddeus Vane (screenplay), Norman Thaddeus Vane (story), Peter Jensen (story)