Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Night Flier - 1997

Director:                                 Mark Pavia
Story:                                    Stephen King
Screenplay:                           Mark Pavia and Jack O'Donnell
Cinematography:                  David Connell
Original Music:                      Brian Keane
Producers:                            Richard P. Rubenstein and Mitchell Galin
Special Make-up fx:              Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger

Richard Dees                      Miguel Ferrer
Katherine Blair                    Julie Entwisle
Merton Morrison                 Dan Monahan
Dwight Renfield                  Michael H. Moss
Ezra Hannon                       John Bennes
Selida McCamon                 Beverly Skinner
Buck Kendall                       Rob Wilds
Claire Bowie                        Richard Olsen
Ellen Sarch                         Elizabeth McCormack
Ray Sarch                           William Neely
Caretaker                            Mathew Johnson
Richard Dees is one miserable s.o.b.  Played by actor Miguel Ferrer, this bitter misanthrope is a brittle shell of a man.  Dees is a reporter for “Inside View” a supermarket tabloid which thrives on publishing bizarre stories about murder, mayhem – any kind of crazy violence and gore - and the crazier and gorier the better. In our first glimpse of him he is furiously ripping into one of the editors for not publishing his “dead baby picture” alongside the story of the mother who popped her child into the freezer.  Nice guy.  Nice paper.   

Dees has been the reigning writer/scumbucket at “Inside View” for years, however he has not made the front page for some time and he is desperate for that one big story that will get him back on top.  “The Night Flier” is about the story that puts Dees back on page one, just not quite the way he had hoped.

Someone who calls himself Dwight Renfield is flying along the East Coast stopping at small mom and pop airports and murdering whoever he finds there.  Murdering - as in ripping out their throats and draining their blood.  Now, every self-respecting horror fan worth his weight in garlic will recognize the name of the killer; however, for you newbies - the actor Dwight Frye portrayed the character of Renfield in the 1931 movie version of “Dracula” which starred Bela Lugosi.   

The editor of “Inside View”, Merton Morrison, is delighted with the vampire twist to the story and tries to give Dees the assignment, but Dees responds with, “The guy’s a movie fan, so what?”  He dismisses the story saying the guy will be caught very soon since, even though he has gotten away with it twice, the make of his plane and its tail number have been identified and the FAA will have put out a warning to all airports.  Morrison then gives the story to green reporter Katherine Blair who is eager to get her teeth into her very first assignment. 

Blair catches up with Dees and attempts to start a friendship with him.  Dees tells her that he has seen her go-getter type before and he will see her again, derisively calling her “Jimmy”, as in Jimmy Olsen.  He tells her she won’t last long at the paper; that the reporter she replaced was just like her - she committed suicide after a few months when the stories started to get to her.  His survival philosophy?  “Never believe what you publish, and never publish what you believe.”  (Not exactly “All the News That’s Fit to Print”, is it?)  Having had her first run-in with disillusionment Blair runs away in tears.
After a third murder is committed, Dees begins to recognize the potential in this story.  Morrison takes it from Blair and gives it back to Dees who starts his investigation by flying to the scenes of the murders.  As Morrison says, Dees is perfect for this story since he has his own plane, and he is “good with the hicks.”  He is good too; in order to get a witness to start talking he can produce just enough “I’m your pal” charm to cover his cynical disdain for humanity.  And he’s not above bribing or seducing a morgue attendant or impersonating an FBI agent to get his information.    

As Dees pursues Renfield we see the three murders in flashbacks.  They are all horrifyingly gruesome, but Dees doesn’t bat (yes, I said “bat”) an eyelash when he sees the shredded and decapitated victims. He maintains his cock o’ the walk cool, even when he stops to take photos of a fatal car crash which happened minutes before.  “Looks like bonus day!” he says as he moves a victim’s arm out of the way in order to get a better shot of her mangled face.

When he goes to the cemetary where the first victim is buried, which is a terrifically atmospheric set, he decides that an ordinary picture of the headstone would not be enough.  Not nearly enough.  He tosses aside the fresh flowers from the grave and replaces them with some dried, brown weeds.  Not enough.  He kicks the headstone so it is standing at a drunken angle.  Still not enough.  He cuts his hand and smears blood over the engraved name.  Perfect!  Nothing bothers this guy and he has no respect for anything or anyone.  Is he going to live happily ever after at the end of the film?  C’mon, you know better than that.  The karma is about to hit the fan.

Renfield is aware of the reporter’s presence on his trail and repeatedly warns Dees to stay away.  Meanwhile, back at the paper, Morrison puts Blair back on the story just to twist Dees’ tail.  When those two run into each other, Dees proposes they work together and share a byline and Blair is just naïve enough to believe him.  She helps him do the spade work to track down Renfield, however she does not get her byline.  Did I mention how ruthless Dees is?

The chase ends at the Wilmington, NC airport. Renfield is lingering there, having killed at least a dozen people. Dees walks through the bloodbath and starts taking his photos. FINALLY, Dees has had enough horror. He runs to the men’s room to be sick and there he has a memorable encounter with the vampire. We get the first (sort of) glimpse of Renfield as he performs a very human function. It’s one of those things I’ve always wondered about.  See for yourself:

Dees gets what he wants from Renfield, more or less, and Katherine Blair gets her big story.  She is on her way to become the next big noise at “Inside View".

The movie is an adaptation of Stephen King’s short story of the same name.  It was published originally in 1988 in the horror anthology, Prime Evil.  In 1993 it was included in  Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

Miguel Ferrer is a distinctive and versatile actor, memorable in both small and large roles.  You’ve seen him in…”Robocop”, “The Stand”, “Traffic”, and many more movies.  I’ll never forget him as the grumpy doofus who accidentally launches the nuclear missiles (oops!) in the 1989 undersea flick, “Deep Star Six”.  He has appeared in seemingly every TV drama for the past thirty years; from “Magnum P.I.”, “Hill Street Blues”, and “Twin Peaks”, through  “Crossing Jordan”, “Desperate Housewives”, and “NCIS: Los Angeles”.  He makes an impression whenever you see him.  He is the son of actor Jose Ferrer and singer Rosemary Clooney and is cousin to George Clooney, by the way

His Richard Dees is a vile excuse for a human being, and a fine job of acting on Ferrer’s part. He makes this guy despicable, and yet somehow, if not exactly likeable or sympathetic, maybe just a little bit pitiable, especially at the end of the story when he has been rung dry. In spite of the bitterness and contempt which seem to ooze out of him he is someone to consider more in sorrow than in anger. The most emotion he can produce for most people is … not caring at all. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, we are looking at an abyss of bleak nothingness.

 After all, the first words out of his mouth were about the rag not running his picture of a dead baby.  It takes some guts and talent on the part of the actor, and the writers, to pull that off and still make us interested in the character, at least in what happens to him.  But in heaven’s name how did he get warped that badly?  Only Stephen King knows, and he ain’t talkin’. 

Miguel Ferrer is a good example of the phenomenon of the guy who is not exactly classically gorgeous with the fine chiseled features of a, oh…let’s say…Tyrone Power or…well, George Clooney.  However, with his comfortable, lived-in, handsome basset hound features, he is very attractive and compelling. 
Hey, Miguel…babe!  I know you are happily married and all that, but if things don’t work out, give me a call.  Ok? Thanks.

The character of Katherine Blair did not appear in King’s original short story and is added here for, I’m guessing, some contrast to the Dees character and to add length to the film.  She feels shoe-horned in and unnecessary, but she becomes important to the twist at the end of the story- also changed from the original.  She is played by Julie Entwisle as an eager puppy who gradually becomes more hardened and cynical, like a Richard Dees in the making. 

Editor Merton Morrison is a little rat-terrier of a man.  You almost expect him to jump and bark, or maybe squeak.  His eagerness for a great story full of bloody corpses is a bit disturbing, to say the least.  His only concern is how many more papers they will sell with each atrocity, and he will manipulate his staff any way he wants if it will stir things up.  “God, I hope he kills more people!”  he says with glee.

He reminds me of a little boy at a 4th of July fireworks display, delighted and excited and wanting it to go on and on.  Or maybe a little boy who enjoys pulling the wings off flies.   He is sort of an unscrupulous, morally bankrupt Doogie Howser of journalism.  Here Dees is phoning in his update:
Like I said earlier about Dees…nice guy.   He is played very well by Dan Monahan, who may be best remembered by someone other than me for the role of Pee Wee in the “Porky’s” movie series.    

Dwight Renfield remains a mystery.  He is shown very briefly in his human appearance and is pretty hunky.  His monster aspect is shown also very briefly and is not hunky.  When Dees catches up to him and looks around Renfield’s plane we see a photo album.  The photos appear to be from around 1900 or so and show a handsome young man, presumably Renfield, in an aviator’s outfit, and a beautiful young woman.  What is the story there?  Was the woman his wife?  Fiancee?  How did this guy become a vampire?  We have to fill in the blanks ourselves.

One of the victims we see is an older woman, Ellen Sarch.  She and her husband Ray are both killed by the vampire, Ray very painfully.  Ellen, however, seems to be under a romantic spell.  In the flashback she has gotten herself dolled up at the beauty parlor and dressed in her best negligée, looking like a bride on her wedding night.  As she hears the vampire murdering her husband (but doesn’t really hear it) she puts the final primping touches to her hair.  The vampire approaches her; she closes her eyes and turns her head up to him like a woman in love expecting a kiss. 

Later we see her dead body on the bed looking lovely and peaceful, with the gigantic holes in her neck of course.  Maybe the vampire took some care with her, tried to not let her suffer, tried to make it a pleasant, romantic dream and she was able to ride that dream gently into death.  Did he take pity on her?  Was he a gentleman?  Did she remind him of someone?  Did he have some romance in his non-existent, damned soul?

I mention the scene of Ellen Sarch's death at some length because it is somewhat unusual for this type of movie.  Well, it is and it isn't.   It’s horrifying and touching at the same time.   So often in vampire stories we see the lovely young heroine in a beautiful negligee waiting for the ecstatic experience of the handsome vampire's kiss.  This stereotype is thrown for a loop in several ways here.  The woman is elderly, not young.  She has spent time and effort to make herself look alluring for her lover.  More often than not in movies, an older woman who tries to make herself attractive is treated as a joke.  I think you would have to be pretty stone-hearted to feel anything but sympathy for Ellen.  She is in the usual sort of hypnotic trance that vampire's seem to specialize in, but here we see how deep that trance really is.  We may (well, I may) be able to envy the heroine who has been chosen by a Frank Langella type Dracula, however this guy ain't no Frank Langella, he is a hideous nightmare.  Ellen Sarch is in his mental grip so firmly that she not only sees the vampire as he wants her to see him, she is not aware of her husband's brutal and bloody death struggle which took place a few feet away.  In a strange way it is the only moment in the film with any tenderness and human warmth.

Renfield’s plane has to be mentioned as a character in itself.  I don’t mean in the sense that it talks or anything like that, but it is an equal to the vampire in its mysterious appearance.  With its flat black paint, red detailing and blackened windows it has an appropriately evil yet classy look.  In each shot it seems to be waiting to ensnare an unsuspecting victim – like a satanic Venus Fly Trap.

The gore is ladled out in portions which will satisfy most people.  If you are very squeamish be warned, but then again, if you are that squeamish you probably aren’t reading this.  The gory and icky special make up effects are produced by the team of KNB Effects Group – Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger.  They have been responsible for some of the most amazing film and makeup effects in practically every movie you have seen in the past 20 years.  Most recently they have done work for the AMC series, “The Walking Dead”.  I found more than 300 titles on IMDB.  Just look them up.

Speaking of gore, I do have one complaint.  The instrument panel in Renfield’s plane is covered in blood.  Yes, it is a horror movie and it is a vampire movie, and etc.  I’m not objecting to the effect itself, it is actually pretty cool.  But c’mon.  Just because you are undead, do you have to be so messy?  He can’t take a minute to just wipe the thing down?    How can a vampire so neatly dressed be such a slob?  His cape and clothes look like they are clean and fashionable in a vampire sort of way.  I mean, really.  I like chocolate, but I wouldn’t want to drive my car with chocolate syrup spewed over everything.

Lovely.  Just not all over my car, please.
Director Pavia moves the story along with tight set-ups, and adroit camera work by cinematographer David Connell.  The vampire theme is referenced cleverly by, e.g.; a camera move to black ending a scene and then a transition to the cape-like black raincoat of a pedestrian in the next scene, or the off screen sound of what may be the swish of a cape but is in reality a flag in the wind.   We meet each new character with just about the right amount of time invested in order to know who they are, or were.  He appears to be a good interpreter of King’s stories.  Both can delineate a character with a few strokes.

Mr. Pavia says he started making movies at the age of eight with a two minute Dracula film - signs and portents of things to come!  After making films through his high school years, he got a scholarship to Columbia College in Chicago.   Eventually he made a short film about a zombie apocalypse, “Drag”, which made some waves.  He sent the film separately to both Stephen King and producer Richard Rubenstein.  By chance they both found out that the other liked the film and contacted Pavia with the idea of writing and directing an adaptation of King’s short story. 

In interviews Mr. Pavia has said that his collaboration with Stephen King has been successful professionally and rewarding personally.  Now he is rumored to be working on a new anthology film of King’s short stories – the first in twenty-five years.

Co-producer Richard Rubenstein’s resume continues the horror cred:  He has produced films such as George Romero’s 1978’“Dawn of The Dead”, 1985’s “Day of the Dead” and the 1977 Romero vampire film, “Martin”.  He also produced “Pet Semetary”, “Thinner” and “Creepshow”. 

The backdrop of the supermarket tabloid journalist tracking a vampire for a juicy story is most appropriate.  The point is made very clearly that these three men – the vampire, the writer and the editor – are three of a kind.  All three are bloodthirsty, pitiless monsters, all three are vampires.  Renfield becomes as fascinated with Dees, as Dees becomes more and more obsessed with Renfield.  “We are brothers in blood” he tells Dees.  Actually, Renfield comes off better than the other two.

I love the premise of the story.  Renfield flying a plane to find his victims solves a tricky problem that has tripped up many a vampire.  He can take his earth to sleep in with him at all times.  Why hadn’t anyone thought of that before?  Think it’s hokey?  We are accepting the premise of a vampire to start with, right?  It’s a movie!  It’s called suspension of disbelief !   Just wipe some of the mess off the plane, ok?

“The Night Flier” was shown around Hollywood and got a lot of interest, but it was not purchased by any of the film studios.  HBO bought it so it had its world premiere on cable.  It was then picked up by New Line and had a limited theatrical release, but did not do so well.  This was in the mid-1990’s which was not a fertile time for good movie horror.  This very good movie could have been a hit if it had been marketed properly - and when the studios finally have the good sense to consult me on all their decisions… well…anyway…it will be a better world to live in…that’s all I’m sayin’.

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