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I'm back to recommending movies again! It's a little late for Halloween (heck, we're past Thanksgiving at this point), but what the heck? I don't need it to be Halloween to enthuse about a scary movie. This time it's 1997's The Night Flier.
"Why do the weird ones always gotta fly at night...?"
Air traffic controller Buck Kendall works at a small airfield in New York. It's the night shift. A plane that flew in and landed the night before and sat there all day is still there. Irritated, Kendall, failing to raise the pilot on the radio (he wants him to move his plane off the runway), grabs a flashlight and walks out to get in the guy's face. The plane just sits there and nobody answers when he bangs on the window... and in so doing he realizes that the windows, including the windshield, are covered with dark red velvet curtains.
He opens the door... and quickly wishes he hadn't. We hear the sounds of buzzing flies. What he sees is so utterly revolting and horrible he staggers back in fright. Then the door slams on his head and he falls down. He finds a tall man standing over him...
...and immediately upon seeing his face begins begging Jesus for help. All bravado, any thought of giving this guy a piece of his mind has been drained from him.
Meanwhile, Richard Dees is a reporter for the magazine Inside View (what I guess would be called "ghetto press" and its reporters "muck rakers" for those of you in the UK). A ruthlessly pragmatic man, he stops at nothing to get the story and has no time for being nice... unless it suits him; one of his few redeeming qualities, according to his editor, Merton Morrison, is that he's "good with the hicks," i.e., he has a chameleon-like ability to make himself appealing to almost anyone he interviews and thus gain their cooperation, even if they're naturally distrustful of others. He's Inside View's star reporter, but he's begun wearing out his welcome; editor Morrison doesn't like his attitude and his inability to work well with others. Dees also has a problem with refusing assignments he considers beneath him. Like this recent murder in New York. The second such murder after air traffic controller Claire Bowie had his head torn off in Maine.
Apparently, in each case, the killer landed in a private plane with the windows and windshield covered by red curtains, gets out, walks into the office, talks to whoever happens to be working there, then returns to his plane, gets in, and... well, nobody knows what he does, exactly. Only one surviving person has ever even seen what he looks like and that was from a distance, a worker at the Maine airfield who saw him go into the office to speak with Bowie. Dees considers this to be uninteresting. An annoyed Morrison decides to give the story to the much more agreeable rookie reporter Katherine Blair. His reason is twofold: firstly, he knows this will light a fire under Dees' ass and get him to take the story to save his pride, and even if he doesn't, then Katherine will. Predictably, Dees' professional pride is bruised by having a story he refused to tackle be eagerly grabbed up by the resident newcomer, so he storms into Morrison's office, demands the story, gets it, and is on the case... without realizing that pretty much as soon as he's gone, Morrison gives the story back to Katherine and tells her to follow Dees and poach the story from him ("Dees doesn't run this paper. I do.").
We get the first real inkling that something is terribly, terribly wrong when Dees manages to talk to the worker who saw the killer get out of his plane the night before Bowie was killed. According to him, the man was just wrong from the get-go. And indeed, from his P.O.V. in a flashback, we see the man land and get out of the plane... and by gum if he isn't wearing a cape. A long black cape with a dark red interior and a huge collar that completely hides his head from the sides and back. Despite how frankly kinda silly this looked, the worker wasn't amused. Something about the man just made him nervous. He went home. When he returned, the plane was still there, and Bowie was washing it, seeming to be in a daze. This is unusual, as the airfield doesn't offer a free washing service. When the worker guy asked him what he was doing, he didn't really answer his question. He just said he was "doing his part" and then, seeming to briefly emerge from his weird trance-like state, he says, rather puzzled, that the mysterious pilot's name is Dwight Renfield. And indeed he signed that name on the register when he arrived.
All of which was weird enough, but then, as he was turning to leave, the worker saw the thing that struck him as the most odd.Under the plane was a mound of dirt filled with maggots and worms. That night, Bowie was killed. The worker found his body with the head torn off. And now Dees has to find this guy...
The Night Flier is based on a 1988 short story by Stephen King, which was modernized a bit for inclusion in the 1993 collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes (Morrison mentions "Danny DeVito in that Batman movie," i.e. Batman Returns, which most assuredly didn't exist in '88). Aside from a very different ending and the addition of a few new characters to have a larger cast (such as Dees' rival reporter Katherine), director Mark Pavia made sure the movie is more or less 1:1 to King's original story. Miguel Ferrer (who was previously Lloyd Henreid in another Stephen King adaptation, The Stand) stars as Dees. He was pretty much hand-picked by King because of his ability to play lovable jerks. Dees has almost no redeeming qualities but he's weirdly likable.
Speaking of King, this is one of his rare movies where he doesn't have a cameo, likely because it's a miracle Pavia managed to get it made at all; he was told he had less than thirty days to film (!). The fact it's as good as it is is frankly a miracle, and makes me wonder what Pavia would've been able to do with a bigger budget and a longer shooting schedule. And speaking of the shoot, despite the story taking place in Maine, New York, Maryland, North Carolina and wherever the hell Inside View's offices are, it was filmed entirely in Wilmington, North Carolina, which is not far from where I live. The Wilmington airport serves as the setting for the climax in both the short story and the movie.
It's a very creepy and atmospheric film too. And is definitely one of my favorite vampire stories so far. And yes, it's no big spoiler that "Dwight" (which of course isn't his real name) is a vampire. Because there's a bit more than the revelation that the guy is a vampire. There's a reason all the courage drained from Buck Kendall when he saw the guy's face at the beginning.
R.I.P. Gary Owens (1936-2015)