The F*cking Black Sheep: Stephen King's The Night Flier (1997)

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!



Man oh man. Has the phrase “hit or miss” ever applied more accurately than to the cinematic adaptations of Stephen King? Seriously. How can such a peerless, prolific, preeminent horror storyteller – a true King - yield such wildly disparate results when it comes to the big-screen appropriation of his work? Is it simply the talent of the director? The casting? Very well could be. But whatever the case, King’s filmic retellings ought to be codified by a three-tiered caste system. The top tier would no doubt accompany the likes of CARRIE, THE SHINING, STAND BY ME and a small handful of others. Undisputed classics, all of them. The bottom tier would then have to carry such abysmal dross as THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, THE MANGLER, BAG OF BONES and countless others. That of course leaves capacious space for what can only be referred to as the mid-tier, where everything from MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE and GRAVEYARD SHIFT to CUJO and THE DEAD ZONE proudly reside. A hell of place to be, frankly, with very good company all around!

And you know what? One movie adapted from a King book that tends to get shamefully overlooked is THE NIGHT FLIER, directed by Mark Pavia. Honestly, this is a better movie than people remember it as or happen to give it credit for. A great film? A top-tier Kingly endeavor? Not even. But I’ll be damned if it’s among the bottom-barrel swill stinking up the joint above. Hell, I actually dig THE NIGHT FLIER more than the dubiously venerated CHILDREN OF THE CORN. F*ck that flick!

But back to the topic at hand. Did you know that THE NIGHT FLIER was one of the first films to actually premiere on cable (HBO) before rolling out to select theaters a whole three months later? Well, this was not only by design, it’s also why, despite being made in 1997, February 6th will mark the movies 20th anniversary from when it played across the big-screen. The kind of temporal symmetry is good enough, in conjunction with the quality of the movie, to give it a little F*cking Black Sheep TLC. So, sit back and relax as we board, taxi and take off with THE NIGHT FLIER below!

Shot in a mere 29 days (one day under schedule), THE NIGHT FLIER immediately introduces us to the titular terroristic vamp, replete with a pitch-black, frighteningly high-collared cape standing in ominous silhouette. It’s a jolting image Pavia gives us to start, ciphered in shadow, allowing us to in a sense project our own fear onto its blank façade. THE NIGHT FLIER (Michael H. Moss) slashes like a bear-claw across the face of an unsuspecting pilot after touching down at a landing strip. It’s a very solid opener that sets the tone for things to come. Cue the irascible prick Richard Dees (the late Miguel Ferrer, George Clooney’s cousin), a sleazy tabloid journalist whose scruples have long since escaped. Dees writes for the supermarket rag “Inside View,” his boss being none other than Pee Wee from PORKY’S (Dan Monahan). Always great to see that dude pop up (you ever see UP THE CREEK?). Reluctant at first but desperate for a front-page comeback, Dees accepts the assignment, along with his plucky new partner Katherine (Julie Entwisle), to cover the rash of inexplicable, blood-draining airport massacres exacted at the hand of THE NIGHT FLIER.

After a fairly middling middle section, kept barely entertaining enough by the few barbarous bloodletting set-pieces (including that creepy old lady ecstatically succumbing to the killer, the “Stay Away” scrawled in blood across the window, Ray’s decollated head and desiccated corpse, etc.), where THE NIGHT FLIER truly soars is in the final 25-30 minutes or so. It’s here that the movie ascends from near-bottom to the upper-mid chamber of King’s film canon. The way Pavia ratchets up the atmosphere, whips of lightening crackling in the flickering background, the stormy weather intensified by pounding rain and rumbling thunder, really marks a drastic difference from the somewhat drab daytime middle of the movie. When Dees shows up at that horrifying hangar littered in gore-sodden corpses, a hair-raising level of suspense can be felt in a way we hadn’t earlier. No joke, the movie climbs to a whole other altitude by the final reel, eschewing wordy exposition for intense visceral violence.

Moreover, the mysterious morsels of the story all congeal here in this final sequence. The spike-sized holes in the victims’ throats, the mounds of freshly dug dirt with worms and maggots, Dees’ odd premonitions, etc., they all come into sharp view as The Night Flier’s preordained murderous M.O. The blood-dripping walls, the mutilated corpses strewn across the floor, the strobe lighting, it all works as preamble the final showdown between Dees and his evil assailant. And then, when it hits, when The Night Flier finally shows its hideously mutated face, a genuine HOLY-SH*T moment cannot be averted. Honestly, I just clocked the film again two nights ago and can say with the utmost confidence that the reveal of the thing’s blood-drooling maw and heinously long center-fang is flat out mortifying. Squirm-inducing! Then, as if that wasn’t enough, we’re flown into a highly stylized black and white sequence that feels like a twisted Twilight Zone/Romero amalgamation. Shite just gets better and better. I love this finall sequence!

What also elevates this ending of THE NIGHT FLIER is how it does not hew to happiness. I am and will always be of the opinion that horror movies do not need or ever have to capitulate to an uplifting conclusion. On the contrary, my favorite horror movies often have down endings, with the villains triumphing over the protagonists. By having us follow, difficultly come to like and even root for the asshole Dees over the course of the picture, only to see him failingly die in the end at the hand of the baleful baddie, it makes the horrific parts of the story last longer and with a greater impression. In this regard, THE NIGHT FLIER absolutely sticks the landing!


Extra Tidbit: Which movie do you like better, THE NIGHT FLIER or THE LANGOLIERS?
Source: AITH



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