With the “IT” trailer dropping this week (looking scary as hell, by the way) it got us here at The Crimson Screen thinking about another Stephen King adaptation that most people have forgotten since its releasing.
Over the years there have been a lot of King’s novels and short stories adapted into movies. Some are great; Shawshank Redemption, The Mist, Carrie, The Shining. Some are good; Pet Semetary, The Dead Zone, and Misery. Some are okay; Needful Things, Graveyard Shift, and Firestarter. And some are just downright dreadful– we’re looking at you The Lagoliers and The Mangler.
But the film I’m discussing today isn’t as well-known as most on the list above, and sadly it has somewhat fallen into obscurity since its releasing twenty years ago.
1997s “The Night Flier”.
Originally airing on HBO in 1997, before being released into theaters a few months later, The Night Flier revolves around Richard Dees; (the late Miguel Ferrer) a down on his luck, tightly-wound reporter who hasn’t had a successful front-page article in months for the sleazy tabloid magazine “Inside View”.
But Dees’ luck is about to change when his boss, Merton Morrison (Dan Monahan; Pee-Wee from the Porky’s films) offers him a new assignment. It seems someone has been flying around to small airports in a Black Sesna Sky Master killing victims and draining them of their blood. This person calls himself Dwight Renfield – the name is an anagram, Dwight is a reference to Dwight Frye the actor who played Renfield in the 1931 version of Dracula.
Could Renfield really be a…vampire?
Morrison seems to think this assignment is what Dees needs to get him back on the front page, and because Dees has his pilot’s license and his own plane, he can track Renfield’s path to get the bloody details about the murders.
Miguel Ferrer is perfectly cast as the unlikable Dees. The role fits him to a T and he makes you both truly despise and like him at the same time; not an easy feet for any actor but he pulls it off effortlessly. He really carries the movie as Dees; the hard-as-nails reporter who has seen too much depravity in his life and copes with the stress by drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes – which Miguel Ferrer makes look really cool, if I can be politically incorrect here.
Dees doesn’t agree and passes on the story; allowing Merton to give it to the newest member of the “Inside View”, Katherine Blair (Julie Entwisle; wife of the film’s director, Mark Pavia) who has taken over for a former reporter, Dottie Walsh, who died under mysterious circumstances…
Blair (who Dees refers to as Jimmy, as in Jimmy Olsen) wants to get to know Dees better so she follows him to a bar. While there, Blair asks for Dees’ take on “Inside View”. It is here we see just how despicable Dees is, and tells her that she reminds him of Dottie Walsh, the reporter she replaced. Dottie killed herself because the weight of the stories she was covering was too much for her to handle. Dees found Dottie, took a picture of her body, and wrote the story of her suicide – which in Dees’ words with a chuckle, “Made for a good headline, though”.
Again, Ferrer’s performance in this scene is great and he plays it with such a sinister, spiteful vibe, that you can’t help but admire the guy in this role. He owns it. Like this role was written just for him. I can’t think of anyone that could have played Dees better than Ferrer did.
Dees does give Blair one piece of advice in this scene that will set up the final act of the movie beautifully when he says “Don’t publish what you believe. Don’t believe what you publish.”
The next day, Dees is once again called into Morrison’s office where he’s told that Renfield has murdered two victims in Maryland, bringing his total to four murders – one in Maine and another one in New York (which the movie opens with, brutally). Morrison, at this point, rubs it in Dees’ face that Blair found the nights prior victims through clever ingenuity.
Dees, not one to be shown-up, takes the story but only after Morrison, sleazily, persuades him. Morrison kicks Blair off the case which she protests, considering the story hers.
But Morris has made up his mind and gives the story to Dees.
Dan Monahan plays Morrison like a conniving weasel; he makes you want to reach into the screen and strangle the guy for how he’s playing both sides to get what he wants. Though Morison’s not as outright nasty as Dees, and keeps his true self well hidden, he’s still an unlikeable character.
Dees then flies to Maine where the first murder occurred and interviews Ezra Hannon.
There is a really good exchange between Dees and Hannon here. Hannon, who speaks with a New England accent, asks Dees which paper he writes for and Dees tells him “Inside View”. Hannon laughs and tells Dees that his wife reads that paper, but after she’s done with it he uses it “to line the cat litter box. Soaks up that cat piss real nice.” This small touch of social commentary really says a lot about tabloid publications and how people view them.
Hannon then proceeds to tell him about the night Renfield landed and that he was wearing a cloak that “was a red as a fireengine on the inside and as black as a woodchucks asshole on the outside” – that is such a Stephen King written line, and if you have ever read any of his books or short stories you already know his work is littered with zingers just like that that make you chuckle with delight.
He describes how the first murder victim, Clair Bowie, was acting strange and found him washing Renfields plane, as if in a trance. Later that night, Clair was found dead.
KNB did the effects on the film and there are plenty of moments where you get to see their work shine – none more than when Clair’s body is shown; it’s bloody great!
Hannon then says there was something else that was peculiar to him; he found dirt under Renfield’s plane and that it looked like something dead had come from it.
Later that night, Dees goes to Clair’s grave, and in a dick move to help his story and “Inside View” sell more papers, he kicks the gravestone askew to give his photo a creepier vibe. But Dees still isn’t satisfied and decides to cut himself and smear blood on the gravestone – which seems to link him and Renfield by blood.
This is another little tidbit that I like about this movie and how the media (whether it be mainstream or other) will do anything to enrich a story’s appeal to help ratings or sell papers.
Later, after having a nightmare about Renfield, Dees awakes and finds the words STAY AWAY written in blood on the window of his motel room – Renfield knows he’s on his tail.
Dees then flies to New York and gets the nasty pictures of the second victim, Buck Kendell, in the morgue. Reporting back to Morrison, Dees tells Morrison that he’s calling him “The Night Flier”. Morrison, now overly excited about the news says, “the fatties in the supermarket are going to go nuts. God, I hope he kills more people!” Morrison wants to rush the story to print.
Yet Dees knows this story is just getting started and it’s going to get bigger, stranger, and he isn’t in a rush to get it back to Morrison until he has more.
Morrison, upset that he’s not getting his way, then returns to Blair and puts her back on the story in hopes of getting a story out sooner.
Dees continuing his investigation goes to Maryland where he finds out that Renfield was staying with his last victims and that they were acting strange prior to their deaths, much like Clair Bowie had been, even after being notified by the FAA about Renfield.
Going to the victims home, Dees finds it in total disarray and covered in blood. But when he returns outside, he is greeted by a dog that tries to kill him – one can only assume that this is Renfield; it’s never fully explained in the movie and left up to interpretation.
Dees and Blair finally cross paths at a motel and decide to work together to track down where Renfield is going to be flying into next. After figuring out where he’s going to be landing, Dees locks Blair in a closet, so he can get the full story on The Night Flyer himself.
Tracking Renfield to the next airport, Dees finds the black Sesna plane; the inside is covered in blood and the back is lined with soil. Once inside the airport, Dees finds it littered with dead bodies; blood is everywhere and Renfield is near.
After finding one of the victims with a crucifix stuffed into his mouth, Dees has a meltdown and runs away only to slip in a pool of blood; he heads to the bathroom to puke.
While standing at the sink washing his hands, Dees hears footsteps behind him, but he cannot see anyone in the mirror’s reflection
It is here that the movie’s suspense is ramped up exponentially and with a cleaver use of the camera and special effects we get one of the creepiest scenes in the movie.
Renfield is behind Dees and beings to piss blood into the urinal – but the cool thing is that we don’t yet see Renfield, only the stream of bloody piss against the white porcelain of the urinal. It is a very cool scene that is well executed.
Then, as the camera moves, we start to see the mirrors being smashed – there is no reflection of Renfield in them. And before Dees realizes it, Renfield is standing directly behind him, silhouetted in the shadows, his face hidden. e demands Dees to give him his camera and film and forget about the story, or he’ll kill him.
Dees, with little options left, does as Renfield asks.
As Renfield is leaving, Dees demands to see his face and is sorry he asked when Renfield obliges to his request.
He is a hideous creature. KNB’s Effects are topnotch here and the first time you see Renfield’s face you’re truly as shocked as Dees is in the film.
Renfield’s victims then “return” to life as vampires and Dees begins to fight them off with an ax, chopping them up into bits.
The police enter the airport and find Dees covered in blood holding the ax. Now all of Renfield’s victims on the floor again, dead. Thinking Dees committed the murders they shoot him, just as Blair enters to see the aftermath.
She then takes over the story – writing the Dees was The Night Flier all along. But Blair knows the truth, that Dwight Renfield (a vampire) really killed all those people, but she takes Dees’ advice from the beginning: Don’t publish what you believe. Don’t believe what you publish.
The movie was made on an estimated budget of 1,000,000.00. Mark Pavia had just 31 days to shoot the movie and had it finished in 30 days. Every penny was put on screen and used to the fullest to put this movie together and you can see that in the final product.
Not only is this one of the most faithful King short story adaptations to date, it is also littered with references to some of King’s other works throughout the film – you’ll have to look for them, I won’t spoil that part for you. To find some of them you’ll have to both listen carefully and pay close attention to details in the background. I’m telling you it is a treasure-trove of Easter eggs litter throughout the film to the larger King mythos.
Mark Pavia wanted Stephen King to do a cameo in the film, but because of a book tour he was unable to play the part of the coroner. This is a shame, since The Night Flier is one of the best adaptations to his work, it would have really been nice to see him in this movie.
The atmosphere is heavy and claustrophobic at times, making you hold your breath and grow tense in the right scenes, especially the ending when Renfield is behind Dees.
But what the movie does best, even better than the horror aspect, is that it works as a great mystery. As you go along for this ride, you want to know more about The Night Flier/Renfield. You want to know why he’s killing people, how he’s doing it, and how is Dees going to solve the mystery, even though he’s an unlikeable character you’ll find yourself rooting for him.
As I’ve said above, KNBs effects are great in the movie; thought they are used sparingly, but when they are on screen there work is proudly displayed.
If there is one place where the film lacks, it’s in the budget. There are a few more things in the story that could have been fleshed out better. Like the dog that chases after Dees or why Renfield was caring dirt in his plane. Pavia was shooting with limited funds within a tight timeframe. He had to do set-ups quickly and efficiently to get the movie done. The small imperfections and plot holes are minor and the viewer can make their own conclusion about the dog and the dirt, if they want to.
Though The Night Flier has no connection to Salem’s Lot, (though King himself said that Renfield is the same vampire in his story Popsy) it feels very akin to that story – especially in the third act of the film, when Renfield’s victims come back to life as vampires. They even look similar to the vampires in Toby Hooper’s Salem’s Lot. It’s really cool and I can’t help but wonder if that was done on purpose since they had tied other King works in with this movie?
But Renfield isn’t the only character in The Night Flier that makes an appearance in one of Kings other stories, Richard Dees does as well in The Dead Zone.
If you haven’t seen this forgotten gem I highly recommend seeking it out. As of this writing it has not been released on Blu-Ray and the DVDs are long out of print – hopefully someone like Scream Factory or Arrow can pick this movie up and give it a rightful restoration collector’s edition and save if from obscurity.
The Night Flier deserves to fly again…
9 out of 10 stars.