Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso) is a tribal deputy for the Maski people, an indigenous group who have seen their traditions slowly worn down over the years by the presence of the whites. Today he has been sent to investigate a dead horse, which has died - or been killed - in mysterious circumstances, its corpse covered in strange bites and a strong smell of ammonia emanating from the area of its discovery. Duran has no idea what this signifies, and the local vet has no more idea than he does, but he sees local native entrepreneur Walker Chee (Stephen Macht) is there with his own schemes to secure profits from the land...
Unfortunately, the film seems to believe the audience would be more interested in the land rights debacle than the consequences of whatever killed the horse, and that is a problem: was it really wise to serve up a killer bats movie with only two main killer bat sequences in it, especially when this had a running time of an hour and three quarters? It was a long time to sit through a thriller or a horror which skimped on the setpieces in favour of footling around with Native American politics which it never particularly committed itself to with any great interest, and notably with a paucity of actual Native American actors to fill out the cast to anyone's satisfaction.
Back in the nineteen-seventies, it was not such a big deal to have an Italian (Mancuso) and a Jewish-American (Macht) playing those roles, but it would not fly in the following century when representation was so important, mostly thanks to efforts like this ignoring the more significant parts in a cast list in favour of anyone who looked kind of "Indian". If that did not bother you, however, another issue that everyone picked up on back in 1979 when this was released, may well do, for Carlo Rambaldi had been given a small fortune to take care of the special creature effects, and the results he delivered were, well, let's say you would not be surprised to see clockwork keys.
No, the bats in Nightwing failed to convince and might even prompt giggles, though the real laugh generator was David Warner as a vampire bat expert who has devoted his life to really hating the critters, to the extent they're all he ever thinks about - he does not appear to have any existence outside of hunting and slaughtering as many as he possibly can. The amount of times he mentions them "Pissing ammonia!" suggest his disgust has developed into an all-consuming mania, and Warner, pro that he was, sold every inch of his character's hatred and revulsion, which naturally can be quite entertaining in a "this actor doesn't care anymore" kind of way. He certainly acted everyone else off the screen with his intensity, including leading lady Kathryn Harrold and Strother Martin doing his ornery act.
Funnily enough, the Martin Cruz Smith novel this was based on was not half bad, Smith probably best known for Gorky Park, and he had a credit for co-writing the screenplay here, which begged the question, did he reduce the bat attacks in the script because the studio said, hey, buddy, we can't afford all that? It would certainly explain the amount of time given over to the scenes of Mancuso tripping on the effects of a desert... potato? Or the bits with Macht discussing selling the oil on the Maski land which wound up precisely nowhere. Not helping was the information about vampire bats as the bringer of a potential apocalypse were in no way based in fact and pure horror flick mad science, and if you knew anything about the animals - not difficult, they are a frequent documentary subject - you would be scoffing at Warner's crazed rants within seconds of him kicking off. But for camp entertainment, there was a definite dose of that here. Music by Henry Mancini.
[This is released as a Nightwing-Shadow of the Hawk double bill by Eureka with these special features to enjoy:
O-card Slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling | English SDH subtitles | 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 | Trailers | PLUS: A Limited-Edition Collector's Booklet featuring essays by film historian Lee Gambin and film scholar and author Craig Ian Mann (First Print Run of 2000 Copies Only).]