Stephen King’s The Night Flier (1997) answers these questions by giving them a supernatural spin. What if these more outrageous stories that populate the tabloids were based on actual otherworldly horrors? Because people don’t take these newspapers seriously they can be a safe place to talk about the bizarre: UFOs, the end of the world, and so on.
When one thinks of Stephen King adaptations, invariably the high profile examples come immediately to mind: Carrie (1976), The Shining (1980), Misery (1990), and so on. However, every once in awhile there’s one that flies in under the radar like The Night Flier, an adaptation of a short story that appeared in the 1994 bestselling anthology Nightmares and Dreamscapes. It’s a nasty little piece of work that came out during a time when horror had become stagnate, too self-flexive and, worst of all, lost its ability to scare. The film featured a thoroughly unlikable protagonist pursuing a cold-blooded monster and deserves to be ranked among some of the finest adaptations of King’s work.
Richard Dees (Miguel Ferrer) is a veteran reporter for Inside View, a National Inquirer-esque tabloid rag that peddles in alien abductions, dead babies, attacks on the handicap, and demonic possession to name but just a few of its lurid favorites. His editor Merton Morrison (Dan Monahan) hands Dees a new assignment: a serial killer who flies into small, deserted airports at night, kills and then drains the blood of his victims. The killer even calls himself Dwight Renfield (a reference to the first name of the actor who played Renfield in the 1931 film version of Dracula) and pilots a black Cessna. Dees is not impressed but Morrison reminds him that he’s lost his touch – he hasn’t had a cover story in ages and this one is prime material that could put him back on top.
When Dees still refuses to cover the story, Morrison assigns the job to a young woman named Katherine Blair (a Phoebe Cates-esque Julie Entwisle), a recently hired inexperienced reporter looking for her big break. A bemused Dees immediately dubs her “Jimmy” (after Superman’s trusted sidekick Jimmy Olsen), just another aspiring reporter he has seen come and go from Inside View. His gruff, no-bullshit attitude comes as a shock to Katherine whom he tries to discourage by offering his take on the magazine he writes for: “Inside View is an illustration of the insane. It’s a diary of the deranged and dangerously sick.” Despite this glowing endorsement, Katherine stays with the magazine.
Director Mark Pavia establishes just the right creepy mood from the opening scene of a fog-enshrouded airport in the middle of night. There is a palpable atmosphere of dread as the film’s first victim is viciously killed. He populates The Night Flier with gloomy cemeteries, dimly-lit hotel rooms and dark and stormy nights.
The always watchable Miguel Ferrer nails the world-weary cynicism of Dees right from his hard-boiled introduction where he berates a co-worker for messing with his latest article. The actor isn’t afraid to play Dees as a repellent human being that profits off the miseries of others. Years of this have clearly made him jaded and lacking ambition, which Ferrer conveys in only a few minutes of screen-time. His deep, gravelly voice is ideally suited for Dees’ been there, done that attitude. It’s the kind of role James Woods might have played in the 1980’s as he was another character actor unafraid to play unfiltered protagonists. The Night Flier is an excellent showcase for Ferrer’s considerable talents. Known for his scene-stealing supporting roles in films like RoboCop (1987) and television shows like Twin Peaks, it’s great to see him in a starring role doing what he does best – playing prickly bastards. Despite all the terrible things Dees does, Ferrer’s natural charisma keeps us invested. We don’t care about his character but he is interesting enough for us to see what happens to him.
Dan Monahan has a juicy role as Dees’ unscrupulous editor – an opportunistic scumbag not above playing the veteran writer against the inexperienced Katherine in order to get the sensationalistic story that will sell lots of copies (“God, I hope he kills more people!” Morrison exclaims at one point). The scenes between him and Ferrer are a lot of fun to watch as their unrepentant, amoral characters bounce off each other. Morrison is a slick salesman masquerading as a magazine editor as evident by the sales pitch he gives Katherine during her interview for a job at the Inside View, which he describes as “a cultural microscope – focusing in on the collective unconscious of the American populace.” Even the relatively naïve Katherine doesn’t entirely buy Morrison’s hyperbolic bullshit but he says it convincingly enough that she accepts the job.
Pavia and O’Donnell wrote six drafts in six weeks with King reading and approving them all while also giving them notes. However, the production was delayed a year when Rubinstein’s company folded and he started up a new one. In that time Pavia polished the script and scouted locations, picking Wilmington, North Carolina. He also storyboarded the film extensively, which saved time during principal photography. Pavia said, “Storyboarding allows me to see the movie before I shoot a single frame.” When it came to casting the role of Richard Dees, he thought only of Miguel Ferrer. Pavia had been a fan of the actor since seeing him in RoboCop and told Rubinstein that he would be perfect for the role. King agreed and they sent Ferrer a copy of the script. Coincidentally, he had just finished work on the T.V. miniseries version of The Stand and was also a huge fan of the author’s work. Pavia had 30 days to shoot The Night Flier and brought it in a day early and under budget.
After finishing the film, the producers shopped it around Hollywood. Several major studios were interested, in particular Paramount, but they wanted to wait over a year to release it theatrically. Rubinstein wasn’t crazy about that idea and sold the film to HBO, which premiered it to strong numbers on their channel. The Night Flier went to receive mixed to negative reviews from critics. The New York Times’ Stephen Holden wrote, “The story has been so poorly adapted that intriguing clues to the killer’s motives and modus operandi are introduced, then left hanging,” but felt that “the movie’s sole strength is Mr. Ferrer’s relentlessly hard-boiled performance.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas, he wrote, “this blood bath of a movie, which bears King’s name in the title, indulges in the very wretched excesses it attempts to criticize.” The harshest criticism came from Entertainment Weekly, which gave the film a “D+” rating and felt that it was “as impersonally designed as a car commercial.”
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