"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, August 26, 2011

Stephen King's The Night Flier

Most people see tabloid newspapers at the checkout stands in their local grocery store and hardly give them the time of day. Their purpose is to kill time until it is time to go through the checkout. Once in awhile you may think to yourself, who writes the stuff that populates these rags? Where do they get their material from? 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.

Pretty soon another murder happens and the job becomes too irresistible for Dees. Morrison puts him on it, much to Katherine’s chagrin. As luck would have it, Dees is a pilot with his own small plane and he pursues the killer all along the eastern seaboard. Initially, this gig is nothing stranger than any of the other countless jobs he’s worked over the years. Yet, this assignment gets under Dees’ skin and he begins to lose his touch with reality as he’s plagued with nightmares of Renfield.

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.

Director Mark Pavia grew up watching Creature Features every Friday night in Chicago and read genre magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland and Fangoria. He made amateur films all through grade and high school, including an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Lambs to the Slaughter, which earned him a scholarship to film school and won an award at the Chicago Film Festival. While at film school, he made the zombie short film Drag on black white, 16 mm film stock with friends for only $25,000. Pavia sent copies separately to legendary film producer Richard P. Rubinstein (Dawn of the Dead) and Stephen King, both of whom he greatly admired. At the time, the two men were working on a film adaptation of King’s magnum opus, The Stand while also considering an adaptation of The Night Flier. King had taken a crack at the screenplay but got stuck and abandoned it. He and Rubinstein were impressed with Pavia’s work on Drag and called the young filmmaker asking him if he wanted to write and direct a low-budget adaptation of The Night Flier. Pavia and childhood friend Jack O’Donnell spent two weeks putting together a presentation and then flew to New York City to make their pitch. Two weeks later, Pavia got a call and was told that he got the gig.

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.”

The climactic showdown is an unhinged bloodbath as Dees and the object of his obsession meet head on. After years of covering the worst aspects of humanity, Dees has become a parasite, much like his target – only instead of blood, Dees feeds on misery and suffering. Where Renfield drains his victims of their blood, Dees takes photographs of horribly mangled corpses in a grisly highway accident. The Night Flier is about one man’s search for a moment of greatness, which mirrors Dees’ quest for Renfield. While Pavia does a nice job of laying on the atmosphere, Ferrer’s relentless performance is the film’s strongest selling point and makes a convincing argument for more leading roles for this underrated character actor.


Barnick, Adam. “Fright Exclusive Interview: Mark Pavia.” Icons of Fright. July 19, 2006.


  1. Oh yeah! This is one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King story. It's also one of my favorite vampire stories for the entertaining spin SK gave it. I never did understand the negative criticism it garnered. Great look at this one, J.D. Thanks.

  2. Nice inside look at a film I never heard of! I did read the short story however (and recently).

    There is a pseudo-sequel of sorts called 'Popsy' though I think it's bullshit. However, King, in his notes, says it probably is (ambiguous, huh)?

    The short story is very '90s. I liked the feel of it when I read it. Sort of a pre-Internet, post-classics horror story focused on a traditional type of villain (with more contemporary gore and such).

    Big fan of Miguel Ferrer. Good dramatic actor and a pretty solid comedic actor too.

  3. NIGHT FLIER is, as you so righteously pointed out, one of the best adaptations of King's work. It goes to show that the Times (NY+LA) they are a-close-minded. That or they just have no knowledge of the genre, no real feel for what really is good Horror. I've seen movies on Syfy that rank better than some of the shite to which they give a thumbs-up. Rubbish. I highly, unabashedly, recommend both the book (ALL of the stories are remarkably good, really; King at his some of his best) and the movie. Can get both for a song on eBay, Amazon, etc. Cheers for such a well-thought-out review, warts (reviews of the movie, that is) and all. Just great, JD. :D

  4. le0pard13:

    Yeah, the negative reviews are a bit of head scratcher but then the horror genre almost always never gets any respect, which is part of what makes it cool, I suppose.

    Glad you enjoyed my review!


    Never heard of the semi-sequel. Interesting! Glad to see that you also dig Ferrer. He's pretty awesome in everything he's in, even if the film/show sucks. He knows exactly how to make the most out of limited screen time, which is great to see him get so much of it in THE NIGHT FLIER.


    Thank you for the kind words! Yeah, the critics are clueless when it comes to films like this and man, did this one get picked on, esp. by EW. Never was crazy 'bout their critics. But it is hardly new. And yes, that collection of King stories is pretty awesome. I quite enjoyed the TV adaptation of them a few years back.

  5. Really glad to see such a great piece on such an overlooked gem, J.D.

    Being a huge fan of Big Steve, I knew about this from Fango and was thusly fully primed to catch it for its HBO release. It didn't disappoint; I couldn't agree more that it truly is one of the finest King adaptations, even if most people would look at you blankly if you brought it up.

    Also, couldn't agree more about Ferrer -- it's one hell of a treat to see him get not just a lead role, but a great character to play in such a good flick.

    Keep up the killer work, man!

  6. Nice pick! I haven't thought of this one in years. I recently got the TV Nightmares and Dreamscapes set and enjoyed that again. I'd imagine revisiting the Night Flier would fit in nicely. I always enjoy the background info. Excellent work as usual!

  7. A fine writeup, J.D. As you know, I'm a huge fan of Ferrer, and I seem to remember enjoying the short story upon which this is based, so I'll have to check it out one of these days. So often these sorts of flicks begin their slow and steady descent into the mediocre, but are saved from the precipice by eccentric performances by character actors– god bless em!

  8. A.J. Muller:

    Thanks! I will admit to being a casual King fan but I do like a lot of his stuff. I'm actually a big fan of his Bachman-penned stories.

    Glad to see you also dig, Ferrer. He's awesome and I always enjoy his performances in films, TV, etc.


    Thanks for stopping by. I also have the NIGHTMARES AND DREAMSCAPES set and really enjoy it.

    If you get a chance, NIGHT FLIER is definitely worth a re-visit.

    Sean Gill:

    If you dig Ferrer, than this film is MUST watch, most definitely. I daresay, this might be my fave performance of his outside of TWIN PEAKS. He's that good in this one.

  9. You've made me want to give this one the old re-watch! Miguel Ferrer is the son of Jose Ferrer, the puerto rican actor who played the Emperor of the Universe in David Lynch's Dune. I always get a kick out of that cause Im puerto rican, and it's cool to know that a puerto rican was once the emperor of the universe, even if it was just no a film. :)

    Aside from his performance in Robocop, I also remember Miguel Ferrer from a film called Deep Star Six, on that one he suffers a pretty gory death when he decides to resurface from the depths of the ocean without depressurizing.

  10. The Film Connoisseur:

    Good call on Ferrer and his lineage. He's a fantastic character actor and always worth watching in whatever he does.