Nightwing and Shadow of the Hawk

The horror double bill is a long-standing tradition of cinema and television broadcasts, often late on a Friday or Saturday night, two feature films of sometimes tenuous connection, linked by star, studio or theme, be it complimentary or contrasting, an often nostalgic rush exploited in Eureka’s packaging on a single disc of two tales of indigenous spirituality and beliefs and the native lands they hail from, Nightwing and Shadow of the Hawk.

Making its UK Blu-ray debut, Nightwing was perhaps unjustly maligned on its original release in the summer of 1979, directed by Arthur Hiller, a considerable departure from his multi-Oscar nominated international hit Love Story, a sun-weathered eco-horror set in the Maski reservation of Tucson, Arizona, where two tribal representatives with contrary hopes for the land and their people are brought into conflict.

Written by Martin Cruz Smith, Steve Shagan and Bud Shrake and based on Smith’s 1977 novel of the same name, Nightwing is magnificently filmed in the plains, canyons and mesas of New Mexico, home to a thousand creatures who live in relative harmony until a highly intelligent colony of vampire bats infected with bubonic plague occupies a cavern system, emerging nightly to feed.

Swaggering in his tight jeans and open shirt, Deputy Duran (Nick Mancuso) investigates the deaths of local cattle while honouring the traditions of his people, but Walker Chee (Stephen Macht) of the neighbouring Pahana tribe is willing to use the crisis to advance his business interests, the ancestral lands harbouring reserves of shale oil whose wealth could benefit the reservations.

A battle between the old and the new, American dollars and the soul of the land, between a lone man and swarming animals, Nightwing is no masterpiece but is surprisingly better than its ghastly reputation would suggest, and is surprisingly sensitive to the beliefs of the tribes, written as Hopi and Navajo in the original novel, despite the casting of an Italian in the lead role.

With David Warner as a bat expert whose quasi-religious crusade to root out the nocturnal evil borders on unintentionally hilarious and Strother Martin as a storekeeper whose racist tirades highlight the casual denigration of the Native American people, the animatronic effects were created by Carlo Rambaldi and deserved better presentation than shoddy superimpositions, although the final scenes in the vast cavern set are unexpectedly spectacular.

Moving far north and across the Canadian border, it is the People of the First Nation who cast the Shadow of the Hawk, originally released in 1976 and directed by George McCowan from a screenplay by Norman Thaddeus Vane and Herbert Wright, also making its UK Blu-ray debut to complete the double bill.

Starring Chief Dan George of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation as Old Man Hawk, the signs of trouble in his village have prompted him to make the long journey to Vancouver to find his grandson “Little Hawk” Mike (Jan-Michael Vincent) whom he has not seen in a decade and bring him back to his people to defeat the Dsonoqua, an evil spirit.

Accompanying them is journalist in need of a story Maureen (Marilyn Hassett) while on the road behind them is a sinister black car seemingly possessed by the Dsonoqua, its power reaching out from the old world and taking an appropriate form to haunt a rational city-dweller who is pursued by that manifestation of the eerie even as he enters the territory where it will be strongest.

The opening half hour structured with the narrative imperative of a gently meandering river, the contrasting vistas of the city and the wilderness swing decisively to the latter and Shadow of the Hawk is a well-matched companion to Nighthawk both stylistically and thematically while offering a refreshing change to the desert with rugged mountains, waterfalls and the dense woodlands of British Columbia.

One of the most successful Canadian films of its time, Shadow of the Hawk is carried not only by the scenery but by stunt work which is on the whole impressive as it bridges the gap between the two worlds, one obvious shot of Mike being pursued by a man in a bear suit aside, the entirely practical effects tying it to an era of filmmaking now as seemingly distant as the magic of Old Man Hawk’s tribe.

Nightwing and Shadow of the Hawk featuring commentary tracks by Lee Gambin and Amanda Reyes then Mike McPadden and Ben Reiser, both discussions are wide-ranging and have an obvious affection for their subjects which overlooks their flaws, and also included is a somewhat highbrow audio essay by John Edgar which positions Nightwing as an example of frontier gothic.

Nightwing and Shadow of the Hawk will be available on Blu-ray from Eureka from Monday 15th March

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