Stephen King’s novella ‘The Night Flier’, first published in Douglas E. Winter’s Prime Evil (1988), is remembered as the one about the vampire with a pilot’s license. The stereotype cloaked fiend hails from Jerusalem’s Lot, knowingly calls himself ‘Dwight Renfield’ and flits into out-of-the-way airports to prey on late-night staff. But the story is really a character study of Richard Dees, a ruthlessly sleazy reporter for an extremely down-market who first appeared in the novel The Dead Zone. King deliberately revises The Night Stalker, with crusading, Watergate-era newshound Kolchak updated into the exploitative, cynical Dees, reflecting a falling-off of journalistic standards and a general coarsening of American popular culture (very decently, King lumps his own output in with the condemned). It’s a solid piece of vicious caricature writing that deploys a deliberately hokey vampire villain as background figure while it works up Dees as a more immediate monster.
In expanding the story to feature length, first-time writer/director Mark Pavia throws in the character of Katherine ‘Jimmy’ Blair (Julie Entwistle), a naive cub reporter who catches up with Dees (Miguel Ferrer), competes with him for a while, and finally shows she can be as ruthless as the rest of them. However, the fresh character conflict doesn’t disguise the fact that the plot consists of Dees turning up at the sites of vampire murders and extorting flashback-supporting interviews from actual witnesses. Even the finale finds him arriving at an airport just after a massacre has taken place, in time to be blooded and framed by the monster (Michael Moss) and become a headline himself. Ferrer is always relishable when cast as a venomous scumbag (RoboCop, Twin Peaks) and gets a few nasty lines worthy of his biting delivery, but the few other cast members come across as frankly amateurish, especially Dan Monahan as the crass editor of Inside View (‘The fatties in the supermarket lines are going to love this guy! God, I hope he kills more people!’).
It took some nerve in the 1990s to present a serious vampire villain who stalks around in a floor-length black cape, and the final revelation of his gape-mouthed face (with impressive tusk-like upper and lower central fangs) is startling for a moment until the rubberiness make-up registers. The film drops a few hints about his background via a photograph album found in his black, coffin-like plane, and there’s a neat evocation of frenzied bloodthirstiness in the gory aftermath of Renfield’s attack on Wilmington Airport, North Carolina. After the story’s bathroom confrontation (Pavia retains King’s image of the vampire, unseen in the mirror, pissing a stream of blood) there’s a creepy black and white section with corpses rising from mist that evokes Mario Bava but also delivers obvious conscience-tugging stuff as Dees is assaulted by the ruined bodies of those he has exploited and reaches for an axe.
Like The Night Stalker, The Night Flier has as its central character someone who at once writes sleazy copy and takes the sordid photographs that go with it (in the real world of journalism, these are rarer creatures than vampires). Certainly, publications like Inside View (sample headline: “‘I Put Satan’s Child in the Freezer,’ cries Killer Mom’) hardly represent a healthy society. Next to the worst of the British press (which always mixes politics and hypocritical morality into the worst sensationalism), the blatantly tongue-in-cheek blatherings of the Elvis Alive on the Moon brigade hardly seem threatening. Furthermore, the perky, ambitious, hard-but-cute newslady was a 1990s cliché hate figure (To Die For, Scream, etc) and Entwistle’s reading of the role is hardly distinguished. The story does address the fact that Dees wouldn’t be able to be as dreadful as he is if millions of supposedly decent Americans didn’t want to consume his output, but the film makes him a repulsive aberration and stands back in pat judgement on him, never inmplicating the audience in his crimes (which would have added much-needed depth). While Pavia keeps much of King’s hard-boiled sick-funny dialogue, most of his new scenes take the whole thing altogether too much at a straight face, as if there were something tragic in Dees’s code of ‘never believe what you publish, never publish what you believe.’