Friday, June 26, 2009

#64: The Night Flier (Mark Pavia, 1997)

I haven't read anything by Stephen King for 19 years. That makes me sound old, but I'm only slightly less fresh than the morning dew. Come on, people. Over the course of Thanksgiving break in eighth grade, November 1990, I read King's then-new collection of four novellas, Four Past Midnight, and that was that. I remember enjoying the book, but I also remember thinking that I had finally read enough King for one lifetime. My tastes were changing. I was turning away from King, Clive Barker, and Peter Straub, and turning toward the average young male misfit's canon of serious teenage literature: Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, Charles Bukowski, and biographies of Hendrix, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, and John Lennon. My musical tastes were changing, too. Instead of Metallica, Motley Crue, and Whitesnake, I was spending my time with Jane's Addiction, Fishbone, Soundgarden, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Living Colour. Not that much of an improvement, really, but I was taking my first baby steps toward my current aesthetic, which is loving every type of thing that exists but trying to be discerning within those types. My active interest in Stephen King comprised only five years of my life, but it seemed much longer. Between the ages of 9 and 13, I read about 75 kabillion King books. Most of these memories involve sitting in a car, for some reason. I remember reading The Stand in the car on the way to a family vacation in South Dakota. I remember reading The Dark Half in the car on the way to Colorado to visit my uncle. I remember sitting in my parents' parked car reading Christine in the summer heat while listening to top 40 radio from a boombox near a concession stand while my mother played in a tennis tournament. I also remember all the bicycle trips to the public library to stock up on King novels and pedaling them home in a paper bag draped across the handlebars so no one my age spotted me with books. Once branded a "reader," your playground cachet plummeted. In high school, on a band trip to Los Angeles, the teachers scheduled some R&R at a huge mall in Orange County. Back on the bus at the end of the day, a girl from my class saw some of my shopping bags and asked me, "Why do you have a bag from the bookstore?" "I bought some books," I said. "Why?" she asked. She wasn't being mean. She was honest to god baffled. Bill Hicks has a similar routine in one of his acts, and I'm sure his story is true, too. Some people, if they don't know, you just can't tell them.

Anyway, flash back to 1988. Two years before I lost the taste for Stephen King completely, I was still in the midst of King mania. I checked out the horror anthology Prime Evil from the library of a nearby much larger town, having tapped out the horror fiction from my own hometown's library. The first story in the anthology was a brand new novella from King called "The Night Flier." Having sampled some of King's writing again this morning, I am reluctant to admit that although he is an accessible and likable storyteller, he is also a pretty godawful hack writer. Another childhood hero destroyed. Thanks a lot, cardiac arrest and literary evidence. Anyway, King may be no William Gaddis, but he came up with a pretty nifty story idea involving a vampire serial killer, private planes, and tiny, isolated airports. I loved the story in 1988, and even though that love belongs solely to 1988, at least somebody made a movie out of it. Movies can turn schlock like this into something entertaining and fun in ways literature can't.

The only feature film directed by Mark Pavia, The Night Flier stars George Clooney's more attractive cousin, Miguel Ferrer (what a time he would have in Shelbyville), an actor I wish was used more often. I love this guy. He plays a great charismatic asshole. I love him in the Twin Peaks TV show and movie and in Robocop. He plays Richard Dees, a hotshot reporter for a Weekly World News/National Enquirer/proto-TMZ hybrid called Inside View. He's a completely unlikable asshole. I always like characters like that in movies, especially if they're played by Miguel Ferrer. The paper has just hired a fresh-faced upstart with that supremely annoying mixture of naivete and ambition, Katherine Blair. She's played well by Julie Entwisle, in one of her only two film roles and her only non-bit part role. Both her and director Pavia disappeared from films entirely after this movie, but the consolation prize is that they married each other.

Though Dees is the paper's star reporter, he's been slipping recently, so the paper's weaselly editor assigns the story of The Night Flier, a serial killer with a private plane who lands in rural airports and kills whoever's on duty, to both Dees and Blair, playing them off each other. This part of the story is a well-worn cliche, as is King's heavy-handed comparison of the vampire and the tabloid reporter, hammered home in a speech toward the end. (They're both bloodsuckers, get it? What a profound observation.) Pavia also isn't the most exciting visual stylist in the world. But he's not unnecessarily flashy, either, and he doesn't trick up the visuals in the fashionable modern sense, which is nice, because if he did trick up the visuals in the style of the times, he would have completely fucked up the movie.
This is not a great movie, by any stretch, but it's well-acted, nicely told, and fun. The special effects are convincing (no CGI, thank god), and the idea of a murderous vampire flying an all-black Cessna fills me with glee. I liked it.
The Night Flier experienced a limited, unsuccessful theatrical run after debuting as a TV movie on HBO. Many far more terrible King adaptations have enjoyed major theatrical runs for much longer.

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