Horror and the modern Western crossover in the latest Blu-ray reissue team up from Eureka Classics

I have always thought that it was strange that there hasn’t been greater crossover between two of cinema’s oldest genres, the Western and the Horror movie. Especially given the potential offered by an indigenous culture rich with tales of magic and supernatural beasts. Sure there are a few notable exceptions such as Earl E. Smith’s The Shadow of the Chikara (1977) and William Girdler’s The Manitou (1978), but compared to the ever growing catalogue of European folk horror films, there are relatively few Native American horrors in the video shopping cart. Thankfully our friends at Eureka Classics can always be relied upon to dredge the studio archives for tasty cinematic treats and have just polished up and packaged together a nice pair of 1970s shockers in Nightwing (1979) and Shadow of the Hawk (1976) for the first time as a UK Blu-ray release.

Based upon a 1977 horror novel by Martin Cruz Smith, who also had a hand in the screenplay alongside Steve Shagen and Bud Shrake, Nightwing (1979) was directed by Arthur Hiller, The film opens with Maski Tribal Policeman, Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso) attending the scene of a livestock killing in New Mexico, where the animals have been drained of blood from a horde of small bites and left stinking of ammonia. Mystified by the condition of the bodies when human corpses turn up butchered the same way, and sidelined in the investigation by Walker Chee (Stephen Matcht) the tribal chief of a neighbouring, but much wealthier reservation, Youngman consults his Uncle Abner (Gearge Clutesi) the Maski Medicine Man. Abner is convinced the killings are the result of a ritual he has started to bring about the end of the world introducing an element of Native American mysticism to the proceedings. Fortunately for Youngman he runs into Phillip Payne (David Warner) a chiropterologist (or bat biologist to you and me) who has been tracking similar killings all the way from Mexico. After some initial hostility from Youngman Payne explains his theory that migrating vampire bats are responsible for the deaths, so with his Anglo med student girlfriend Anne (Kathryn Howard) Youngman and Payne set about hunting for the bat’s secret roost.

Payne and Youngman demand that Chee close down a big tourist celebration that is planned to take place on Chee’s reservation, which Chee of course refuses to do because he’s not only after the tourist dollar but also doesn’t want to put off the oil company execs prospecting for shale oil out in the tribal lands exactly where the bats are holed up. So I think it’s pretty easy to see where Nightwing is headed. This is essentially Jaws (1975) with bats instead of a shark, Youngman, Anne and Payne taking the places of Brody, Hooper and Quint and Chee as Amity’s money mad Mayor Larry Vaughn. Hitching a ride on the wave of nature bites back movies like Grizzly (1976), Orca: the Killer Whale (1977) and Piranha (1977) that followed in Bruce the Shark’s torrential wake. However Nightwing is more than just an angry creature feature because of some important things the movie has to say about the corporate exploitation of native peoples and the corruption and greed it engenders while also making serious points about  the destruction of the wilderness without regard to the sanctity of lands and the culture of First Nation peoples.

Knocked out on a budget of around $5.5 million in a pre-CGI era Nightwing was never going to win any awards for special effects so much of the bat action takes place off screen except for the very gratifying massacre of a group of white missionaries while they enjoy a campfire singalong. There are solid performances from all the cast, especially the trusty David Warner (and let’s face it what cult film isn’t improved by a turn from David Warner) who is excellent as the modern day Van Helsing complete with his high-tech equipment packed ‘batmobile’. Nightwing is a cracking environmentally conscious modern day Western thriller with just a hint of the supernatural, well worth investigating in my opinion.

Where Nightwing has its foot more firmly in the real world Shadow of the Hawk (1976), directed by George McCowan and written by Peter Jensen, Lynette Cahill and Norman Thaddeus Vane is a wholly supernatural affair. Canadian First Nation actor Chief Dan George, a familiar supporting actor from TV shows like The High Chaparral, Bonanza and Kung Fu along with movie appearences including the very charming Harry and Tonto (1974) and the Clint Eastwood Western The Outlaw Josey Whales (1976), is cast as Old Man Hawk, a tribal elder and medicine man who walks to the big city to recruit his estranged grandson Mike (Jan-Michael Vincent) to succeed him in a battle against a long dead sorceress Dsonoqua (Marianne Jones) hell bent on revenge from beyond the grave. A wealthy businessman who has no pride in the Native American element of his DNA, Mike attempts to dump Old Man Hawk at the bus station with a bus fare to the reservation, but journalist Maureen (Marilyn Hassett) who Old Man Hawk has befriended on his travels shames the lad in driving him all the way home.

On the journey which is fraught with a spectral pursuit car, a vicious bear attack and many other dangers Mike comes to reassess his opinion of his grandfather and his heritage and comes to accept his own, pre Christian culture. Mike gradually becomes a stronger more complete person at one with the outdoor environment as he is stripped from the trappings of his contemporary American life. Confident but still suffering from injuries sustained in the bear attack the newly initiated Mike is ready to face up to Dsonanqua the shapeshifting mistress of deception and magic, for a final spectacular battle.

Shadow of the Hawk is a thrilling quest movie with plenty of action and supernatural chills even if it is obvious that cast member Bruno the Bear has a stunt double in a fur suit for his close up and personal work! Quite aside from the genre elements Shadow of the Hawk is an uplifting variation on the coming of age drama where Mike is forced to reassess what is important to him and reject the big city lifestyle that he formerly aspired to because it is nothing more than an empty fake compared to the acceptance of his own Native American heritage.

As usual with Eureka releases the single disc edition Blu-ray comes with some great extras including: An O-card Slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling, English SDH subtitles, Nightwing gets a new audio commentary by Diabolique’s own Lee Gambin and Amanda Reyes, Shadow of the Hawk gets a brand new audio commentary with film writer Mike McPadden and Ben Reiser, An audio essay Oil and the (Geo)Politics of Blood  by John Edgar Browning and trailers. Plus for the first print run of 2000 copies: there’s a a Limited-Edition Collector’s Booklet featuring essays by film historian Lee Gambin and film scholar and author Craig Ian Mann.