When the discussion turns to Stephen King's best pieces of writing, The Night Flier is not generally a title that gets mentioned. I've never read the short story, which was originally published in 1988 as part of one of the authors' many anthology books, yet the 1997 film adaptation of the story has long stuck in my mind as a chilling example of King's ability to tell a scary story.
Like many King tales, The Night Flier focuses as much on its flawed human characters as it does on any supernatural force. In the film, cynical tabloid reporter Richard Dees (a character who briefly appeared in King's novel The Dead Zone) sets out to chase down a serial killer who flies around the Northeast in a black Cessna plane and leaves a bloody trail that suggests vampiric tendencies. The cape-wearing aggressor - who goes by the name Dwight Renfield, which is called out as a reference to Dracula - is the instrument that sets everything into motion, but the slimy reporter is what really draws me in to the film.
Dees is played by Miguel Ferrer, an actor who has done reprehensible and narcissistic a few times in films like Robocop and Traffic. The character isn't that much different from what we've seen from him in other films; what is different is that we're stuck with him. This is a man who will manipulate any situation to fit his needs - whether that means defacing a grave or trapping a competing reporter in a closet - but he's also the closest thing to a hero the story will offer us. We've seen King do this before - Jack Torrence from The Shining is probably the most famous example, though Dees' character arc seems closer to that of the lead character in Thinner - and once again he doesn't seem to care whether or not the audience likes the guy who may or may not get eaten by an aviator vampire. King's universe is not a place where a story needs a good guy, and Ferrer is a perfect bit of casting in that universe.
Another thing working in the favor of The Night Flier is the source material. King's prose may be best when the author is allowed to go on for hundreds and hundreds of pages, but it's hard not to argue that the best film adaptations of his work come from some of his shorter tales. The Night Flier is an incredibly simple story, and there's a part of me that's surprised it wasn't whittled down to a half hour for something like Tales from the Crypt. The film gets to 90 minutes by adding a female character who serves partially as a competitor and primarily as a sounding board for Dees' cynical rants, but it doesn't feel like this is just padding to the film. This is a tight horror film that really doesn't waste a moment as it shows us Dees' investigation and leads us toward the answer to his questions.
When The Night Flier answers those questions it makes sure that everyone is glued to the screen. In fact, I might argue that the sequence that starts with Dees finally catching up to the title character is one of the most gripping pieces of horror filmed in the 1990s. The last 20 minutes of the film feature gory moments that make us cringe - including the reveal of some awesome creature effects - and at the same time offers a chilling black-and-white sequence that feels like something out of a moody horror film from decades gone by. Some King stories feel like they lose their way as they try to finish up their story - when they end with a random giant spider, for example - but Night Flier feels like everything wrapped up perfectly in this final sequence.
King may be best known for his epic tales of horror and fantasy, and it's hard to argue against that when it comes to his writing. But when I look at the film version of The Night Flier, despite the fact that it's a film with one interesting character and very little action before things go off the rails in the final act, it seems to me that this is a great example of how King's smaller works can make effective 90 minute horror films. The Night Flier is entertaining because it's such a simple story and because it isn't as ambitious as some King epics. This is the story of one cynical man and one serial killing vampire, which means that the acting of Ferrer and some wonderful special effects are all it really needs to make the film work. It doesn't compare to reading Needful Things, but it's a fun horror flick that should make the author proud.