The golden age of slasher films saw Hollywood struggling to find new and different horror movie killers. By the time the late eighties rolled around, mad murderer movies had become stale and passé, and studios were willing to do seemingly anything to find a way to refresh the genre. In 1989, the generically titled Night Shadow was released, a film which tried to combine the suspense of the slasher film with the sheer terror of the werewolf movie.
Night Shadow is the story of Alex Jung (Brenda Vance from Line of Fire), a Los Angeles television newswoman who, in desperate need of a vacation away from the big city, returns to her hometown of Danford for a visit with her family. Once back in town, Alex’s vacation is cut short when a murder spree breaks out in Danford and she is asked by her network to cover the story. While investigating the crimes, Alex learns that a strange hitchhiker (24 Hours to Midnight’s Rick Scott) has followed her from Los Angeles. Not only is the hitchhiker responsible for the murders, but he is no ordinary man – he is a werewolf, and he has his sights set on Alex. With the help of her brother, Tai (martial artist/stuntman Stuart Quan, using the name Dane Chan), and her ex-boyfriend, Sheriff Adam Newquist (Tom Boylan in his only role), Alex has to stop the werewolf before he stops her.
There is very little mystery in Night Shadow. Like most typical slasher movies, the killer is obvious from the beginning. The first time the Charles Manson-looking hitchhiker is shown onscreen the audience sees a mutilated body in the trunk of his car, and the very next thing that he does is kill a man who picks him up. Therefore, the goal of the film shifts to uncovering the truth behind the murderer, and the answers reveal themselves slowly but surely.
The brainchild of writer/director Randolph Cohlan, Night Shadow is his only produced work. Looking every bit like a product of the late eighties, the film has an endearingly amateurish feel to it, making it seem like a television movie-of-the-week or an episode of HBO’s “The Hitchhiker.” The acting is bad, the music is cheesy, and the narrative is full of subplots that go nowhere. The film is packed with unintentional humor, from the horribly dated costumes and hairstyles to the silly dialogue and situations. With all of its shortcomings and faults, Night Shadow is more effective as a cult classic than it is as a horror movie.
The one place where Night Shadow does not skimp is on the werewolf makeup. In true monster movie fashion, it takes until the climax of the movie for the werewolf to be fully shown, but he is well worth the wait. This is not a Universal Studios Wolf Man looking werewolf, drawing a much more realistic influence from films like An American Werewolf in London and The Howling. Although the transformation from man to wolf is not really shown, the completed beast is impressive. The creature, designed by and built by Rick Scott (who plays the hitchhiker), is a clever contraption of puppetry and costuming that is both a throwback to classic monster movies and a celebration of eighties practical effects.
Besides the creature, the other aspect of Night Shadow that is most interesting is the fact that it contains liberal doses of kung-fu. As Tai, Stuart Quan shows off his fighting skills several times in the movie, punching and kicking his way through biker gangs and policemen on his way to the werewolf. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t feature a monster-versus-ninja final battle. However, as corny and exploitative as it is, Quan’s martial arts performance does give Night Shadow something that other werewolf films lack: fists and feet of fury. Although most of the cast is forgettable and generic, there is one actor in Night Shadow who boasts a familiar – almost infamous – face. The film includes an early performance by a mullet-bearing Kato Kaelin, the man who would be shoved into the national spotlight a few years later as a key witness in the O.J. Simpson murder case. Kaelin’s acting in Night Shadow is less convincing than his testimony in the trial, but his presence is a fun little bit of pop culture trivia for those who like to keep track of such things.
Night Shadow is a far from perfect movie. However, despite its problems, it remains worth the time and effort, if only to see one of the coolest werewolves ever captured on film, and to see some mighty kung-fu.