New on Blu: SHADOW OF THE HAWK Review

Despite Canada’s rich First Nations history, our indigenous legends and mythologies have only rarely been explored on film. The 1976 tax shelter thriller SHADOW OF THE HAWK was one of the first to fashion quasi-mystical First Nation imagery and cultural ritual into a popular genre thriller, and though it’s not particularly authentic to those traditions, it still stands as one of Canada’s only true folk horror films. While not frequently seen these days, the B.C.-shot film was just released on Blu-ray from Mill Creek Entertainment, paired with the similar 1979 chiller NIGHTWING, giving the curoius a chance to check out this underrated horror movie.

In the film, city-dwelling businessman Mike (Jan-Michael Vincent) is surprised when his grandfather Old Man Hawk (the always excellent Chief Dan George) arrives at his apartment, having trekked more than 300 miles to explain that an evil sorceress (Marianne Jones) is trying to destroy the last of his tribe. Having been recently plagued by visions and nightmares, Mike reluctantly agrees to drive Hawk and Maureen (Marilyn Hassett), a freelance reporter who helped the old man find his grandson, back to the reserve. But their journey is beset by disaster–car trouble almost sends them over a cliff, dangerous snakes materialize while they sleep and a curious figure in a carved wooden mask follows their every movement. Hawk, who has grown old and weak, explains he must pass his role as a Medicine Man down to Mike to defeat the black magic that threatens his people.

SHADOW OF THE HAWK boasts direction by George McCowan, a veteran TV director who returned to his native land in the 1970s to handle tax shelter productions like the hockey love tale FACE-OFF (1971) and sci-fi cheesefest THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME (1979). Boasting a bigger budget than most tax shelter productions from this era, SHADOW OF THE HAWK plays out mostly like a ghost story, with some generally harrowing sequences of the heroes crossing a rickety swinging bridge and being chased by an eerie black sedan. Later, Mike has to battle a bear and a knife-wielding Indigenous warrior. Through it all, their evil nemesis appears to be less beholden to an indigenous tradition than generic movie voodoo–dolls, ceremonial daggers, snakes, zombie-like creatures and fire all make an appearance (alongside some weirdly sexualized Inuit throat singing). Still, it’s notable that Hawk’s own Medicine Man practices are portrayed as positive force against the sorceress’ demonic magic, that seems to lay outside Native tradition.

But what really makes SHADOW OF THE HAWK an outstanding Canadian folk horror film is the way it sends Mike on a dangerous physical and spiritual journey back to his own roots. The glass towers, restaurants and bus stations of Mike’s button-down world gradually melt away so that McCowan can use the Northern B.C. interior setting to create a sense of dark menace and ancient foreboding. From Mike’s early nightmares, in which the masked figure tries to drown him underwater, to the rituals he must perform in the latter part of the film, the general arc of the film has Mike coming grips with the supernatural and embrace his destiny. And though SHADOW OF THE HAWK doesn’t draw from more obvious First Nation menaces like the Wendigo or Dogmen, it’s depiction of pre-Christian mysticism and Indigenous tradition places it firmly within the folk horror subgenre as established in other films made outside Canada like THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968).

For this release, Mill Creek has paired the film with NIGHTWING, a more typical nature revenge film about vampire bats that carry Bubonic plague. This overlong American horror production is of less interest to Canadian film fans, even though it stars Nick Mancuso (DEATH SHIP) as a First Nations cop who teams up with a scientific researcher/bat exterminator (David Warner) to stop his village being attacked. As with Mike, he’s torn between his roots and modern civilization, but learns more to balance these elements by the film’s conclusion. Directed by Arthur Hiller, better known for adapting several Neil Simon comedies for the screen, NIGHTWING is unsurprisingly talky, but does build to several good sequences, including a harrowing bat attack when the protagonists attempt to shield themselves in a chicken wire cage and a final showdown that erupts in fiery splendour.

Though Mill Creek’s release doesn’t include any extras, both transfers look and sound excellent, with SHADOW OF THE HAWK’s occasionally impressive 35mm cinematography and spooky woodland sounds shining through–a notable step-up from its previous MOD DVD from Sony. The fine presentation enhances the release of this otherwise hard-to-see Canadian horror entry, making it easy to recommend.