Air Date: Sept. 29, 1970 (ABC Movie of the Week)
Production Companies: Bing Crosby Productions
Running Time: 72 min.
Available on: YouTube
Written by: Everett Chambers and Robert Specht
Based on: the novel by Jerry Sohl
Directed by: Ted Post
Cast: James Franciscus, Lee Grant, Scott Marlowe, Andrew Prine, Tisha Sterling, Leslie Nielsen
NIght Slaves (1970) permanently establishes the template for many other 1970s television sci-fi/horror movies to follow: something strange is happening, only one person knows the truth, and no one will believe him/her. We got a little of that with The Brotherhood of the Bell, but there was nothing supernatural about its conspiracy. Plus, Night Slaves is made to fit within a 90-minute air time (it runs only 72 minutes), while The Brotherhood of the Bell fits a 2-hour air time (at 100 minutes.)
The “something strange that is happening” is that at night, the residents of Eldrid, California, all wake up, go outside, and climb into pickup trucks that drive them a few miles from town. The next morning, everyone wakes up with no memory of the previous night’s occurrence. They may be a little sleepier come mid-afternoon, but it’s a carefree town that seemingly allows for plenty of naps. If anyone were to witness it and ask them about it, why, they’d think he or she was downright crazy.
The “one person who knows the truth” is Clay Howard (James Franciscus), who’s supposed to be relaxing in Eldrid with his wife, Marjorie (Lee Grant) while he recovers from a car accident in which he killed Leon and Lillian Robertson. It wasn’t his fault; his brakes didn’t work (that’s never explained), but he still suffers guilt over it. Why, he might be so guilt-ridden that he’s concocted a crazy story where everyone wakes up at night, goes outside, and climbs into pickup trucks that drive them a few miles from town.
The “no one will believe him” is, well, everyone. Not Marjorie. Not Clay’s business partner, who is also Marjorie’s lover, Matt Russell (Scott Marlowe.) And not Sheriff Henshaw (Leslie Nielsen, sans his signature head of white hair.) Marjorie seems genuinely concerned about him, even though she’s preparing to leave him. Matt is more concerned about when Marjorie is going to tell Clay about their affair. And Sheriff Henshaw is more concerned about making sure everyone’s car lights are turned off when they accidentally leave them on.
This is by-the-book storytelling appropriate for the medium… tight, efficient, and entertaining. How much you enjoy will depend upon your satisfaction for the solution to the mystery and it’s resolution. Night Slaves leans more heavily toward sci-fi. The best of these TV movies end with twists. This doesn’t exactly have a twist, but is still effective because it leaves so much to the imagination. That’s another part of the template: low budgets. With good scripts and imagination, you don’t need to show UFOs or aliens shedding their human bodies or beaming up to a ship.
Night Slaves has such a good pedigree that it would be disappointing if it wasn’t enjoyable. The cast is top-notch. Franciscus had just appeared in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which was directed by the director of this, Ted Post. The story was based on a novel by prolific author and screenwriter Jerry Sohl. Sohl wrote episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and The Twilight Zone (as ghostwriter for Charles Beaumont.) He was supposedly happy with this production.
One question remains: why doesn’t Clay experience the same phenomenon as everyone else in Eldrid? The answer is clever, but we know it well before he figures it out for himself... even before we know what the “something strange” is going to be. There are other subplots in the story that interact with each other nicely and add emotional depth to the outcome. This might be stretching it, but I’ll be darned if an “unhappy-in-life” Clay Howard, who claims he’s a “drop-out,” didn’t remind me of a “yearning for more” Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977.)