Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Crazy or Not Crazy? That is the Question in a Beer-Gut Reaction to Ted Post's Made for TV Movie, Night Slaves (1970)
Our film opens with a man in crisis preamble: He's just quit his job as a corporate attorney; his marriage is currently breaking up on the rocks of ennui and the resulting infidelity (-- the wife is having an affair with his ex-business partner); and his brakes have just failed, resulting in a catastrophic car accident, whose sustained injuries require part of his fractured skull to be replaced with a steel plate.
While he recovers, the wife, in a noble but perhaps misguided gesture of loyalty and doing the right thing, postpones the inevitable break up, not wanting to pile on any more misery until he is solidly back on his feet. Thus, our film proper picks up several months later, with our fraying couple on the road, looking for a quiet spot to recuperate as per doctor's orders. Finding what appears to be the ideal town, everything is so laid back most of the locals appear to be asleep on their feet. (Odd, since it's well past noon.) Here, our cast is thickened up a bit with the introduction of Henshaw, the town sheriff (Nielsen), Beany, the town idiot (Prine), Fletcher, the restauranteur (Kellogg) and Mrs. Crawford, the dowdy owner of the local B 'n' B (Vincent). It almost seems too bucolic to be true, but things take a sinister turn when our couple crawls into bed for the night.
Waking up with a start from a(n obviously reoccurring) nightmare about the accident, our haunted hero is drawn to the window by some activity outside. Seems the whole town has turned out, like ants fleeing a colony, silently loading up onto the back of several trucks. Puzzled by this, he turns to alert the wife only to discover she's not in bed -- or even in the room. He then spots her outside, waiting to get onto one of those trucks. Taking to the streets, he tries to stop her but the other somnambulant townsfolk prevent this, knocking him aside.
Once the trucks leave, the distraught husband does a quick search around town, looking for help but finding everyone gone -- save for one girl, who giggles constantly at his plight and escalating agitation. Luring him back to his room, this tormentor disappears and the overwhelmed man collapses on the bed and passes out. Come the dawn, he wakes up with his wife sleeping soundly beside him. Worse yet, when he reveals what he saw the night before, she has no recollection of any of this -- nor will any of the other townsfolk. Told to write it off as a bad dream, despite the mounting circumstantial evidence backing him up, the man begins to question his sanity in the face of all this denial -- until night falls and, crazy or not, this mass exodus happens again...
Jerry Sohl was a passable science fiction novelist (The Transcendent Man, The Odious Ones), who transitioned to a middling Hollywood screen-writer, staying in the same genre, by penning scripts for The Outer Limits (Counterweight, The Invisible Enemy), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Dead Weight, A Secret Life), and, most notably, Star Trek (Whom Gods Destroy, This Side of Paradise, The Corbomite Maneuver). He also served as a ghost-writer for Charles Beaumont on a trio of Twilight Zone episodes (Queen of the Nile, Living Doll and The New Exhibit). In between all of that, Sohl published another novel in 1965, Night Slaves.
The tele-film based on the book doesn't stray too far off its source, with the Howards still being on the outs. Marjorie Howard (Grant) is in love with another man but stays with her husband as a sense of duty only while he recovers from that auto accident, which killed the other driver and his passenger. And thus, both physically and emotionally, Clay Howard (Franciscus) is, forgive me, a bit of a wreck. And things only get worse when the couple's getaway vacation is crudely interrupted by some preternatural malfeasance.
Five years after it's publication, producer Everett Chambers tagged Night Slaves for adaptation as a Made for TV movie. I've touched on the history of this genre before but, for those of you just tuning in, the MFTV Movie really cemented itself when Barry Diller set up a specific time slot for them as part of the ABC network's The Movie of the Week in the fall of 1969; and Night Slaves would be part of the second wave of productions to find their way into living rooms. Fellow Outer Limits scribe Robert Specht co-wrote the screenplay with Chambers, which, again, stays fairly faithful to the novel with one notable exception that we won't spoil -- yet.
To translate that script to screen, Chambers brought in veteran TV director, Ted Post. Starting with Armstrong Circle Theater back in 1952, Post was fairly prolific on the small screen over the next three decades, sliding from genre to genre with ease, but was also no stranger to motion pictures. He directed Clint Eastwood in Hang 'Em High (and would do so again in Magnum Force). And Post had just wrapped Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which also starred Franciscus, before tackling Night Slaves. And like it's source novel, this tele-film uses sci-fi trappings as a framing device to show the death throes of a marriage and one man's existential mid-life crisis and mental breakdown prodded along by extraterrestrial forces.
Yeah, after the second morning produces the same vehement denials, and then a third, Night Slaves quickly ventures into It Came from Outer Space territory when Clay finally wises up and plays along the next night, obediently following the others onto the trucks, which take them to a nearby factory where they all unload and set to work on ... something. Poking around further, Clay finally gets to the bottom of it all. Seems a gaggle of shipwrecked E.T.'s are using the people -- as benevolently brain-washed as extra-terrestrially possible -- as forced labor to repair their ship.
Turns out Clay was immune to their 'psycho-kinetic' brainwaves due to that steel plate in his head. But now that he knows the truth, it does little to add credibility to his story. Branded a kook by the locals, the film tries to muddy these familiar plot contrivances by throwing in a couple of missing people, namely Fletcher's wife and daughter. And when the former turns up dead along the road and the ladder turns out to be the giggling girl, who only Clay has seen the past three nights, everyone soon suspects him of a double-homicide.
And if all of that weren't dire enough, things get even a bit more twisted when Clay and the girl (Sterling) fall head over hills in love with each other in perhaps the fastest and stoopidest whirlwind romance ever committed to film. See, the girl has been possessed by a lowly alien technician named Naillil, and they're both ready to tune in and drop out of the rat race and decide to do so together. Alas, insta-soul mates or not, their inter-stellar romance is strictly verboten (-- it'll never work, says I. He's carbon based, she's a non-corporeal blob of neurons). And so, commander Noel (Prine again) orders that Clay be placed in 'protective custody' until the repairs are completed in two more days. Will t'woo wuv win out in the end? Or will a daytime lynch mob derail this romance permanently?
Well, the answer to both questions is yes. Well, sort of. But not really. See, as we barrel toward the climax, Night Slaves the TV film finally ditches Night Slaves the novel. In Sohl's version, Clay Howard truly was insane, and this whole scenario was a paranoid delusion -- all part of his cognitive breakdown over the guilt of killing the other two motorists. And in this delusion, he concocts this plight where he decides to run away with Naillil to outer space. To accomplish this, he commits suicide by slitting his wrists. Again, this was all in his head and he died for nothing.
A lot of the same elements that proved Clay's insanity leaked into the movie. Naillil and Noel are Lillian and Leon spelled backwards, the names of the other victims in the accident. And so, in a sense, novel Clay has fallen in love with the woman he killed to compensate for his guilt, which leads to his self-destruction. I find this weird and a little disconcerting. And when one considers a lot of the other cynical, downbeat, and straight-up mind-f@ck endings the 1970s spawned on the boob-tube (Satan's Triangle and A Cold Night's Death immediately spring to mind), they really could've had another real head walloper here. But, no. We get a happy ending. Sort of. But not really. Sensing a pattern here...
Anyhoo, Clay is saved firstly when that lynch mob waits too long and are diverted back to the factory. (The woman died of a heart attack while in transport and fell of the truck, which, of course, no one remembers.) Left alone in the jail, Naillil lets him out and tells him to meet her in the meadow where the ship will launch the next morning. But Clay thinks they should skip trying to smuggle him on board and just jump in his car and skedaddle. This they try, but the zombified town folk swarm the car, blocking their escape. (The film's most effective scene.) Come the dawn, Clay smiles and nods and gives everyone the answers they want to hear until he's released from jail. Then, he quickly ditches the wife and leads a merry chase to that meadow, where he is reunited with his alien lover. They run off into the weeds together. When the sheriff and Marjorie arrive, they find them sprawled on the ground. Clay is dead -- well, not dead but 'psycho-kinetically' extracted to join Naillil on the ship (-- you'd think that steel plate would have prevented this, too, but, eh, forget it, the movie's almost over), but the girl, Annie Fletcher, is still alive but remembers nothing, leaving those our protagonist left behind to contemplate on what really happened and whether he was crazy or not.
Despite these changes, Sohl was apparently happy with the adaptation. To me, as crazy as I made it out to be, Night Slaves is a little too tepid and way too repetitive in its plot structure. (I was totally with it until it got to the insipid romantic subplot.) It also lacks the true whackadoodlery of George McCowan's The Love War (-- a wild and wacky tale of feuding alien races fighting a clandestine war on earth in the form of Lloyd Bridges and Angie Dickinson, which debuted the same year) and not played straight enough to reach the supernatural contemporaneity alchemy of John Llewellyn Moxey's THE NIGHT STALKER (-- where a vampire stalks the streets of Las Vegas). Post does a workmanlike job behind the camera, but aside from that final attack on the car nothing else really sticks out. We've all seen him be better than this. And weirder. (Go see The Baby. Now!) The incidental music is credited to Bernardo Segall, but one could easily mistake it's hiccuping, clavichord heavy muzak for something Vic Mizzy would cook up. Whoever wrote it, it doesn't really fit the surroundings all that well.
Overcompensating for these deficiencies and lack of deliriousness, we have James Franciscus and Lee Grant adding a lot of gravitas to the proceedings -- and more than it probably deserved. The film just smolders when these two share the screen. Not with hate, but a sense of familiar contempt two people with nothing left to give or say to each other accrue until it finally boils over. The film works so well when these two shred what's left of their marriage, burn the remnants, and salt the ashes. Kudos to Grant especially; it was a genuine pleasure to watch her on such a slow burn, here, when everything else I've seen her in can be easily identified by the teeth marks she left in the majority of the scenery. My Bro'Crush on Franciscus has already been well documented, but, omigod, Tisha Sterling is so adorable I can't even even.
Night Slaves debuted on September 29, 1970. I fist saw it many moons ago on TBS, back when the SuperStations didn't suck. It's good, but not THAT good. It's weird, but not quite weird enough. Is it worth seeing? It barely breaks an hour and there are worse things you could waste an hour on. And despite it's short-comings, Night Slaves definitely proves, once again, that the 1970s truly were a glorious time for network TV. An era of Made for TV movies, with amazing casts plugged into plots you wouldn't believe even if I drew you a picture, that we will sadly never see again.
Night Slaves (1970) Bing Crosby Productions :: American Broadcasting Company (ABC) / P: Everett Chambers / D: Ted Post / W: Everett Chambers, Robert Specht, Jerry Sohl (novel) / C: Robert B. Hauser / E: Michael Kahn / M: Bernardo Segall / S: James Franciscus, Lee Grant, Andrew Prine, Tisha Sterling, Leslie Nielsen, John Kellogg, Virginia Vincent