I generally don’t recommend made-for-TV movies because they generally aren’t worth watching (With some exceptions, such as Stephen King’s It). But there was a quality series of such films in the 1970s known as the “ABC Movie of the Week”. It gave audiences memorable moments such as Karen Black being stalked by an evil doll in Trilogy of Terror, Elizabeth Montgomery doing some ruthless ax work au naturale in The Legend of Lizzie Borden and Dennis Weaver battling a mysterious truck driver on a lonely road in Duel (An early Spielberg triumph).
Night Slaves is based on a novel by Jerry Sohl, a veteran TV writer for Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Outer Limits, among others (including the original Star Trek). Familiar plot elements from those worthy programs are all here: A mysterious isolated location, strange experiences, and a central character who can’t tell if he has stumbled across something bizarre and sinister or in fact is losing his mind.
James Franciscus and Lee Grant play Clay and Marjorie Howard, a toothsome married couple who are taking a vacation from the big city in order to help them recover from a recent trauma. Clay was in a terrible auto accident in which he suffered a head injury and two other people were killed. The Howards chance upon a sleepy little town and take a room for the night. But ’round midnight, Clay wakes up to see all the townspeople gathering in a trance-like state and then leaving town. He looks for Marjorie and finds that she too has become a glassy-eyed zombie. He receives cryptic clues about what is happening from an alluring stranger (Tisha Sterling) but she disappears before he can demand a full explanation. When Clay awakens the next morning, the town is apparently back to normal and everyone thinks his head injury has caused him to hallucinate the events he reports having witnessed. Is he going crazy, or is the town in the grip of some malevolent force of which its people are unaware?
The story unfolds slowly enough to be suspenseful without ever dragging — indeed like all the movies in the ABC series the whole thing runs only about 70 minutes. The actors are all believable and, as in a good Outer Limits episode, the resolution is clever and satisfying.
With made-for-TV flicks, I keep to my “B-movie standard” for cinematic releases, i.e., I don’t expect such movies to be more than they reasonably can be and frankly dislike it when they try. For that reason, the “TV elements” of Night Slaves don’t bother me, e.g., the set is clearly a studio back lot used in a million oaters, the reflected camera lights are visible in the store windows on one of the night shots, and there are some static one camera set ups that would have been replaced with more captivating cinematography if this were a big budget product for the big screen. If you can’t accept those sorts of things, don’t bother with this one. But if you can appreciate a solid TV movie as such, Night Slaves is quality entertainment.
An even better film along similar lines is The Screaming Woman, starring Olivia De Haviland in a role that you could consider a follow-up to The Snake Pit. She plays a wealthy woman named Laura Wynant who has just returned from the sanitarium after a mental breakdown. As she walks the grounds near the remnants of a bulldozed old smokehouse, she thinks she hears a woman calling for help from underneath the ground. As with Night Slaves, The Screaming Woman is based on a terrific writer’s (Ray Bradbury) story that depends on a character convincing other people that what has been witnessed is not an insane fantasy.
It’s pleasant as always to watch Joseph Cotten work (He plays Laura’s attorney) and the visuals of the screaming woman are effectively eerie. And the direction, by the accomplished Jack Smight, gets the most from the script and the actors. Again, it’s a TV movie, but it’s a fine TV movie indeed.