Friday, July 06, 2018

Night Slaves

Robert Specht (THE IMMORTAL) and Everett Chambers (COLUMBO) adapted Jerry Sohl’s 1965 Gold Medal novel NIGHT SLAVES, which was marketed as science fiction, but really isn’t. Specht and Chambers wisely dumped Sohl’s frustrating ending, but otherwise left the main plot intact. Clay (James Franciscus) and Marjorie (Lee Grant) Howard are an estranged married couple on vacation while Clay recuperates from a serious auto accident.

They visit a sleepy little town that seems normal enough. By day, at least, everybody is abnormally exhausted. At night, everyone turns into a zombie, files into trucks, and heads out of town. They always return by daylight, and nobody has any memory of the night before. Only Clay is unaffected, and nobody — especially Marjorie, who thinks the accident has scrambled Clay’s brain — believes his story.

Director Ted Post’s TWILIGHT ZONE experience came in handy when presenting NIGHT SLAVES’ off-kilter scenario of paranoia and the fear of losing one’s identity. Is Clay slipping into madness, as his wife fears, or is something spooky — and possibly otherworldly — happening in little Eldrid, California? Franciscus’ nicely modulated performance makes Clay a relatable protagonist, though the love story between Clay and a mysterious young woman played by Tisha Sterling (COOGAN’S BLUFF) is unbelievable with a treacly wrap-up (I didn’t buy it in the book either).

Sohl had no problem with the changed ending and spoke highly of the film in interviews. Shooting on the Warners backlot gives NIGHT SLAVES an artificiality that harms the story. Clay’s fear is based on not knowing what is real, but in an obviously fake western town, nothing is real. However, Post’s thoughtful unraveling of the mystery and Franciscus’ sympathetic performance work well enough to get NIGHT SLAVES past its shortcomings.

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