The Twilight Zone series stands as the benchmark for weird, wonderful, and creepy TV viewing. Many shows and movies have tried to duplicate its moralistic mysteries with varying results. Night Slaves is a charmingly odd TV movie not only cut from the same cloth, but with ties to it as well.

Originally airing as an ABC Movie of the Week on Tuesday, September 29th, Night Slaves duked it out with Hee Haw/To Rome with Love on CBS and the NBC Tuesday Night at the Movies and had no issues with either; the telefilm, while heading down that sci-fi road, managed to lacquer a few coats of soapy romance on as well, hitting all of the prime time sweet spots.

Let’s peruse our TV GUIDE and see what’s going on:

NIGHT SLAVES (Tuesday, 8:30pm, ABC)

A man recovering from a near fatal car accident ends up with his wife in a small town with secrets to hide as the sun goes down. James Franciscus, Lee Grant star.

Picture, if you will: Clay Howard (Franciscus – The Cat o’ Nine Tails), a successful businessman, decides he’s had enough of the rat race and packs it in. On his drive home, he’s involved in a terrible accident, which requires a steel plate to be inserted in his head. He and his estranged wife Marjorie (Grant – Damien: Omen II) hit the open road shortly thereafter, and end up in a small town, looking for antiques. After meeting Sheriff Henshaw (Leslie Nielsen – Creepshow), they decide to spend the night. Clay awakens from a dream that night and finds Marjorie not in the room, but rather silently boarding a truck on the street below, along with all the other townfolk. Not only that, but there’s also a pretty, young woman in his room named Annie (Tisha Sterling – Night Gallery), who warns him not to interfere. Of course he does, is knocked unconscious, and wakes up in the morning back in his room.

Clay continues to investigate, night after night, with the townspeople showing up in the streets, loading onto the trucks, and heading to a location several miles out of town. The only one unaffected is Annie, and they fall in love (they only have 72 minutes to get this done, after all) while everyone is away. When Clay becomes the prime suspect in the disappearance of one townie, and the death of another, he must race against time to figure out where (and why) everyone is shipped to after dark to clear his name.

It’s an intriguing premise; a dash of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), mixed with a whole lot of It Came from Outer Space (1953), and you’ll find the DNA of Cocoon (1986) in here too. Surprisingly, it plays out that way – very much in tune with the chaste pronouncements of the ‘50s era (there are mentions of infidelity on Marjorie’s part, but nothing is ever shown). This is part of the film’s charm; coming out of the swinging sixties into the cynical seventies, it was unusual to find something to do with the cryptic that didn’t subscribe to the paranoiac ramblings of the time.

Based on the novel by  Jerry Sohl (The Twilight Zone, natch), the teleplay of Night Slaves by Everett Chambers and Robert Specht (Circle of Fear) is certainly light on action, and has no effects, but it does have an interesting hook – the townspeople have no idea of their own involvement after dark, making the accusations against Clay all the more ominous. I should come clean – the true nature of the story is actually kind of benign, but the build up isn’t; like a lot of episodes of The Twilight Zone, come to think of it.

Director Ted Post shouldn’t be a stranger to those fans of the offbeat; in addition to helming a couple of cracking Clint Eastwood pictures, Hang ‘Em High (1968) and Magnum Force (1973), he also made one of the strangest oddities of ‘70s horror, The Baby (1973), which alone guarantees him a permanent seat at the WTF table. Alas, his material here is much tamer, but he imbues the nighttime scenes with an eerie calm that boosts the chill factor.

James Franciscus worked with Post the same year on Beneath the Planet of the Apes; his sleek good looks and amiable manner provide a quick and easy in to this tale, and Grant gives good smoldering resentment as Marjorie. As for Nielsen, at this phase in his career he was trying to play against leading man types, frequently cast as obstinate assholes with little regard for others. (See: Day of the Animals. Please. He wrestles a bear.) His sheriff is somewhere between those two extremes, and he does quite well.

Night Slaves doesn’t reinvent the antennae or give chase after the best TV thrillers, but it offers enough solid storytelling to invoke warm memories of Rod Serling and his tales from beyond – and sometimes warm and weird is all you need.

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