Thursday, February 09, 2017

Cult-TV Movie Review: Night Slaves (1970)

The TV movie Night Slaves (1970), by Jerry Sohl, is the story of a man named Clay Howard (James Franciscus) who has grown tired of 20th century living, and its conspicuous consumption. “No more accumulations,” he insists to his business partner, Matt. “No more things.” 

Accordingly, Clay sells his business, and decides it is a time for a change in his marriage to Marjorie (Lee Grant), as well.

Before he can make any changes however, Clay is involved in a car accident and must undergo emergency surgery. The doctors implant a metal plate in his skull during the operation. Afterwards, Clay's surgeon recommends a vacation, one with "no pressure at all." 

So Clay and Marjorie head off together to the sleepy little burb of Eldrid, California, a dusty old town that advertises itself as "a bit of the Old West."

After he and his wife decide to stay in a local boarding house, Clay experiences a nightmare. When he awakes, however he finds he is living in one.

He sees his wife and other town people in a trance, being "herded like sheep" onto trucks and transported out of town to perform menial tasks for Noel (Andrew Prine), an alien life form who has possessed the human form of the local simpleton. Noel's space craft suffered "internal damage" while in flight and now Noel steals "four hours a night" from his human servants. He is a psychokinetic life form who means no harm, but also will stand for no interference.

Because of the metal plate lodged in his head, Clay is immune to Noel's mental control. Instead, he falls in love with the alien leader's only crew member; a naive technician named Nailil (Trish Sterling). Nailil shows Clay her damaged spaceship, as well as a selective invisible force field which she can pass through, but which Clay cannot. It blankets the town and prevents egress during the nightly work shift.

Clay and Nailil talk, and grow close. Both feel disenfranchised by their respective societies.

So when Noel's spacecraft plans to lift-off at 5:30 am one morning, Clay means to shed his Earthly form and be on board it...

Night Slaves is an unusually sedate and modest TV-movie of the 1970s, with no real special effects, and no real scares, either. Instead, it plays like a variation on It Came from Outer Space (1953), a classic science fiction film about aliens harnessing human workers in another quiet, out-of-the-way town.

What distinguishes Night Slaves -- and has made it memorable for those who saw it on its original broadcast -- is the underlying social commentary. 

Clay and Nailil both feel like outcasts in their respective societies. Clay no longer wants to be a “slave” to his possessions, or his profession, and seeks to break out of the “box” of 20th century society. 

He finds himself in a situation, intriguingly, where can shed not only all his material wealth for love, but his actual body, too.  His very name, Clay, tells us that he is not rigid and locked in, but able to re-shape himself and his life in new ways.

Niailil is similarly a slave to her “over-one,” (meaning overlord), Noel. She lives just to be a “technician” but longs to be a mother, a spouse…to feel love. Her interactions with Clay open up the doorway to those possibilities.

And what about those night slaves? Well, that’s the point commentary, I suppose. Marjorie, the town sheriff (Leslie Nielsen) and everyone else goes about his or her business in a trance, not seeing who is pulling their strings, why they are doing what they are doing, or how empty the whole endeavor is. And then, the next night, they get up, put on their clothes, and repeat the same task. It's a mindless, repetitive life.

And itt’s a metaphor, of course, for people trapped in the rat race, people who don’t have the wherewithal to “get off the treadmill,” or be a “drop out,” like Clay.  They are slaves, and they don’t realize it.

I once wrote an unnecessarily cruel and snarky review of Night Slaves -- sorry, it was a (short) phase I went through -- and I enumerated some of the drawbacks of this telefilm. Some of those observations are still valid, but in my desire to be funny, or witty, I missed some of the underlying value of the film.  So I am glad to revisit it today and correct an old mistake.

This is a story of star-crossed lovers, “drop outs” from different worlds, who find each other.  On a very basic level, it’s a lovely tale.  Part of its charm is, indeed, its modesty; its simplicity.

But sometimes the execution here isn’t great, or is somehow clichéd. For instance, one of the final scenes of the film reveals Clay and Nialil running in a picturesque field in slow motion, towards one another. It is a clichéd visualization that feels more appropriate for a breath mint commercial. And yet I don’t question director Ted Post’s sincerity in visualizing it this way.

Similarly, it seems that there should have been at least one or two scenes here of Clay in recovery, with bandages on his head, following surgery. Instead, we go from the accident, basically, to scenes of him with a full-head of hair, and the steel plate in his head.  Between those two scenes, logically, there had to be weeks of recovery.

Also, I love the idea of an alien and human falling in love, but what kind of love can it truly be without physicality? I suppose the idea of leaving material things behind is the point, but I feel that Clay should know a little more fully what he is leaving corporeal existence for.  How do non corporeal beings understand the concept of family. How do they have children?

And, finally, why do incorporeal aliens fly in spaceships that can only be repaired by corporeal beings? That seems like a really bad idea.

There are some narrative and stylistic (and pacing) lapses in Night Slaves, but underneath all these problems is a kind of fierce urgency to leave behind a system that doesn’t create happiness, but instead the impression of unending servitude.

1 comment:

  1. John, extremely interesting review of Night Slaves. I missed this '70s telefim. Since it was made in 1970, escaping the rat race might have also been a late '60s counter-culture message of dropping out of the society social norms.

    I will have to watch this telefilm.