Weekend **Double Feature** Film Recommendation: Night Slaves and The Screaming Woman

I generally don’t review made-for-TV movies because they generally aren’t worth watching (Stephen King’s It may be the only exception I have thus far made). 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).

My recommendations this week are two lesser known but still solid Twilight Zone-esque entries in this series of television movies: Night Slaves and The Screaming Woman.

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.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “Weekend **Double Feature** Film Recommendation: Night Slaves and The Screaming Woman”

  1. The “Salem’s Lot” TV movie wasn’t bad. And yeah, the evil Tiki doll was a classic. I hadn’t realized “Duel” started out on TV.

  2. Well. I am not much of a critic, I think. I generally can only tell you if something was well-made and if I liked it. But, there was a TV movie — iirc, on one of the generally ghastly Lifetime channels, I think? — with Katie Holmes in it. Called “Abandoned” or something like that. It was pretty good. It was about a young careerist … with a deadly secret.

    I heart Joseph Cotten too.

  3. James

    One reason ‘B Movie’ works is, if you consider the TV standard of the time (N American NTSC) much of that would just not have been visible or at least noticeable.

    Consider also that on analogue cable, (or tv aerial), most of us just didn’t have the reception to really notice– remember the snow across the screen every time there was bad weather? We were getting our ABC TV signal from Buffalo, across Lake Ontario.

    The special effects budgets of these films and TV shows were in so many cases far superior to what was available in other countries. Consider the SFX in Dr. Who or Blake’s 7 of that era.

    I don’t think you have mentioned the original ‘The Night Stalker’ made for TV movie with Darrin McGavin? That spawned the short, but classic, series? Again by modern standards SFX was hokey, but a gripping film.

    These films also provided work to a journeymen generation of Hollywood actors. I am thinking of the likes of James Franciscus (remember him as the blind detective in ‘Longstreet’?). Who never made any ‘great’ films but constantly impress when they come on the screen (James Woods? Tony Franciosa in ‘Petrocelli?’).

    The harder part is finding these films and shows– particularly in Europe– although sometimes Amazon vendors will ship (then you need a spare DVD player ‘locked’ to Region 0, sigh, I wonder if the money gained by regional segregation equals the sales lost by it?).

    On the subject (tangential) of undiscovered gems: do check out the French Canadian animated film series ‘The Delta State’ (English translation) about a quad of young psychics who are recruited to defeat aliens who seek to invade the gestalt unconscious mind of the human race. As intriguing as it sounds (shot in rotoscope) with a developed story arc across the episodes (the young peope cannot remember their own past– they just wake up in a test facility). It’s got a very ‘Twilight Zone’ feel about it.

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