Movies: The Norliss Tapes (1973)

I’m sure I’ve mentioned once or twice (or several times) how much I love made-for-TV horror movies from the 1970s. I’m not entirely sure what it is about them; it might just be that they take me back to my childhood and give me a warm, fuzzy feeling of nostalgia, or it could be that there’s some particular vibe to them that really resonates with me for whatever reason. So when a couple of listeners asked me to take a look at 1973’s The Norliss Tapes—a potential series pilot made for NBC which I had heard of but never seen—I was intrigued enough to give it a go.

The film has quite a pedigree: it was directed by Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, Trilogy of Terror), with a teleplay by William F. Nolan (Logan’s Run, Burnt Offerings), which was adapted from a story by Fred Mustard Stewart (The Mephisto Waltz). The Norliss Tapes was very clearly NBC’s take on the “paranormal investigator battling a classic monster” formula that had proved so successful with rival network ABC’s 1972 TV film The Night Stalker (which was also produced by Dan Curtis, as was its sequel, The Night Strangler, which he also directed). The subsequent series that emerged—Kolchak: The Night Stalker, starring Darren McGavin as the world-weary detective—was beloved by many, had great ratings for its shitty timeslot, and still has a large cult following to this day, even though it ran for less than one season.

The Norliss Tapes was also intended to be a series along the same lines as Kolchak, with only minor variations. This time around, the paranormal investigator, David Norliss, was a journalist and author played by Roy Thinnes, and the framing device was a series of tapes about different cases he’d looked into while working on a book debunking the supernatural. I actually would have loved to have seen this go to series, because it’s such an intriguing setup, but unfortunately, the series wasn’t picked up, and all that remains is this single, stand-alone film, which is actually pretty entertaining in itself, but frustratingly ends in a cliffhanger that never got resolved.

At the beginning of the story, we’re introduced to Norliss, who looks as though he’s been on a several-day bender and hasn’t cleaned his house in god knows how long. He’s speaking to his publisher, Sanford Evans (played by Don Porter), on the phone, and Evans asks him how that promised book is coming along. Evidently, the publishing house gave Norliss a sizeable advance a year ago to produce a book exposing all the fake mediums and psychics infesting the Bay Area, but Norliss claims that not only has he not even started writing the book, but now he knows he CAN’T write it. Evans understandably asks him what the hell he means by that, at which point Norliss says that he needs to talk to Evans immediately, because tomorrow might be too late. Evans agrees to meet him for lunch, but Norliss never shows up, and over the next couple of days, it becomes clear that Norliss has completely vanished.

Worried about his friend/investment, Evans goes to Norliss’s well-appointed Bayside bachelor pad and discovers a series of numbered tapes on which Norliss had been recording his notes for the proposed book. Evans pops in the first one, and as the tape plays back Norliss’s narration, the movie travels back in time to the case that first made Norliss realize that the supernatural might actually be real and something with which one should not fuck.

Norliss is put in contact with a wealthy widow by the name of Ellen Cort (played by a pre-Police Woman Angie Dickinson), who wants him to investigate some possibly paranormal shenanigans involving her recently deceased sculptor husband James (played by renowned stuntman Nick Dimitri). One night, she explains, her German shepherd Rollie woke her up in the middle of the night, and when she went out to her dead husband’s studio to see what was going on, her lumbering, blue-skinned, yellow-eyed hubby attacked her and killed the dog by flinging it aside like a rag doll. Ellen shot the pooch-killing son of a bitch right in the chest at point-blank range, but when the police got there, they didn’t find a body, and no blood other than the dog’s. The dismissive sheriff, played by Claude Akins because of course he was, surmises that Ellen just shot at an intruder and missed. Ellen is sure that the culprit was her dead husband, though, and she wants Norliss to help her figure out what’s going on.

Shortly afterward, a random young woman is killed when the zombified James attacks her from the back seat of her car, causing the vehicle to crash into a tree. When the cops retrieve the body from the wreck, they find that the woman has been completely drained of blood. The sheriff is befuddled, and insists that this detail be kept on the down-low until they get everything sorted out.

As the story progresses, it comes to light that before his death, James Cort had been stricken with some crippling and fast-acting disease, and desperately turned to the occult in an attempt to stave off death. Through a contact at the gallery that handled his sculptures, he was introduced to an antique dealer/medium-type person named Mademoiselle Jeckiel (played by Vonetta McGee, who I instantly recognized from Blacula), who gave him some kind of ancient Egyptian scarab ring that James insisted he be buried with.

While all this is being uncovered, more people—including the gallery owner and Ellen’s sister—turn up dead. Ellen and Norliss re-enter James’s studio to see if there’s something unusual there that they missed, and they discover a sculpture of a devilish/superhero-looking creature that wasn’t there a couple days before, meaning that James has been toddling out of his coffin at night to work on his art. He’s not creating this statue just for shits and giggles, though; Mademoiselle Jeckiel later tells Norliss that the undead James made a pact with a demon named Sargoth to fashion a kick-ass, life-size vessel out of clay and human blood that will loose Sargoth on the world, in exchange for James receiving eternal life. So that’s why all the victims were found without blood; James had been using his kills in service of his immortality-giving art project.

The demon actually does manifest briefly in the world (looking a little bit like a rust-colored 1970s Incredible Hulk with a Halloween-style devil cape), but is (apparently) thwarted by Norliss using some magic potion and fire to make a circle from which the demon can’t escape. Because this film was intended to be the beginning of a series, though, it’s left unstated whether the demon was actually destroyed, or whether Sargoth was going to be a recurring baddie as the story continued. The film ends with the publisher, Evans, popping in the second tape, in which Norliss is going on to a new chapter and talking about a different case, but of course we’ll never find out what that case was going to be, and we never find out where Norliss disappeared to and if the supernatural underworld he uncovered had something to do with where he went.

Though The Norliss Tapes isn’t quite as fun and laced with humor as The Night Stalker or the Kolchak series was, being much more serious in tone, it’s still an effectively creepy slice of 70s made-for-TV goodness, with decent acting, some great suspense, and some well-staged action sequences. The look of the zombie/vampire/undead dude, while crude by today’s standards, is still pretty damn good, and stuntman Nick Dimitri is persuasively imposing in the role, providing some potent scares when his creepy face appears outside of a window or when he busts through a door unexpectedly. It’s a shame this didn’t get picked up as a series, because I really liked the conceit of Norliss and his collection of case tapes and would have liked to see where they went with it and what ended up happening to Norliss himself, but at least we got this little gem of a movie, which is a perfectly satisfying diversion in its own right.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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