Friday, 11 November 2011

The Norliss Tapes (1973) - TV Movie

Country: USA

Original Transmission Date: 21/02/1973

History tends to be written by the winners, and as a result the landscape of 1970’s horror strains under a stifling orthodoxy. A prevailing critical consensus (partly attributable to academia as well as fan worship) that propels names like Argento, Craven, Romero, Hooper, Cronenberg and Carpenter into the forefront at the expense of others doing equally important work in the genre. One such man whose contribution to the typography of the genre in the 1970’s remains criminally underrated is Dan Curtis. The problem is that Curtis spent the majority of his career working (either as a writer, producer, or director) in the restricted confines of television. If you want a simple index of how culturally insignificant American television was considered in comparison to American cinema in the 1970’s look no further than Dan Curtis. Curtis is now most recognised for his cult television series Dark Shadows (1966-1971) and his three TV movies The Night Stalker (1972), The Night Strangler (1973) and Trilogy of Terror (1975). His only directorial credit on the big screen was the indifferent Burnt Offerings (1976) which was more of a showcase for the histrionics of Oliver Reed and Karen Black than it was for Curtis’ direction. However when one delves deeper into the filmography of Mr. Curtis one is surprised by the number of hugely entertaining and generically progressive TV movies he worked on. One such example is the very enjoyable The Norliss Tapes.

In essence The Norliss Tapes is basically The Night Stalker/Strangler minus the wit and self-reflexivity. The similarities are manifest - both protagonists are investigative journalists/writers, both use a recording device in order to narrate their fantastical story, both must accept and deal with the incursion of the supernatural into the modern world, and both must conduct their own investigations in the face of sceptical authority figures. The key difference is that one takes it very seriously, and the other approaches it in a more sardonic fashion. David Norliss (Roy Thinnes) narrates the tale in flashback form, and it begins with his latest written assignment which is intended to debunk the supernatural. Norliss is entirely humourless, but Thinnes brings with him an authority and charisma honed in The Invaders (1967-68) and other TV horror movies such as The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973), Satan’s School for Girls (1973). Thinnes is on autopilot, this is his territory, and he provides a professional if somewhat unexciting performance. If one compares his conception of David Norliss to Darren McGavin’s rendering of Carl Kolchak, it’s no surprise really that it was The Night Stalker that was optioned as a spin off series. But what The Norliss Tapes does have is a better premise on which to construct a television series. In the course of this 70 minute movie we are merely witness to one of Norliss’ tapes, on his table are strewn about twenty five! This is a character that actively seeks out the supernatural, rather than responds to coincidental events.

The flashback structure at times leads to some remarkable lapses in time and continuity, but Curtis compensates for this with some evocative location work. The film makes use of the scenic coastal highways of Carmel, and the bustling activity of San Francisco. In addition Curtis and his DOP Ben Colman manage to create a saturated gothic atmosphere thanks to frequent rain storms, grey cloudy days, and an overriding autumnal ambience that complements more obvious gothic elements such as family crypts and isolated houses. The supernatural itself is represented by the character of James Cort (Nick Dimitri) an artist who continues working on his latest sculpture, despite the fact that he has been dead for several weeks! With his pallid skin complexion and blazing yellow eyes Cort cuts quite a figure, and his death seems to have imbued him with an abnormal strength and physicality…the pet dog discovers this to his cost! This leads to a number of successfully mounted action sequences, the highlight of which is Norliss’ failed attempts to run him over. There are also a number of well constructed scares, not least of which is an incident at a local rain swept motel. His wife Ellen is played by Angie Dickinson, and although she adds a certain marquee value to the production, her talents are sorely underused.

The teleplay by William F. Nolan which was based on a story by Fred Mustard Stewart throws everything into the mix - Cort is both a zombie and a kind of vampire. The blood of his victims forms the basis of the special clay he requires for the unnatural sculpture he must work on in order to gain the immortality he so desperately craves. An element of mysticism and voodoo is also thrown in via the character of Madame Jeckiel (Vonetta McGee), for an ultimate outcome that travels down the route of demonology and the occult. This may seem somewhat unwieldy for a 70 minute movie, but surprisingly The Norliss Tapes displays an efficiency and tightness that suggests the strictures of television could have a benefit after all. One of the most notable aspects of the film is the lack of closure. With a possible series in the offing the narrative concludes in an open ended fashion, the disappearance of our hero unresolved. Now viewed virtually forty years after its original transmission date this finale creates a sense of creeping disquiet perfectly in keeping with the rest of the film.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. Wonderful write up, Shaun and I agree wholeheartedly with your assertion here. I'm only saddened I was unable to purchase the Anchor Bay DVD when it was readily available. Instead, I have to settle for DVD-R from the Fox Movie Channel, lol.

    Speaking of TV horror, I have a review for DON'T GO TO SLEEP that will hopefully be up sometime today.

  2. Cheers for the kind words Brian! To the best of my knowledge this has never been released on DVD in the UK, but I was able to watch it on Youtube, in a very decent print. It's not an ideal way to watch films, but my laptop screen is about 18" so it isn't too bad. - I look forward to your review of DON'T GO TO SLEEP.


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