Written by: William Nolan, Fred Mustard Stewart
Directed by: Dan Curtis
Starring: Roy Thinnes, Don Porter and Angie Dickinson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďI kept thinking about the girl who had been murdered the night before, trying to tie what I knew about her into the story Ellen told me. I had a gut hunch the two were connectd."
By 1973, Dan Curtis was one of the biggest names in Hollywood, but you rarely saw his name on a theater screen. Instead, he dominated the television scene and almost single-handedly defined horror on the small screen by the end of the decade. At that point, Dark Shadows had already become a phenomenon and transitioned to film, and Curtis never quite regained that kind of success; still, that didnít stop him from scoring some smaller hits. One of these was The Night Stalker, the film that introduced Kolchak to American living rooms, and itís probably fair to say that The Norliss Tapes was an attempt to capitalize on it. Similarities abound, but, whereas Kolchak eventually went on to become a minor pop culture figure, The Norliss Tapes floundered in obscurity and serves as an interesting curiosity piece more than anything.
This first collaboration between Curtis and screenwriter William Nolan has a setup that's straight up Kolchak: David Norliss (Roy Thinnes) is an investigative journalist exploring the supernatural. Heís been fronted a huge advance on a book deal where heíll actually debunk all the weird stuff he encounters. The only problem is heís not able to do that, nor can he commit anything to paper; instead, heís made a series of tapes that document his findings, and his publisher (Dan Porter) stumbles across them after he disappears one day. Upon discovery, the publisher begins to rife through him and plays back the first tape, which reveals Norlissís first outing, where he encountered a recently-widowed woman (Angie Dickenson) whose husband, James Cort (Nick Dimitri), returned from the grave.
Thereís not a whole lot of mystery to this; upon the husbandís first appearance, itís pretty clear that heís a vampire, so most of the short run-time is dedicated to Thinnes and Dickenson unraveling the details of how he pulled it off. The Norliss Tapes goes into some admittedly cool direction here since Cort got mixed up with an occult guru (Vonetta McGee) after he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, so this is a neat little take-off of vampires that mixes in other mythologies. Oddly enough, the mash-up here sort of reminded me of The Pharaohís Curse, only this flick's feet are firmly planted in the 70s. Like in The Night Stalker, Curtis is able to smoothly blend gothic flavors into a modern procedural, and The Norliss Tapes basically plays like a cop drama with bloodsuckers intertwined.
Other murders occur, of course, as girls are found with their corpses completely drained of blood. The cops are baffled where Norliss is not, but they (of course) will hear nothing of his outlandish claims. Very typical stuff for a typical TV movie thatís hamstrung by a small budget and an even smaller scope; still, Curtis always had a good eye for making this sort of thing feel bigger and more cinematic than it should. His camera work is smooth and resourceful, and he captures a certain bleakness and grit in his San Francisco locales; itís no Bullitt or Dirty Harry, but thereís a waft of sweltering oppressiveness to these seedy streets. Nailing down the atmosphere is important since the television restrictions preclude a lot of explicit scares--about the most horrifying image it has to offer is Dimitriís vampire, which ends up looking like the fucked up love-child of a three-way featuring a Smurf, Dracula, and the Incredible Hulk.
Itís laughably quaint like a lot of these 70s TV horrors are. The Norliss Tapes is a fun enough example; propelled by Thinnesís Dragnet-style voice-over, it stays busy enough but doesnít leave much of an impression. I watched it about three days ago and am having trouble getting all that worked up about it one way or the other--I think I like The Norliss Tapes more as an idea than the actual product. As the film wraps up, we return to the frame story with the publisher, who discovers thereís a whole stack of these tapes; he proceeds to push play on the second one as the flick trails off to the credits. This feels like a tease for more to come, but it never happened since The Norliss Tapes is a pilot for a series that was never picked up. Had that happened, the series would have been a cool precursor to the likes of The X-Files; even though Thinnesís main character is a little bland, it might have been fun to see him bump up against other supernatural threats. The framing device would have been a little wonky--I imagine each episode would have been kicked off with Porter pressing play--but the concept is ahead of its time, sort of.
Released in the shadow of The Night Stalker, it probably didnít find much traction in this regard. The Norliss Tapes perhaps serves as a reminder that Hollywood has always operated pretty similarly when it comes to cashing in on something. Kolchak was popular, so why not go for a knock-off one year later? Audiences must not have taken to it, and this pilot is all we have. Itís likely enough. Released as part of the short-lived deal between Fox and Anchor Bay, The Norliss Tapes hit DVD about five years ago, where it was given a decent presentation . The transfer is in the correct full frame ratio and looks good--one thing I can say is that Curtis photographed this thing very well, and itís reflected in the transfer. There are absolutely no special features, though, so itís a tough disc to justify hunting down, especially since itís out of print and commands high prices on the secondary market. But if you happen to stumble across it and enjoy this sort of thing, itís worth a look--between the blood circles, vampires, and mystical statues, thereís a lot of 70s silliness to be found here that's much better than the bad sort of TV-horror silliness we're mostly stuck with these days. Rent it!
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