Monday, February 8, 2016

The Norliss Tapes (1973)

So, The Norliss Tapes was a 1973 TV movie developed and directed by Dan Curtis, same guy who did The Night Stalker telefilm the year before. This movie took the same premise (paranormal-investigating journalist) and tried to give it a slightly different flavor. (A blander one, in my opinion.)

Don't get me wrong, it was more than competently done, for a 70s TV movie, and kept me watching into the end credits. But I am gonna say Roy Thinnes portrayed a painfully dull David Norliss. And while I know it's bad form, I couldn't help comparing him to Darren McGavin in The Night Stalker, and I'm afraid he didn't compare very well.

I know, it seems everyone wants to compare this film unfavorably to The Night Stalker, and it's not particularly fair to this movie or to Dan Curtis. But let's face it, when you create something as amazing as The Night Stalker, everything else you do tends to get held up next to it.

And I confess I was doing some of that as I watched this. Anyway, enough TNS-meandering. Let me give you a rundown of this little movie. It basically goes like this:

San Francisco investigative journalist David Norliss gets a call from his publisher, Sanford Evans, who wants to know how his new book is coming along. Norliss acts all weird over the phone, saying he doesn't think he can write the book (it's basically on how various supernatural phenomena are faked). He asks to meet with Evans, so they arrange that, but Norliss never shows up.

So then Evans heads over to Norliss' house and finds it empty. He knows Norliss always records his notes on cassette tapes (hence the movie's title), so he sticks a tape marked "1" in the player and sits down to have a listen, and the rest of the movie is in flashback.

Seems Norliss has been asked by Marsha Sterns to talk to her sister, Ellen Cort. Ellen says she just saw her recently deceased husband, sculptor Jim Cort, in his studio last night. She says he killed the family German Shepard right before Ellen let him have it with her shotgun, after which she ran like hell.

Norliss takes the case. He and Ellen go back to the studio that afternoon to check things out. There's lots of blood (the dog's), but when they check the family crypt, Jim is right there where he should be, looking quite dead. We get a close up of this ancient Egyptian ring, that Ellen says Jim got from a shop owner in town not too long before he died. He insisted he be buried with it on his finger. Norliss pays a visit to the shop owner, Mme. Jeckiel, who acts all cagey, telling him she has no idea what he's talking about but warning him to stay away from the studio anyway. (Suspicious.)

Meanwhile, other deaths are occurring in the area where victims are being drained of blood, and local Sheriff Tom Hartley is trying to keep that weirdness away from the press. So he's not too happy when Norliss comes snooping around, and he stonewalls him. Norliss finds out everything anyway, and decides there must be a connection between these other deaths and Dead Jim. (And he's right.)

The next time Norliss and Ellen visit the studio, it's night and they find an almost finished life-size statue of a demon, sculpted in a weird reddish clay. It's so weird, Norliss decides to take a sample for analysis. About this time Dead Jim shows up and tries to kill them, but Norliss runs over him in his car--twice--and they get away. When they bring the cops back, there's no sign of Jim in or out of his coffin. Well, it turns out that clay is 40% comprised of human blood, and now we know why there are blood drained corpses showing up all over.

About this time, Ellen's sister Marsha shows up long enough to get killed by Dead Jim, in what is easily the best scene in the movie. It's storming hard, and Marsha hears something outside her motel window. She walks slooowly toward it, draws back the curtain, and [GAHHH!] there's rain-streaked Dead Jim, who proceeds to jump through the window and kill her. (He must still need a little more blood for his statue.)

Anyway, Mme. Jeckiel finally spills the beans and confesses she helped Jim set himself up to become immortal. That ring he was buried with allows his corpse to rise from the grave by night, and said corpse is sculpting a body for this demon named Sargoth to possess and inhabit. Once Sargoth is loose and wreaking havoc on our physical plane, Dead Jim will lose the corpse-look and get to be Alive Forever Jim as his reward. (I'm guessing at this point Ellen is thinking something along the lines of it's the people you think you know the best that you actually don't know at all.)

Not to worry, Mme. Jeckiel says, all they have to do is remove that ring from Dead Jim's finger before he awakens at sundown and everything'll be okay.

Problem is, it's nearly sundown now....

Of course, they're too late and Mme. Jeckiel gets killed for her trouble.

Norliss arrives about this time and, having figured things out on his own, has a big vial of blood he uses to make a blood circle around Dead Jim and Sargoth, just as Sargoth is coming to life. Due to magic-blood-circle-mumbo-jumbo, both Dead Jim and Sargoth are trapped inside it. Chaos ensues and both supernatural bad guys are destroyed as the studio burns down.

We (the audience) return to Evans listening at the tape machine, and as he picks up tape #2, he ponders what tale of terror might be recorded on it. (A question we'll never know the answer to because NBC never greenlit the movie into a series.)

And that's it. Credits roll.

Not a bad little movie by any stretch. And as for Norliss being a dull lead character, it seems to me Dan Curtis must have looked at his Kolchak from the year before, and gone polar opposite for Norliss. Kolchak was seedy, usually destitute, with fairly questionable morals; Norliss was successful, affluent, and a straight arrow. Trouble for me was, Kolchak was more fun to watch.

Which reminds me, this movie was chock full of people I'd "seen somewhere before," and IMDB was kind enough to let me know just where (when I didn't already remember):

Roy The Invaders Thinnes as David Norliss
Don Gidget Porter as Sanford T. Evans
Angie Police Woman Dickinson as Ellen Sterns Cort
Nick Futureworld (best I could come up with) Dimitri as James Raymond Cort
Claude Sheriff Lobo Akins as Sheriff Tom Hartley
Michele Six Million Dollar Man Carey as Marsha Sterns
Vonetta Blacula McGee as Mme. Jeckiel
Bob Gymkata Schott as Sargoth

As for the Brain Count, maybe this film isn't quite The Night Stalker, but it's a fun little ride all on it's own. I'm giving it THREE 40%-HUMAN-BLOOD BRAINS.


Todd Reisom said...

I always think it's cool how basic some of these special effects are in older films. A big of face paint, rubber cement, plastics... and shazam; it's walking death.

dan said...

Yeah, a lot of people (and I'm one of 'em) still prefer a good practical effect over good CGI, because even great CGI can lack the "life" that practical/physical effects inherently provide. This is a decent example of that--even as cheaply made as the effects are.