Norliss Tapes, The (DVD)

The Norliss Tapes (click for larger image)Starring Roy Thinnes, Don Porter, Angie Dickinson, Claude Akins, Michele Carey, Vonetta McGee, Nick Dimitri

Directed by Dan Curtis

Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment

1973. War rages in the Middle East as Israel fights Syria and Egypt. The World Trade Center is dedicated in New York City. The United States and North Vietnam sign a peace treaty, and our troops withdraw. The Watergate burglars are caught, ushering in an age of governmental distrust. Americans suffer through a gas crises with long lines at the pumps. Skylab, America’s first experimental space station, is launched. While The Poseidon Adventure and James Bond rule the box office, made-for-TV movies (a good chunk of them of the horror variety!) reign supreme over the small screen. Thirty-three years later, while some things have irreparably changed, others (Casino Royale anyone?) seem remarkably the same. And now, thanks to the miracle of DVD, more and more of those old TV movies are available for today’s generation to watch and critique. Do they stand the test of time? In the case of The Norliss Tapes, the answer is both yes and no.

I remember well sitting down with my father to watch The Norliss Tapes when it first aired on NBC. I was a big fan of both vampire movies (which is what it seemed to be) and Roy Thinnes from his days on the “Invaders” TV show, and Dad was quite fond of Angie Dickinson (as were most men of his generation). Because of that connection, it has long held a special place in my heart. When the DVD arrived, I was anxious to revisit it and see if it still retains some magic. Unfortunately, the majority of its appeal lies solely in its nostalgia value, but that’s not to say it’s not worth a rental or even a purchase especially if, like me, you’re a fan of the era. If you don’t expect too much, you won’t be disappointed and are likely to enjoy your 72-minute trip back in time. Just keep in mind that The Norliss Tapes is a failed pilot and, as such, ends without a satisfactory conclusion to its tale.

David Norliss (Thinnes) is an author whose latest project is a book debunking supernatural phenomena. Mainly he aspires to expose the commercialism of the occult — the fake psychics and other con artists who defraud people desperate for contact with their deceased loved ones. He lives in San Francisco in a swanky bachelor pad with the wood paneling, brass bed, and tiger-skin rug that were so popular back in the day. He even drives a groovy orange Corvette Stingray. Oh, man, what were people thinking in the 70’s?!? Anyway, he’s disappeared after calling his publisher Sanford T. Evans (Porter) to let him know that the book isn’t finished. In fact, it’s barely even started. Norliss obviously fears for his life and informs Evans that he may not be long for this world. Evans travels to Norliss’ home and finds it empty. He begins listening to the writer’s cassette tapes with his research on them. Slowly the story emerges via flashbacks and voiceovers: Norliss had been contacted by Ellen Cort (Dickinson) following an unsettling encounter with her husband, sculptor James Cort (Dimitri), in his studio. The problem? James is dead.

The Norliss Tapes (click for larger image)As you’d expect, the local sheriff (Akins) doesn’t believe Ellen’s account of her experience, but then a young woman from the area is found dead in her car, all the blood drained from her body. At this point you can’t help but begin thinking The Norliss Tapes is just yet another run-of-the-mill vampire flick — one of Sheriff Hartley’s men even says the “v” word — but a twist is thrown in. Before he died, James had befriended Mme. Jeckiel (McGee), who gave him an Egyptian scarab ring that somehow channels the spirit of Osiris and promises eternal life to the one who wears it. So now it seems as if maybe we’re really dealing with a zombie, but that’s not quite accurate either. Bodies start piling up around James’ studio, and Mme. Jeckiel’s conscience forces her to come clean to Norliss about what James is really doing with the blood he drains from his victims. Story-wise, it’s basically the equivalent of your average Buffy or Angel episode (which is intended as a compliment). The climax comes quickly after that, but as mentioned, the audience is left mostly unfulfilled. Of all the films I’ve seen lately, The Norliss Tapes is one that could definitely use a remake or reimagining. I want to know what happened to the poor man, damnit!

The Norliss Tapes was an early product from the writing/directing team of William F. Nolan and Dan Curtis, who went on to do Trilogy of Terror together, among others. It employs all the cliché low-angle camera tricks you’d expect along with a typically cheesy music score, but it works overall. There are moments that are genuinely creepy and suspenseful — at least they were the first time I saw it back in 1973. Now they could be considered a bit on the laughable side, but I tend to watch these types of films through rose-colored glasses, looking at them with the perspective of someone who hasn’t seen all the latest CGI and other modern filming techniques. It’s really the only way to appreciate them. And if not, what’s the point? If you go into a movie like this expecting it to hold its own against the standards of today’s fare, then you’re only asking to be let down.

The DVD package, however, is another story (and a significant factor in my low rating). Some effort could and should have been made to at least include an interview with the stars. Granted, Curtis and a few others have since passed away, but Thinnes, Dickinson, and McGee are still around, and it would have been a hoot to hear what they have to say about this work from their early days. Instead, all we’re given are trailers to four films that are, admittedly, a lot better than The Norliss Tapes, particularly The Entity and Race with the Devil, both of which should be included in every horror fan’s DVD collection. Even so, Anchor Bay deserves our thanks for unearthing this long-lost gem and releasing it in the first place.

If you’re old enough to have kids of your own, The Norliss Tapes is the perfect film to watch with them and let them have a good laugh at your expense as you reminisce about the “good old days.” If you’re somewhat of a kid yourself, then it might not be your cup of tea — unless you’re a part of the whole retro-70’s craze that seems to be catching on. It’s always good to see horror’s roots and where we came from, and with all the old genre related made-for-TV movies from that era that are likely to make their way onto DVD, we’re gonna need a machete soon to cut through them all!

Special Features

2 out of 5

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Debi Moore

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