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.
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!
2 out of 5
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Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters Review – A Timid Step Towards a Frightening Possibility
Starring Mamoru Miyano, Takahiro Sakurai, Kana Hanazawa, Yuki Kaji, Tomokazu Sugita
Directed by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita
The Godzilla series is the longest-running franchise in cinema history. With over 30 films over a 60+ year career, the famous kaiju has appeared in video games, comic books, TV shows, and more, cementing its place as one of the most recognizable cultural icons in the past 100 years. With Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, the titular beast makes its foray into the world of anime in this first film in a proposed trilogy. While there are moments that are genuinely thrilling, the film unfortunately fails to capture the imagination and wonder that is at its fingertips.
The story is quite simple: Earth is under attack by swarms of various kaiju who are wreaking havoc across the planet. Entire cities are being destroyed when Godzilla appears to vanquish humanity’s foes. Unfortunately, the King of the Monsters isn’t really there to help humans and its rampage continues until a race of alien beings arrive at Earth asking for a place to stay in exchange for defeating Godzilla. When they are unable to do that, the remaining humans board a giant spaceship to venture off into space in search of a new home only to come back some 20 years later, nearly 20,000 years later by Earth time (think Interstellar logic), to search for resources and, possibly, a planet that will welcome them once again. However, Godzilla is still around and isn’t keen on sharing.
The main character of the film is Haruo Sakaki, a young man who begins the film by nearly following through on a suicide bomber terrorist act that is meant to call attention to humanity’s loss of vision and failure to fulfill their mission of finding a suitable home for the remaining survivors. Even though he is accosted and jailed for this act, he is eventually freed when people realize that his lifelong passion of killing Godzilla is the foundation for research he’s done in finding a way to take down the creature…a plan that just might work. The other characters are so forgettable that I forgot their names during the film.
From there, the film essentially pivots into following a massive team of volunteers who land on Earth’s surface to lay a trap for Godzilla in order to destroy it. Since this is Earth 20,000 years after they left, the flora and fauna have evolved and changed so radically that the team have no idea what to expect or how to react, so caution is a must.
The problem with this is that while the characters have to be cautious, the film doesn’t nor should it. The movie has the chance to explore the wealth of imaginative opportunities at its fingertips and yet does almost everything it can to avoid doing just that. The color scheme is flat and uninteresting. The character movements lack smoothness and the action sequences fall victim to shaky cam syndrome. There are a few mentions of some of the changes that have taken place on the planet, such as razor sharp plants, but they’re so incidental or offhand that it feels like no one making the film has any interest in seeing anything other than man against beast.
Speaking of this dynamic, the action sequences are quite entertaining but also feel somewhat reserved. Godzilla barely moves and much of the destruction levied against the humans is seen from a distance, apart from an attack on a military outpost by dragon-like creatures. For nearly the entire film, I found myself thinking, “I’m okay with this but that’s about it.”
The brightest moment in the film are the last few minutes and I won’t spoil what happens. Suffice it to say that it definitely has me interested in the second and third films but I really hope that this new world will be explored further in those entries. Otherwise, we’ve got a fascinating foundation that will be squandered.
Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is a bland entry in a trilogy that has great potential. For a first course, there’s a distinct lack of flavor or complexity. The final minutes are the only saving grace and I hope that the second and third films make use of that grand wonder.
Satan’s Cheerleaders Blu-ray Review – Sacrifice This Snoozer At The Altar!
Starring Jack Kruschen, John Ireland, Yvonne De Carlo, Jacqueline Cole
Directed by Greydon Clark
Distributed by VCI
The ‘70s. Satanism. Sultry cheerleaders. Sex appeal. With these tools nearly any low-budget filmmaker should be able to turn out something that is, at the very least, entertaining. The last thing a viewer expects when tuning in to a film called Satan’s Cheerleaders (1977) is to be bored to tears. But that is exactly the reaction I had while watching director Greydon Clark’s wannabe cult comedy. Even on a visual level this film can’t be saved, and it was shot by Dean Cundey! No, unfortunately there isn’t a cinematic element in the world that can overcome a roster of bad actors and a storyline so poorly constructed it plays like it was written on the day. The only saving grace, minor as it may be, is the casting of John Ireland as Sheriff B.L. Bubb (cute), a hard-nosed shitkicker who adds all the gravitas he can muster. But a watchable feature cannot be built upon the back of a single co-star, as every grueling minute of Satan’s Cheerleaders proves.
The cheerleaders and jocks of Benedict High School rule the campus, doing what they want, when they want, with little else on their minds except for The Big Game. Their belittling attitudes rub school janitor (and stuttering dimwit) Billy (Jack Kruschen) the wrong way. What they don’t know is Billy is (somehow) the head of a local Satanic cult, and he plans to place a curse on the clothes (really) of the cheerleaders so they… suck at cheerleading? Maybe they’ll somehow cause the jocks to lose the big game? When Billy isn’t busy plotting his cursed plans, he spies on the girls in the locker room via a hidden grate in the wall. I guess he doesn’t think being a sexual “prevert” is fair trade enough; might as well damn them all, too. Billy has his own plans to kidnap the girls, for his Lord and Master Satan, and he succeeds with ease when the girls’ van breaks down on the highway; he simply offers them a ride and they all pile in. But when Ms. Johnson (Jacqueline Cole) gets hip to his plan the two tussle in the front seat and Billy winds up having a heart attack.
The squad runs off in search of help, coming across the office of Sheriff B.L. Bubb (John Ireland), who, as the name implies, may be a legit Satanist. Bubb invites the girls inside, where they meet his wife, Emmy (Yvonne De Carlo), High Priestess of their quaint little satanic chapter. While the girls get acquainted with Emmy, Bubb runs off to find Billy, who isn’t actually dead. Wait, scratch that, Bubb just killed him for… some reason. The girls figure out things aren’t so rosy here at the Bubb estate, so they hatch an escape plan and most make it to the forest. The few that are left behind just kinda hang out for the rest of the film. Very little of substance happens, and the pacing moves from “glacial” to “permafrost”, before a semi-psychedelic ending arrives way too late.
“Haphazard” is one of many damning terms I can think of when trying to make sense of this film. The poster says the film is “Funnier Than The Omen… Scarier Than Silent Movie” which, objectively, is a true statement, though this film couldn’t hope to be in the same league as any of the sequels to The Omen (1976) let alone the original. It is a terminal bore. Every attempt at humor is aimed at the lowest common denominator – and even those jokes miss by a wide berth. True horror doesn’t even exist in this universe. The best I can say is some of the sequences where Satan is supposedly present utilize a trippy color-filled psychedelic shooting style, but it isn’t anything novel enough to warrant a recommendation. Hell, it only happens, like, twice anyway. The rest of the film is spent listening to these simple-minded sideline sirens chirp away, dulling the enthusiasm of viewers with every word.
A twist ending that isn’t much of a twist at all is the final groan for this lukewarm love letter to Lucifer. None of the actors seem like they know what the hell to be doing, and who can blame them with material like this? I had hoped for some sort of fun romp with pompoms and pentagram, like Jack Hill’s Swinging Cheerleaders (1974) for the Satanic set, but Clark provides little more than workmanlike direction; even Cundey’s cinematography is nothing to want on a resume.
Viewers have the option of watching either a “Restored” or “Original Transfer” version of the 1.78:1 1080p picture. Honestly, I didn’t find a ton of difference between the two, though the edge likely goes to the restored version since the title implies work has been done to make it look better. Colors are accurate but a little bland, and definition just never rises above slightly average. Film grain starts off heavy but manages to smooth out later on. Very little about the picture is emblematic of HD but given the roots this is probably the best it could ever hope to look.
Audio comes in the form of an English LPCM 2.0 track. The soundtrack sounds like it was lifted from a porno, while other tracks are clearly library music. Dialogue never has any obvious issues and sounds clear throughout. Subtitles are available in English SDH.
There are two audio commentary tracks; one, with director Greydon Clark; two, with David De Cocteau and David Del Valle.
A photo gallery, with images in HD, is also included.
- Audio commentary with director Greydon Clark
- Audio commentary with filmmakers David De Cocteau & David Del Valle
- Photo gallery
Although the title is enough to reel in curious viewers, the reality is “Satan’s Cheerleaders” are a defunct bunch with little spirit and no excitement. The ’70s produced plenty of classic satanic cinema and this definitely ain’t it.
A Demon Within Review – Familiar Possession Beats To A Dreary Tune
Directed by Ayush Banker and Justin LaReau
Possession flicks don’t often hold a long shelf life in the horror community, with Ayush Banker and Justin LaReau’s A Demon Within suggesting why. Hands emerging from the darkness, exorcisms, anxious priests – you’ll see it all again as you’ve seen it before. Early scenes glimmer a polish unlike equal indie products, but that’s just the devil playing tricks on you. Once the film’s main satanic takeover begins, cursing teens and stony glares become the been-here-before norm. Low-budget filmmaking isn’t an immediate detractor like some high-society snobs may believe, yet it’s surely no excuse either. Today’s review being an example of both mindsets.
Charlene Amoia stars as Julia Larsen, a divorcee who moves into Crestwick, Illinois looking for a clean start with daughter Charlotte (Patricia Ashley). Their dusty toucher-upper is a quaint, aged farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, complete with electrical issues and weird noises at night. Nothing to worry about, right? Julia’s focus is better directed towards town doctor Jeremy Miller (Clint Hummel), who she immediately hits it off with (after almost hitting *him* with a car). She’s eating stir-fry at his place one night, all things going well, and that’s when it happens – Charlotte is possessed by an evil force who enacts its sinister plan. Charlotte may physically be present, but only as a vessel for “Nefas.”
Without hesitation, A Demon Within lays predictable groundwork as small-town haunters have for decades. Charlotte’s new home is already infested with a spiritual squatter, Jeremy bottles (and drinks down) a blemished past that’s exposed too late, there’s plenty of characters sneakin’ up on one another – never with much “oomph.” Charlotte’s teeny-bopper voice drops to truck-driver deep at the height of possession, but it’s a distracting sound design that alone strikes little fear. Serious scares are attempted, be it a pitch-black basement slashing or Charlotte’s hide-and-seek pounce, just never delivered. An inconsequential failure to unite tone and atmosphere.
Performances are…well…rigid, to say the least. Amoia and Ashley strike a surprisingly likable chemistry as living humans, but once Ashley goes demonic, chemistry bottoms out. The way A Demon Within positions Charlotte when possessed is utterly dull and undefined; Ashley playing an unenthusiastic harbinger of death. It’s bad enough that Hummel’s tortured doctor masters the emotional range of Mona Lisa and the town’s pastor is hardly a scene stealer – but to have a demon be so vanilla (without a side of nuts, no less)? Getting past the limited lighting and Charlotte’s manly demon voice is hard enough, let alone her mostly relenting threats.
Making matters worse, the film’s third act is hardly a religious salvation that flows with ease. I had more fun watching Julia stammer over pizza and beers with Jeremy than their final fight against ghastly hellspawns. The truths of Jeremy’s past leak out in flashback form, only to reveal his stubborn inability to comprehend one’s own possession encounter in the very house Julia bought (useful information, eh?). The local priest shows up in the nick of time, a few cutaway jolts attempt cheap thrills, and some holy water mucks up an old painting – but again, minimal notability. Er…not even minimal? Shaky last-minute framing makes it hard to even notice the touch-ups to Charlotte’s face that signify her unholy imprisonment, even worse than blackened CGI mists.
A Demon Within tries, fumbles, and tries some more, but it’s best treated as a reminder of better exorcism stories that exist elsewhere. Even something like The Vatican Tapes is an improvement over this possessive redundancy, hokier than the honky-tonk love song that plays atop a pizza-chain flirt scene. There’s something to be said about getting out and creating original horror, but herein lies the problem – this ain’t *that* original. With harsher scares and tension, such a fate could be ignored. As-is? It’s hard to see past anything more than a January release placeholder.
A Demon Within is a seen-it-before possession thriller that brings nothing new to the conversation. Not the worst, but also not a “hidden secret.”
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