Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Norliss Tapes (1973)

Writer David Norliss (Roy Thinnes), tasked with writing a book debunking the supernatural, ceases all contact with his publisher. He seems to spend his time lounging around sweating, not buttoning his shirt a lot. When the publisher finally makes contact with Norliss, the writer rambles something about being in too deep and having dictated his book onto tape. It will explain everything, apparently. He’s certainly not going to do that himself, for he doesn’t appear to a meeting with said publisher and seems to have vanished from the face of the Earth now.

His publisher does find the titular tapes, though. What is on the first of them makes up most of the film. Ellen Cort (Angie Dickinson), the widow of apparently somewhat famous sculptor James Raymond Cort (Nick Dimitri) calls Norliss in for help in a rather mysterious case. Despite being quite dead, a blue-faced version of Cort with pretty frightening eyes leaves his sarcophagus in the family crypt to murder dogs – later people – and work on a final sculpture. Ellen thinks it has something to do with the occult circles her husband started moving in when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Ellen particularly suspects the sinister Madame Jeckiel (Vonetta McGee) and a ring she gave James to have something to do with her husband’s very eventful version of the afterlife.

Norliss isn’t the most sceptical of sceptics, so he’s soon the one trying to convince your typical incompetent local Sheriff (as is usually the case played by Claude Akins) of the truth of a blue zombie dude walking around, murdering people, and sculpting a pretty creepy looking demon sculpture.

Dan Curtis’s – this time around not only producing but also directing – NBC TV movie The Norliss Tapes was supposed to be the pilot for a series of Norliss adventures, but the network never did pick the series up in the end. Therefor, we never will learn why Norliss disappeared, but since this was made in the age of done-in-one TV stories, his disappearance is really more an atmospheric set-up for the film’s actual plot.

I have to admit I’m not terribly surprised by the series not having been picked up. In an age where pretty much only soap operas had continuing storylines as we understand them today, much of the rest of the TV show world really had to sell themselves on the pull of their central characters, and I don’t see Norliss making much of a mark in many viewers’ minds. While it is nice to have a main character who isn’t a walking, talking gimmick, Norliss seems rather lacking in personality of any kind. He’s somewhat cool and aloof, but not in a terribly interesting way, he dresses to suggest he’s a pretty successful writer – and that’s it. Which I don’t think is enough to carry a show.

Of course, having said that, Norliss’s only actual adventure is at least an entertaining bit of TV horror throughout, starting off as a well-constructed series of investigative interviews and becoming a bit more gruesome and horror movie-like as things continue. Curtis, while for my tastes not quite as good a director as the best examples of the trade he worked with, does manage some fine scenes, always trying for the more atmospheric shot in a medium easily falling into the blandly generic for budget and cost reason and often making excellent use of rain, darkness and shadow to create a mood of classicist creeps. There are some fine sets and locations too – I’m particularly partial to the tunnels under the crypt – as well as a good cast doing the expected good work. Though I would have wished the film had made better use of Dickinson, who nonetheless turns out to be a rather adept screamer.

The monster design is simple yet on the effective side. The blue skin is in practice much more convincing than it sounds on paper, and our undead’s eyes are indeed pleasantly creepy (and Curtis clearly knows this). Dimitri’s fine, increasingly less human snarling isn’t too bad, either.

I also appreciate that Curtis doesn’t just use an early 70s undead but throws in a whole bunch of occult stuff that escalates to a bonus monster and provides the whole affair with a pleasant pulpy flavour. So, while I never really warmed to Norliss as a character or an occult detective, the film he’s in is a fine use of 70 minutes of anyone’s time, I believe.

No comments: