Sometimes in life you encounter art forms which are both simple and very specific in structure, to the point where they can be dismissed as formulaic if you are not a fan. However, if you love a structured art form such as country music, grilled cheese sandwiches, or (on topic here) the 1970s TV horror movie, you probably find comfort in the format. I think most horror fans can agree on the glorious je ne sais quoi of 70s horror movies in general. But for 70s TV movies in particular, I finally figured out from a wonderful site called Wikipedia what the quoi is: TV producer Dan Curtis. I don’t do much research around here, obviously.
But now that I know why Kolchak, Trilogy of Terror, and tonight’s feature, The Norliss Tapes all have a similar effect on my happy brain chemicals, I’ve got some catching up to do with the rest of the Curtis productions. Maybe I’ll do a month of Mondays on the subject. As a bonus, Curtis directed one of my absolute favorite theatrical 70s flicks, Burnt Offerings, and was sometimes a collaborator with Richard Matheson, another favorite person in horror history.
That’s enough gushing. The Norliss Tapes is a grilled cheese sandwich, to be sure, but it’s a grilled cheese sandwich on rye with some onions and tomatoes and a couple of different kinds of cheeses. It begins with a different (and perhaps forgotten) kind of “found” media, the audio cassette tape. David Norliss (Roy Thinnes), is a writer who has been investigating paranormal phenomena as a skeptic. He calls his editor, Mr. Evans (Don Porter), and shares the unexpected opinion that he has actually found something he couldn’t explain. A frightened Norliss insists that he must see the editor right away; however, he never shows up for the meeting. Evans goes to Norliss’s house and begins to listen to the tapes on which the book notes are read aloud. Then we flash back to the story.
Norliss’s friend Marsha (Michele Carey) puts him in touch with her sister, Ellen Cort (the lovely Angie Dickinson), because Ellen saw her sculptor husband out in his studio late one night. The problem is that Mr. Cort (Nick Dimitri) has been dead for days, and post-mortem sculpting is a feat usually beyond the capabilities of even the most dedicated artist. There’s a weird lady (Vonetta McGee) involved in the story who gave Cort a ring before he died, a ring he asked Ellen to bury him with. Also, a young woman has been drained of blood after dying in a car wreck near Ellen’s house, and the sheriff (Claude Akins) is stupefied. He does know that he doesn’t want to hear any crap from Norliss and Ellen about the supernatural. Then Marsha goes missing, kidnapped by none other than the blue-faced, yellow-eyed Cort. What the hell is going on?
You might think, upon hearing of the exsanguination, “Vampires!” That’s also what the synopsis tells us. But it really isn’t that simple. That’s the beauty, for me at least: that it’s not immediately obvious what the nature of Cort’s reanimated corpse is. And since The Norliss Tapes is easily found online, I’m not going to tell you. It’s not a shocking reveal, but it is unexpected. Watching Norliss solve a mystery to which I also don’t know the answer is much more enjoyable than suffering through an hour and a half of dramatic irony. Some people may not like the ending, because Norliss remains missing, but one can be comforted by the fact that the story trails off as Evans pops in another tape recorded by Norliss.
You see, this was a pilot for a series that was never picked up. It’s too bad, too, because it would have been cool as all-get-out to see David Norliss go on a magical mystery tour every week. And who knew that Thinnes, who I know as “Jeremiah Smith” from The X-Files, was so 70s handsome? I guess if I had a time machine, I’d go back and make myself an NBC exec who got my head out of my ass on this one. I can’t, but I can recommend that you track this one down if you enjoy the TV horror movie as comfort food.