Hollywood is the cultural Bandwagon Central; if something can be rode and milked until the teat is dry, it will, and the carcass won’t be pretty. (Who rides a cow, anyway?) Television especially thrives on instantly recognizable content as much as the ads wedged in between; but when horror gives it a go, the content can’t help but be different by even a few recognizable degrees. At least it was in the ‘70s, when an intriguing pilot titled The Norliss Tapes (1973) tried (yet failed) to ride The Night Stalker (’72) vibe into viewers’ living rooms – something the Kolchak: The Night Stalker series was able to do the following year. (Well, for one brief and shining season, anyway.)
Originally broadcast February 21st as part of the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie; across the dial were CBS’ Medical Center and the ABC Wednesday Movie of the Week, both of which did better, leaving poor Mr. Norliss unable to continue his fight against the supernatural.
Let’s open up our battered TV GUIDE and see exactly what he was investigating:
THE NORLISS TAPES (Wednesday, 8:30pm, NBC)
An author out to debunk the supernatural helps a woman whose husband has returned from the grave. Roy Thinnes, Claude Akins, and Angie Dickinson star.
We open with the above author, David Norliss (Thinnes – Black Noon), pacing nervously on the balcony of his seaside bachelor pad; chain smoking away, he makes a panicked call to his agent Sanford (Don Porter – She-Wolf of London) to inform him that his book isn’t done but does have a series of tapes that will explain all. He wants to meet with Sanford right away to play him the tapes; but Norliss doesn’t show up, and after a week of not hearing from him, Sanford heads out to Norliss’ place to track him down. When he can’t locate him, he plops in the first tape, where Norliss recounts the tale of:
Ellen Cort (Dickinson – Dressed to Kill), a rich widow whose dead sculptor hubby (Nick Dimitri – Black Samson) has a strange habit of hanging around his old cottage studio – to mold a long dead demon out of blood and clay in return for immortality. Norliss (a friend of her sister) begins to investigate, which leads him to an occult practitioner, Madame Jeckiel (Vonetta McGee – Blacula) who may hold the answer on how to stop Mr. Cort and his (quite dead) and deadly hobby…
The conceit that sets apart The Norliss Tapes from the two very successful Kolchak telefilms (Stalker and Strangler) is that the tale is told in flashback, and we don’t even know if Norliss is alive; one can assume that had the series proceeded, Sanford would pop in a new tape for a new tale, adding a level of mystery as to Norliss’ whereabouts. One would also hope that the makers would re-introduce present day Norliss to give the stories some forward momentum.
As for the connective tissue between Kolchak and Norliss, Director Dan Curtis (Burnt Offerings) produced The Night Stalker and directed its sequel The Night Strangler (also ’73); Norliss was a failed attempt then to try the same concept in a (hopefully) longer format. The next year Curtis would try the monster of the week format with Kolchak, which people did buy into, at least for one season. It’s easy to believe that was due to Darren McGavin’s irascible spirit as Kolchak; but the blame can’t be put on Thinnes as Norliss for failure to launch; the character just doesn’t have the immediate pop of Kolchak. We’ll never know if audiences would have warmed up to Norliss, but Thinnes does a good job with a character defined by curiosity and reticence.
As for the Kolchak template, the Cort ghoul is a thing of simple beauty; a pale visage with yellowed eyes, and an imposing figure in Dimitri who bellows, flails, and throws down with the best monsters. He has a surprise window entry that is good for a solid jump scare. Curtis even brings along Bob Cobert from Stalker to offer up his unique be-bop boo soundtrack.
This was the first collaboration between Curtis and writer William F. Nolan (Logan’s Run), but it wouldn’t be the last; they would work together several more times, including my beloved Burnt Offerings, and many more TV films. It was a good relationship, with Nolan offering up simple themes that Curtis was able to crystallize into effective horror.
Was The Norliss Tapes ahead of its time? Well, maybe by a year at best. The fact that Kolchak could only survive a season shows that audiences were ultimately not quite ready for serialized horror until Mulder and Scully would capture their imaginations in the ‘90s. So a tip of the hat to another agent of anarchy whose inquisitive nature was stronger than the viewer, at least for the time.Next: It Came From The Tube: TERROR ON THE BEACH (1973)