A journalist, a mystery, and a creature from beyond.
Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the 70s. This week’s entry was crafted as a television pilot, but NBC made the terrible call back in 1973 of not picking it up for series. (This shouldn’t surprise anyone as the same network also canceled 1985’s Misfits of Science before its first season even ended.) The Norliss Tapes introduces a man who sets out to debunk the supernatural only to discover, perhaps too late, that he’s the one being debunked!
When: February 21st, 1973
David Norliss (Roy Thinnes) has spent the past year working on a book about how the supernatural and all of its associated mystics, fortune tellers, and faith healers, is pure hokum, but when his editor calls for an update he’s shocked to learn Norliss hasn’t written a word. The writer instead tells Sanford T. Evans (Don Porter) that all of his notes exist solely on audio tapes and that they reveal how far he’s gone in his research and how dangerous he’s found it to be. And then Norliss disappears. Sanford arrives at Norliss’ groovy house overlooking the San Francisco Bay and discovers the tapes, and he pops the first one into the player in the hopes of discovering what’s happened to his friend (who took advances and still owes him a manuscript).
This is the fantastic framing device that would have served the series — each week a new tape comes to life — but NBC’s poor judgment has left us with just the first. (A variation on the framing narrative is used in 2012’s V/H/S.) Happily for genre fans, though, The Norliss Tapes is a terrifically creepy tale even as a standalone.
Ellen Cort (Angie Dickinson) is the subject of the first tape as she shares her story with Norliss regarding the recent death of her husband James (Nick Dimitri). A disturbance wakes her the night after his funeral, and when she goes to investigate with her dog by her side and a shotgun in her hands she’s shocked to discover an intruder — it’s James! He’s very blue and very dead but somehow walking around with an angry look on his face. He kills the dog like an undead dick and then takes a full shotgun blast to the chest before scampering away. Norliss is obviously doubtful, as let’s not forget he’s here for the debunking. His investigation reveals James’ recent interest in the mystical arts including legends of Osiris, the god of immortality, and soon Norliss is witness to some very compelling evidence of life after death.
If the clear similarities to 1972’s The Night Stalker has you calling foul it’s easily explained by the presence of Dan Curtis. He served as producer on that ABC TV movie classic, but after it received a sequel (The Night Strangler, 1973) and a short-lived series the following year Curtis stepped across networks as director to see if lightning could strike twice. Depending on your perspective, he succeeded.
The Norliss Tapes is a tight little horror thriller teasing more ethereal supernatural aspects — immortality, ancient gods, sorcery — before delivering with some visceral scares and tangible nightmare fuel. Seriously, blue James is no shambling corpse. This fucker moves like a terrifying freight train filled with blue-faced, blood-sucking monsters. His assault on Norliss and Ellen is energetic, smart, and truly frightening in its staging and aggression, and a motel attack also thrills with similarly electric violence.
Curtis’ directorial efforts on TV are numerous ranging from Dark Shadows to Scream of the Wolf to Trilogy of Terror, and the results are never less than competent and engaging. While the legendary Richard Matheson was his co-hort on The Night Stalker the script this time around is written by the highly accomplished William F. Nolan (Logan’s Run, Burnt Offerings). Together they craft something pretty special, and while it’s still easy to see why The Night Stalker has overshadowed it in everyone’s memory it’s worth seeking out for fans of things that go bump in the night (even when the thing in question is a blue-faced asshole).
The Norliss Tapes ends with its title character still missing and a clearly shaken Sanford pressing play on tape #2, but while its grand story is left open-ended (thanks to NBC execs who thought Tenafly and The Snoop Sisters were better bets) its main story wraps up beautifully. The scares are legitimately exciting too, and that’s something I would have loved to experience on a weekly basis. Stupid NBC.
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