Thursday, April 06, 2017

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Norliss Tapes (1973)

Author David Norliss (Roy Thinnes) mysteriously warns his publisher that he can’t finish his new book debunking the supernatural, and that all the extensive work for the text has been recorded on a series of cassette tapes.

When David then disappears, his agent and lawyer investigate, and his agent, Sanford Evans (Don Porter), listens to the tapes in his apartment.

The tapes reveal a bizarre and frightening story. Specifically Norliss was approached by a beautiful widow, Ellen Cort (Angie Dickinson), who reported something strange -- and possibly supernatural -- on her isolated estate. 

Specifically, Ellen saw the ambulatory corpse of her late husband, James Cort (Nick Dimitri), murder their German shepherd in the dead man’s art studio. He also attacked her. She shot him at point blank range, but there is no sign of the body.

Investigating further, David learns that James, a sculptor, went to the grave wearing an Egyptian scarab “Orisis” ring, an occult object which is reputed to render its wearer immortal.

Meanwhile, a young woman driving on a lonely roads near the Cort Estate late at night is attacked by a stranger, and drained of blood. The local sheriff, Tom Hartley (Claude Akins) refuses to reveal information about the condition of her corpse.

Soon another strange event occurs. The dead sculptor’s work is continued in a macabre new piece: a life-size clay creation of the demon, Sagaroth.

David fears that Ellen is in danger as James, a zombie, breathes life into the monstrous figure. 

Sargoth, David realizes, is made of clay, but the clay is filled with human blood!

As David learns with horror, Ellen’s sister, Marsha (Michele Carey) is also in danger, as is Mademoiselle Jeckiel (Vonetta McGee), the person who sold Cort the scarab ring...

The 1970’s saw the airing of many psychic/occult investigator TV movies. The most famous, and perhaps most-well-loved of all, of course, is The Night Stalker (1972), starring Darren McGavin as journalist Carl Kolchak. 

But Kolchak was not the only occult/or psychic investigator of the bunch. The TV-movies of the disco decade also gave us Alex Dreier in Sweet, Sweet Rachel (1971), and Leonard Nimoy in Baffled! (1973), to name just two others.

One of the most memorable of such psychic/occult investigator TV-movies, however, is The Norliss Tapes, starring Roy Thinnes. In this case, the occult investigator, David Norliss, is an author, and a skeptic, and his discovery of the supernatural is a surprise to him. Like Kolchak, Norliss is a man of words, and one who works alone to uncover the truth.

Norliss’s first (and thus far only…) adventure is vetted very much in the style of a classical film noir. Like films of that type, this Dan Curtis film involves the equivalent of a private detective, a lovely widow, and a mystery. 

In this case, the mystery involves what happened to the widow’s husband. Suffice it to say, James Cort made a corrupt deal for immortality, one that could bring great evil into the world.  As David investigates, he also “interviews,” essentially, members of the victim pool, and tangles with the local, corrupt authorities (here represented by Claude Akins’ sheriff).  

In the end, there is no meaningful resolution; society can’t help restore order because society itself is corrupt. And the endangered character flee rather than remain in clear-and-present danger (not unlike the denouement we get in the tech noir, Blade Runner [1982])

The Norliss Tapes' dialogue and voice-over narration are also effective in a pulpy way, and loads of fun to boot. At one point, Ellen colorfully notes “every time the house creaked, my skin crawled.”  

And Thinne’s laconic, laid-back delivery of the voice over narration perfect for such purple lines as “no one talks to anybody about the condition of the deceased.

Intriguingly this San Francisco-based noir ends without any real explanation or resolution. Norliss and Ellen -- apparently still jeopardized by Sagaroth -- disappear without a trace.  They have either escaped, or been done away with.

And, finally, those who care what happened to the duo are left with just one option: to sift through the author’s cassette collection listening to additional “tales” of the supernatural.

Did Sagaroth exact vengeance upon them? Or did the Ellen and Norliss flee the supernatural? The movie comes to an abrupt (and somewhat unsatisfying) halt, failing to provide the audience the necessary answers. It is a bit disconcerting for a movie (TV or theatrical) to end with no closure regarding its protagonists, but I suppose the idea here is that The Norliss Tapes -- a backdoor pilot -- would go to series, and viewers would thus have the opportunity to listen to future and further stories.  

Apparently, there were a lot of case studies of the supernatural on those Norliss tapes...

As I've noted, the noir elements of The Norliss Tapes grant it some life and energy, but the depiction of the antagonist: a zombie, helps even more in that regard. James Cort is a yellow-eyed, ash-gray-skinned menace who moves (and attacks) with unexpected, blazing speed. 

The make-up holds up today, and the film’s best (and scariest) moment occurs when Ellen pulls a window shade up in the art studio, and the zombie is right there, at the pane, peering in at her.  It’s a great (close-up) jolt that adds immeasurably to the terror of the piece.

The zombie is rarely hidden from view throughout the telefilm, but often seen in full-sight instead. Some might consider this front-and-center approach a visual mistake, but the scenes with the zombie actually remain pretty effective, because of his speed and gruesome undead look.  

There is one scene here in which Norliss and Ellen attempt to flee the family estate in the rain, and the zombie attacks their car.  He rips a car door off, and then proceeds to brush off all physical damage, as Norliss attempts to run him down. The scene is relentless, and exciting.

The weakest aspect of The Norliss Tapes is, perhaps, the writing for the main character. Norliss is supposed to be a thoughtful skeptic who debunks the supernatural, but here never gets even a single word of dialogue about his belief system. The audience is told at the start of the film that Norliss is writing a book debunking the supernatural, but that’s the last thing we ever find out about Norliss’s skepticism.

Why is he a skeptic? What does he believe? What is his world-view? It might have been nice to see more of Norliss in the debunking role before seeing him embrace the supernatural world so thoroughly.

Even with an open-ended finale and no real background on Norliss or his beliefs, The Norliss Tapes is overall well-shot and engaging, and most importantly, scary.

I would love it if some relative of Norliss, in 2017, found David’s tapes in an attic, long forgotten, and started listening to them again, for a brand new TV series.  


  1. John, excellent review of another '70s telefilm gem. The Norliss Tapes should have been a series.


  2. God knows I wish this had gone to series. Such a brilliant concept with a built in out.