Tuesday, October 3, 2006

THE NORLISS TAPES

Back in the early Seventies, the king of TV horror was Dan Curtis. His reign began with his successful gothic soap opera DARK SHADOWS, and was cemented with two TV movies starring Darren McGavin as reporter Carl Kolchak, THE NIGHT STALKER and the NIGHT STRANGLER. McGavin went on to reprise the role in a short-lived series without Curtis’ participation, and in response (it seems) Curtis attempted to launch another, similar franchise.

Anchor Bay is about to release on DVD – in fact, for the first time ever on video, as far as I can determine – Curtis’ 1973 TV movie, THE NORLISS TAPES.

This obvious pilot film starred Roy Thinnes (THE INVADERS, THE X-FILES) as David Norliss, a San Francisco investigative reporter working on a book debunking the supernatural. A year after taking the publisher's advance, he calls his editor to tell him that he cannot write the book. A few days later, Norliss mysteriously disappears. When the editor shows up at Norliss' home looking for him, he instead finds a pile of numbered cassette tapes. Playing the first one, he hears Norliss relate a terrifying story about his investigation of strange events in Carmel County involving a wealthy widow, her apparently undead spouse, a strange sculpture, and some bloodless corpses....

The movie plays out very much like Curtis' NIGHT STALKER telefilms, with first-person narration by an investigator who is at first a skeptic, but soon caught up in unexplainable events. William F. Nolan's teleplay follows the same structure and beats of Richard Matheson's STALKER scripts, the minimalist musical score is again provided by Robert Cobert, and Curtis has even cast Claude Akins in a lawman role nearly identical to the one he played in the original Kolchak movie.

The biggest difference though, is that THE NORLISS TAPES is essentially humorless. Thinnes' David Norliss is obviously a very serious, brooding sort of guy, where Darren McGavin's Carl Kolchak was a wise-cracking wiseass with a lot of charm. This may have hurt the pilot's chances of becoming a series back in the early Seventies. On the plus side, though, THE NORLISS TAPES co-stars the 1973-model Angie Dickinson (BIG BAD MAMA), and that's a very good thing.

The DVD (which goes on sale on Oct. 3), is a bare-bones affair with a sharp, full-frame (the original aspect ratio) transfer, mono sound and a few trailers for other Anchor Bay/20th Century Fox horror titles. The transfer is solid and clean, and looks fine; the mono soundtrack is clear and strong.

While not quite as memorable as the NIGHT STALKER films, THE NORLISS TAPES does have a good, original story and an intriguing set-up. Too bad there was never a series or sequels. And since it rarely airs on TV anymore (outside occasional showings on Fox Movie Channel) it's great to have it on DVD.

BUY: The Norliss Tapes