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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Norliss Tapes
The Norliss Tapes
Starz / Anchor Bay // Unrated // October 3, 2006
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted October 1, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Anyone who grew up during the 1970s remembers a seminal moment in TV history: The Night Stalker, a made-for-television movie directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, written by horror legend Richard Matheson, and produced by Dan Curtis, of Dark Shadows fame, and starring Darren McGavin, premiered on ABC on January 11, 1972. Remember, there were only three networks at the time: no cable stations, no video tapes -- only reruns if you were lucky. If you watched TV regularly (and who didn't then), the chances were that at least a third of everyone you knew would be watching the exact same show on any given night (compare that with today's relatively fragmented TV audience). The response to the show was phenomenal, racking up the highest rating ever for a television movie, while truly scaring its audience.

So of course, in TV, like any other business, success breeds imitation. Dan Curtis was feted by every network to come up with another Night Stalker, so for NBC, Curtis delivered The Norliss Tapes, a television pilot featuring a burnt-out, scared writer involved in a deadly supernatural story that may spell his doom. It starred Roy Thinnes, Don Porter, Angie Dickinson, and Claude Akins. It was co-written by veteran William F. Nolan, and produced, written and directed by Dan Curtis. It premiered on NBC on February 21, 1972, and, compared to The Night Stalker, did nothing in the ratings. It wasn't picked up by NBC as a series, and it pretty much disappeared from the pop culture radar, except for occasional late-night repeats on TV throughout the decades.

I remember my anticipation to watch The Norliss Tapes when it first premiered; I thought, like everybody else, that it was going to be another Night Stalker. And it did scare me when I was a kid. But it didn't stay in my mind like The Night Stalker did (which gave me freaked-out nightmares for weeks), and quite frankly, I forgot about it years later. Watching it today, it's easier to see what's wrong with The Norliss Tapes, and why it didn't succeed.

A picture's intended tone seems to be the hardest element to get right (especially when the picture has to be ground out quickly, on a low budget, for television). So many factors can alter it during production, despite the production team's best efforts. For The Norliss Tapes, what is utterly lacking, and which made The Night Stalker so successful, is a sense of humor. That effort mixed humor and horror expertly, with one tone feeding off the other, building the feel of the movie to such a point that you were laughing and screaming at the same time. Here, in The Norliss Tapes, we're left with a pretty glum enterprise. I'm not saying it has to be a comedy; after all, The Exorcist, released later that same year, didn't have a whole lot of yoks in it, either. But television is the great equalizer. Much of the audience is watching a particular show with a myriad of distractions going on (screaming kids, bathroom breaks, commercials), and to keep them hooked, you had better get their attention. And at first, the downbeat, rainy-weather mood of The Norliss Tapes works. It's almost as if we're looking at a new genre: the horror film noir (I'm sure there's some horror genre experts out there who will correct me on that one).

We have all the hallmarks of film noir: a haunted, troubled protagonist (who may indeed be already dead at the very start of the film), hard-boiled narration delivered in a flat, uninflected style reminiscent of that genre, and dark, a beautiful heroine at the center of the mystery, rainy, wind-swept locales that offer no psychological relief, tied together with a gloomy, pessimistic approach to the material. But something goes wrong very quickly with The Norliss Tapes. When you really start to listen to the narration, you realize that perhaps they picked the wrong actor to star. Roy Thinnes was never a name performer, and his performance here might point out why that was; while he seems to be trying for haunted and intense, he only manages listless and uninvolved. The lines, when read by him, sound faintly ridiculous; they're not the best lines in the world, anyway, but that shouldn't hurt a good actor (go back and listen to some film noirs of the 40s, with tough guys like Bogart and Mitchum delivering goofy lines -- it still works). Just listen to the narration in The Night Stalker; Darren McGavin is an actor having the time of his life reading Matheson's clever dialogue -- and it translated to the audience. There's real "joy of performance" with McGavin. Thinnes has no such connection with the material - or the audience. And his on-screen performance offers no real pleasures, either; he alternately appears bored or distracted. He's slumming, here.

The story itself is rather desultory, as well. Scenes are put next to each other, but there's no internal rhythm to them, no driving force that makes us anticipate the next scene (which The Night Stalker had in spades). The audience can't get behind David Norliss, because during big sections of the film, he's gone. There's a lot of Claude Akins (which doesn't bother me, Lobo) for an actor that's not even listed on the DVD box. As for the story's hooks - the horror scenes - they're pretty good, but entirely too brief to be off use for the average horror fan. Angie Dickinson's (who's utterly wasted here in a nothing role) initial encounter with her dead husband seems like it's going to be a beaut, but it's over before you know it. Likewise with the corpse chasing Thinnes and Dickinson in their car; there's some good action, but not nearly enough to support the rest of the film's exposition. There is a memorable moment where a woman pulls back her drapes to reveal the corpse staring at her (how many kids, after seeing a horror movie at home, where afraid to go near their windows?),

but the scene immediately fades out just as it gets going. Of course, this was 1973, and it was television, but The Night Stalker had the same restrictions on it, and it still scares people today. So what we have is a hybrid: a detective story masquerading as a horror film, with neither genre being particularly well served (check out Mickey Rourke's Angel Heart to see how that's done correctly).

I'm a huge fan of Dan Curtis' directing; Trilogy of Terror, with Karen Black, remains one of the best television movies of the 1970s, and The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance in particular, are two of the best miniseries ever made (with War and Remembrance, in my mind, rivaling Spielberg's Schindler's List for its harrowing depiction of the Holocaust). He has an instantly recognizable style (shooting low, often behind desks and chairs, super-fast zoom-ins) that's perfectly suitable to dramatic television short-hand. But with The Norliss Tapes, all that comes across is cheap imitation Curtis, with the same music cues (by Robert Cobert), and derivative narration, from The Night Stalker. Many scenes end before they really get started, and there's some surprising lame segments, as well (Thinnes' Corvette dash to save Dickinson at the end isn't even worthy of a The Blue Knight episode).

The DVD:

The Video:
If the DVD transfer looks a little soft and hazy to you, that's just Dan Curtis' signature look. The film elements used for the transfer aren't immaculate, but the disc looks much better than recent TV airings.

The Audio:
The original mono mix is appropriate for recreating the original TV presentation.

The Extras:
Anchor Bay, usually notable for providing a wealth of extras on their discs, really lets us down with The Norliss Tapes. There are zero extras pertaining to The Norliss Tapes; all we're given are four trailers for two worthwhile films (The Entity, Race with the Devil) and two non-entities (Quicksilver Highway and Bad Dreams). Certainly, Anchor Bay could have come up with one TV promo spot, or maybe a commentary track by Thinnes or Dickinson. But nope - nothing for you, horror fans. And with a thin title like this, the extras could have made the difference in sales.

Final Thoughts:
I was really looking forward to seeing The Norliss Tapes again; with the resurgence in all things Dan Curtis (thanks to home video and DVD, as well as The X-Files), it's one of those titles that a lot of people talk about, and discuss, without having seen it in some time. And when they finally do, as I did, they wonder what all the hubbub was about. Certainly, on a nostalgia level, The Norliss Tapes does take you back to the early 1970s, and to the style and rhythms of 70s TV horror, and for that, I recommend you take another look at it. But when you do, rent it - don't buy it. Chances are, you won't watch it again, and there's no extras from Anchor Bay to make you spend the few extras dollars more to own it.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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