Sunday, March 17, 2013

"The Norliss Tapes" Review

Tears of a zombie

The Norliss Tapes
Director: Dan Curtis
Writer: William F. Nolan, Fred Mustard Stewart
Starring: Roy Thinnes, Angie Dickinson, Claude Akins, Nick Dimitri
Format Viewed: YouTube

"The Norliss Tapes," a tale about zombies, vampirism, and general occult malfeasance, has a surprising amount of scares for a 1970s TV movie. But don't underestimate the small-screen horror offerings from this period, as they tend to have a good deal of atmosphere and lull viewers into a false sense of security before the jump-out-of-your-seat moments hit.

The film offers with writer David Norliss, played with exquisite angst by "The Invaders" star Roy Thinnes, shirtless and greatly troubled by some unknown reason. He owes a book about the paranormal to his publisher, but insists that he is no shape to write it yet -- though the story about everything he's been through is on a set of audio-tapes in his possession.

"When are you getting the book? How about never?
Does never sound good to you?
Strangely, this is kind of a similar set-up to the recentish "Grave Encounters" -- as our protagonist essentially disappears, his narrative being told in one long flashback via pre-recorded media. This is also the perfect set-up for an "X-Files"/"Night-Stalker" type TV series, of which "Norliss Tapes" -- with its neatly numbered tapes, one for each story -- was the perfect pilot for. Though never picked up for series, the movie already showcases an intriguing "mythology" with its demon "Sargoth" (sp?), and when it's all over you do wonder "what might have been."

Norliss gets involved with a widow (a beautiful but essentially useless Angie Dickinson) whose sculptor husband might have come back to life as a blue-skinned, yellow-eyed zombie with super-strength. There has been a recent death in the area where the victim was strangely drained of all her blood, so the writer is sort of putting this all together and suspecting said occult malfeasance.

One of Angie Dickinson's more powerful moments in "The Norliss Tapes."
While Thinnes is great as the former skeptic-turned-supernatural-investigator Norliss, Dickinson's Ellen Scott Cort is truly truly useless as a wooden plank -- perpetually scared and not knowing what to do. Far more intriguing is Vonetta McGee's "voodoo priestess" Mme. Jeckiel -- who at least has some spunk and an interesting red-streaked hairdoo. And of course Claude Akins plays the folksy, "Misadventures of Sherrif Lobo" representative of local law-enforcement that "don't want no trouble" and keeps trying to half-assedly cover shit up.

But the true star of "The Norliss Tapes" is the unfortunate dabbler into Egyptian magick James Raymond Cort, portrayed in growling, mindless glee by stuntman Nick Dimitri. That's really the big draw of this film -- watching Dimitri's blue-hued figure jump out of crypts and windows and scare the daylights of both the characters and the viewers.

Seriously, every time this bloodsucking zombie makes an appearance, he scares the shit out of you. Every. Single. Time. While perhaps sort of quaint -- even hokey -- compared to other cinematic zombie-folk, he is introduced in unexpected scare after scare after scare. Sure, pretty low-hanging fruit for a horror flick, but effective as hell.

Last, but not least, we have ye standarde Seventies satanic element with the statue of the demon Sargoth -- made out of clay infused with human blood (!). Norliss sure knows a lot about how to banish a demon, for a self-professed skeptic -- but it does the trick. However, we do get to see the red, horned Sargoth come to life and have a nice good temper-tantrum before he's sent away (or does he ever really leave??? watch the never-made second episode of "The Norliss Tapes" to find out!!!!).

This dude is pisssssssed!
The movie closes out with a montage of all of the Cort Zombie's most scary moments throughout the film -- both sort of excessive but also a nice tribute to an actor/stuntman who has probably spent most of his career not in the spotlight. Also, it's good to remember those pants-shitting scare moments.

"The Norliss Tapes" is an enjoyable bit of horror-lite infused with bell-bottoms and long, patently Seventies scenes of groovy cars moodily driving down beautiful, lonely landscapes. Producer/director Dan Curtis ("Dark Shadows," "Night-Stalker") pretty much ruled the genre, and it's on full display here.

You have to wonder how many Seventies Kids these eyes haunted over the decades...

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