Rarely does a TV movie eclipse feature film in sheer storytelling power, scope and production value effectiveness, but “The Norliss Tapes” impresses as one of those uncommon telefilms to rank above many cinema offerings. Directed by Dan Curtis, perhaps most famous for his Gothic soap, “Dark Shadows”, this 1973 television pilot movie never went to series, but has built a loyal following through the decades. To justly describe it is somewhat difficult, except to say it’s one of the most effectively spooky and fascinating television movies ever to be broadcast.
Starring Roy Thinnes (The Invaders) as David Norliss and Angie Dickinson (Police Woman) as Ellen Court, the plot revolves around the mysterious work of writer Norliss. He’s decided to pen a book to rip the lid off the sham gurus of the supernatural, those who use Ouija boards, tarot cards and crystal balls to bilk the gullible of their loot. Norliss wants to give equal treatment to psychic mediums, witches, warlocks and ghost hunters who merely craft a good show to gain fame and fortune. But during his research, Norliss learns something so disturbing, he calls his publisher to explain he won’t write the book. After Norliss breaks a lunch date with his annoyed publisher, the executive tries vainly to locate his enigmatic writer. He finally learns Norliss has basically disappeared.
What follows is a heady plunge into supernatural madness. Curtis employs the research notes of Norliss – recorded on a series of cassette tapes – as plot device way of using the missing writer as narrator of his story and the film itself. As his publisher listens to the tapes, we see Norliss become embroiled with a wealthy widow who’s convinced her recently deceased husband has been somehow resurrected, and now prowls their enormous estate.
Dan Curtis would create cult classic, “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”, starring Darren McGavin as intrepid supernatural, sleuth reporter Karl Kolchak a year later. Chris Carter, creator of “The X-Files”, called it inspiration for his own series. It’s clear Curtis drew heavily from “The Norliss Tapes”, as the framing voice over narration, supernatural investigations and near film noir vibe permeate both productions. While Kolchak’s adventures were highly tinged with humor, David Norliss keeps things serious business in his search for answers as the body count rises and demonic forces assemble.
What can’t be discounted in this shocker’s power to scare is composer Robert Cobert’s hypnotically eerie soundtrack. From the opening moments, Cobert’s incredible score sets a dark tone to help quickly put us ill at ease. It’s easily one of the most memorable musical scores I’ve heard in a TV project. No surprise that Dan Curtis had Cobert score the eerily similar music for both “The Night Stalker” and “The Night Strangler” – the two TV movies which gave birth to “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”.
Sadly, this terrific movie is now out of print on DVD, but can be found – for a high price – on Ebay and other outlets. Anchor Bay released the original disc, and we can only hope they’ll put together a nice new release or even treat us to a blu-ray high definition package. “The Norliss Tapes” really deserves to be preserved and seen by more horror fans.