Originally aired February 21, 1973 on NBC, The Norliss Tapes were producer/director Dan Curtis' apparent attempt to double his chances at another TV series, after the hugely successful occult soap opera Dark Shadows enjoyed a gradual cult following after its 1966 debut, spawned two big screen hybrids in 1970 and 1971, and fizzled out on the small screen soon after.
In 1972, Curtis produced what was then ranked as the top-rated TV movie of all-time, The Night Stalker, where a mouthy Las Vegas reporter named Kolchak investigates a weird murder case; instead of debunking a supernatural theory, he discovers the weirdness is real, and is set up for a new round of adventures. The network apparently wasn't ready for a new series, so a year later, Curtis brought Kolchak back in a new adventure, The Night Strangler, while Fred Mustard Stewart's own story of a writer known for debunking supernatural schemes was tweaked by novelist William F. Nolan into a series pilot also to be broascast in 1973.
Armed with two TV movies, Curtis felt one of the Kolchak templates would click, although the results weren't what he expected: the original character would die in a singular season run of which he had no involvement in 1974 (the stories were often exceedingly silly, and lacked the fun & harder mystery elements of the TV movies), and The Norliss Tapes went nowhere.
The beauty of TV is that everything is ultimately recycled, and Norliss, originally designed for a 90 min. time slot, did the rounds as a routine TV movie in syndication, with plenty of room for ads in a local 2 hr. slot.
The brief running time makes the story exceptionally compact, and Nolan's efficient script frequently fools us into believing we're in for a familiar plot twist - and it just gets weirder, sillier, but stays unequivocally fun. This straight B-movie has its share of bland dialogue that makes "Guest Star" Angie Dickinson struggle with her own obvious lack of acting talent, but Roy Thinnes (best-known from Larry Cohen's sixties alien paranoia series, The Invaders) plays his crusading character with a straight face, and he drives a brand new convertible Corvette Stingray through gorgeous Monterrey locations, and city streets decorated with the latest Chevrolet sedans.
The editing is often a bit harsh - scene transitions force some massive time jumps at times, with a dialogue exchange providing the only clue to the story's flashback time-frame - but Curtis sets up some fun shocks as a local madman is murdering locals with exceptional brutality. A fairly trim Claude Akins - soon to become Sheriff Lobo - plays the local lawman who disbelieves and coaxes witnesses to keep their traps shut, while Hurd Hatfield - immortalized as the first Dorian Gray in MGM's 1945 version of Oscar Wilde's novel - plays a local art collector with greed in his heart. Vonetta McGee (the politically incorrect Jemima Brown in Clint Eastwood's Eiger Sanction) plays the supernatural temptress involved in the strange happenings, and wins the award for Weirdest Hairstyle in a Seventies Teleplay.
Curtis beautifully exploits the coastal highways and city buildings of Monterrey, and Trevor Williams' art direction manages to tastefully, if not tactfully, balance the voguish colours of brown, orange and yellow in the decorated sets, and the era's obsessive fascination with diamond-shaped patterns and textured wallpaper.
Although most TV movies tend to look fairly grainy and washed out, Anchor Bay's transfer is surprisingly clean, with stable colours and crisp details in the softly photographed teleplay. Bob Cobert's mostly atonal score is pretty eerie in the original mono mix, although much of the material is tracked through far too many scenes.
That same year, Curtis also began a series of teleplays based on classic horror novels, directing Dracula in 1973, and producing a version of The Picture of Dorian Gray the following year (both released by MPI on DVD as part of a set). Screenwriter Nolan also collaborated with Curtis on a several teleplays, including the infamous Trilogy of Terror in 1975, plus the theatrical Omen riff, Burnt Offerings, in 1976. Before reprising his Invaders role in a 1995 TV movie, Roy Thinnes would play the Collins patriarch in Curtis' short-lived 1990-91 revisitation of Dark Shadows.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan