Back in the early 1970s, producer / director Dan Curtis was in the middle of a run of small screen horrors, carving himself a niche on American TV as a genre specialist. Supernatural soap Dark Shadows (1966 - 1971) had been a huge success and by the end of 1973 Curtis had adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1968)), Bram Stoker (Bram Stoker's Dracula (1973)), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein (1973)) and Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray (1973)) under his belt, along with a clutch of original titles (the Dark Shadows movies, House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971), Shadow of Fear (1973) and The Invasion of Carol Enders (1973)).
But what Curtis really seemed to want to do was make a TV show which pitted a journalist against the supernatural. He wanted it so much, in fact, that he tried it four times in five years. As early as 1969, he scripted the forgotten TV pilot Dead of Night: A Darkness at Blaisedon, which pitted a pair of investigators (played by Kerwin Matthews and Cal Bellini) against the supernatural - establishing a format that would be echoed almost a quarter of a century later in The X Files (1993 - 2002). The pilot failed to go to series and has now vanished into the mists of time.
More successful were The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973) which Curtis produced for ABC, and which introduced the TV world to investigate reporter Carl Kolchak who would eventually get his own short-lived but hugely influential series Kolchak: The Night Stalker in 1974. But, hedging his bets, Curtis prepared a third pilot film for rivals NBC which utilised the same journalist-vs-the-supernatural format - The Norliss Tapes.
Over the years, The Norliss Tapes has lapsed into semi-obscurity, overshadowed by Kolchak's cult following and increased media attention (Chris Carter, creator of The X Files never cited Norliss as an influence though was happy to own up to being inspired by Kolchak). Which is a crying shame as, in many ways, The Norliss Tapes is better than either of the two Kolchak movies. In fact it remains one of the best made-for-TV movies of the 1970s of any genre.
The format is simple - David Norliss has disappeared while preparing a book on the supernatural and his worried publisher discovers a series of cassette tapes detailing, in this first instance, his encounter with a blue-faced zombie/vampire brought back to life by voodoo and now possessed by a demon. The story is told in flashback and ends with the publisher starting on another tape, listening to a story that has sadly remained untold.
It has some of the flaws of 70s TV movies - some of the acting is less than convincing and the meagre budget occasionally peers through the glossy veneer that Curtis gives it - but its strengths are considerable. Curtis, always referred to as producer, was also an excellent director and he gives Norliss a creepy, uneasy atmosphere that still works today. Filmed in a damp, rainy Northern California, the film looks very different to most of its bathed-in-sunlight contemporaries and Curtis makes excellent use of both the inclement weather and the unusual locations.
The script is an unusual mix of the supernatural, hard-boiled detective fiction and the more familiar police procedural, with the cops replaced by a journalist and the killer under investigation being dead and blue-faced. It was the first script by William Nolan who, as William F. Nolan, co-wrote (with George Clayton Johnson) the highly-recommended 1967 novel on which Logan's Run (1976) was based (the book is way better than the film…)
The success of any venture of this kind rests on the strength of its leading actor and in this instance, Curtis made the inspired decision to cast Roy Thinnes as laconic reporter David Norliss. Thinnes was already a genre regular, with memorable appearances in Gerry Anderson's Doppelgänger/Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969) and another under-rated TV movie, Black Noon (1971) and of course he spent most of 1967 and 1968 fleeing from aliens as David Vincent in Larry Cohen's The Invaders. Here, Thinnes is perfect as the world-weary hack suddenly confronted with the seemingly impossible and finding his life changed forever by the experience.
He's ably supported by Angie Dickinson, giving a great turn as the mystified widow haunted by a husband who just won't stay dead, and a whole host of actors familiar from 60s and 70s TV whose faces you recognise instantly but whose names you rarely knew - Claude Akins, Michele Carey, Bryan O'Byrne, Ed Gilbert. There's also space for Hurd Hatfield (Dorian Gray in 1945's The Picture of Dorian Gray) and Vonetta McGee (from Blacula (1972)).
The other key element in any undertaking of this kind of course is the quality of the monster. And although The Norliss Tapes' budget didn't stretch to much more than a bit of blue face make-up and a dodgy teeth appliance, the demon/vampire/zombie is a highly effective presence. His sudden, jolting appearances come as a genuine shock and the ferocity of his attacks is unnerving.
The Norliss Tapes boasts a satisfyingly complicated mystery, an intriguing format, cut-above-the-usual performances and an unusual, dreary but highly effective ambience and the fact that languished for so long in relative obscurity (it hasn't been seen on UK television for donkey's years but still shows up late at night in US re-runs) is sad. Thankfully, after years in the wilderness, The Norliss Tapes was given a new lease of life on DVD thanks to a 2006 release from Anchor Bay.
Fans of 70s TV horror will need no recommendation to pick up this release - anyone who still clings to the view that all 70s made-for-TV movies are flat, unatmospheric junk (and there is a certain amount of evidence to support that hypothesis) might do well to give The Norliss Tapes a try - you might be pleasantly surprised.