The Norliss Tapes is one of those lost gems from the 70's which made a mark in my budding teenage brain which still remains. One of the countless TV movies of the time, this one was produced by horror-meister Dan Curtis as an attempt to get lightning to strike again where the properly famous The Night Stalker had made such a lasting impression. It didn't work this time alas, but not for lack of trying. Beware, there are spoilers galore below.
The stories are again told using recordings, the narrator is a laconic writer named David Norliss played by the impassive Roy Thinnes. Often it is Thinnes who is singled out by critics as making The Norliss Tapes so much less impressive than The Night Stalker it so valiantly tries to imitate. Thinnes as Norliss is so calm and cool that it's sometimes difficult to tell what he thinks of the crazy things he encounters. I like Thinnes in this though I'll admit that sometimes his co-stars often steal the show from him. He tells his tales by means of tape recordings of his investigations into the occult, from the point of view of a skeptic, and these are discovered by his publisher (Sandford Evans) who listens to them in hopes of finding out why David has all but disappeared from the face of the Earth.
What Norliss encounterd is a widow (Angie Dickinson) who thinks that her husband, a sculptor (Nick Dimitri) might not be as dead as she'd imagined when she encounters him in his remote studio one dark and stormy night. It turns out she's right and he has indeed risen from his grave, at the behest of a demon named Sargoth who has struck a bargain with the zombie artist to fashion for him a new body of clay and human blood. That final ingredient is gathered by murdering various folks and those murders bring some alarm, but not as much as you'd think, from the local sheriff played in proper gruff form by Claude Akins, an alumni of The Night Stalker in pretty much the same role.
This one has some great atmosphere, most particularly a driving rainstorm which dominates much of the action of the final act. This is some of the best rain in a movie until first Blade Runner and later Se7en many years later made such great use of the atmospheric effect.
I mostly love the movie for some great shocks, in particular when a beautiful woman, the widow's sister (Michele Carey), discovers the amber-eyed zombie lurking at her window. That scared the bejeezus out of me when I was a mere stripling and still gives me the shivers. The notion of drawing back the curtains to find such an awful countenance is a mighty scary experience.
One thing that hurts the story is some sloppy editing, something The Night Stalker also demonstrates though there it has less effect. Some scenes seem clearly to have been shifted in the storytelling and it is not necessarily an improvement to the overall effect. Perhaps the changes were guided by the need for a TV movie to deliver proper mini-climaxes at the end of each commercial break, but whatever the case it makes the sense of the story less clear.
Some critics point out that Norliss never really undergoes any really change in temperament, beginning as a skeptic but quickly facing up to the reality of an actual supernatural nemesis. Being more familiar with characters like Doctor Graves and Doctor Thirteen, I perhaps was more forgiving of this point.
Whatever the reason, this NBC effort only ever generated this single episode. The template was there for more stories and the frame story of disappearance of Norliss is never solved. Too bad.