Find a random group of folks who grew up in the early seventies and start talking about the television movies of that era. Mention the one about the journalist who found himself involved in a supernatural murder mystery, and watch their eyes light up. They'll tell you how they didn't sleep for a week after they watched that movie... and then they'll probably go on to describe the series that followed, and they'll mention that their favorite episode was (say) the one with the werewolf on the cruise ship, or the monster covered in Spanish moss, or the one with the lamp shaped like a woman's stocking-clad leg1
1. Wait a minute — wrong beloved childhood memory....
Then tell them you weren't talking about Darren McGavin and "The Night Stalker", and watch them start to get confused.
It's "The Night Stalker" that people remember, and for good reason. "The Night Stalker" — the movie and the short-lived TV show they inspired — earned its place in the hearts of impressionable young people by being fresh for its time, and smart, and funny. Oh — and sometimes genuinely scary, too. We thrilled to the idea that all the old legendary monsters, like vampires and man-made homunculi and werewolves and zombies and Mr. Hyde, weren't just confined to the Late Show, but were actually running around in real life... wreaking havoc, and taking advantage of our inability to believe in them. These were the days just before Watergate, so our imaginations were not yet corrupted by cynical politics. "The X-Files" was years away; we could still believe the shadowy forces at work behind the scenes were ghosts and demons, not politicians and billionaires — if there was a connection, it was entirely metaphorical, and we could ignore it if we wanted. The sinister man in the dark suit was Count Dracula, not Agent Smith; the sinister flapping sound in the night was a vampire bat, not a black helicopter. The reality behind our reality was more likely to be a dim Carpathian valley than a computer simulation, or a vast government conspiracy. And our surrogate wasn't a credulous FBI agent who wanted to believe. It was a beat-up middle-aged wiseass named Carl Kolchak, reporter for the Independent News Service... wearing a twenty-year-old suit and a hat as dingy and disreputable as the streets he covered... who had no choice but to believe. Sure, there was a government conspiracy to keep the truth from an unsuspecting public; but in the case of "The Night Stalker", this was only because the Authorities were as baffled as everybody else.
We thrilled to the idea, and we laughed at it, too... partly because of the snappy dialogue; but partly because we recognized even then that there was something quaint about the vampire and the werewolf and even Jack the Ripper as villains in the modern world. When Kolchak pushed his hat back on his head and and stared in stunned disbelief, we loved it — it was our stunned disbelief, too — and we cheered him on as he fast-talked his way out of danger, or tried to outwit some centuries-old menace, or just plain hot-footed it away from some horror out of an old Universal flick. Darren McGavin was perfect in the role of Kolchak, a role into which he invested a good deal of his own personality.
"The Night Stalker" hadn't been intended as a pilot, but the response was so good after it aired that ABC realized it had a winner on its hands. A sequel was an obvious next step, so producer Dan ("Dark Shadows") Curtis got together with the great Richard ("Duel") Matheson, who'd written the original screenplay. They came up with "The Night Strangler", which pitted Kolchak against a demented physician trying to live forever in Seattle's underground city.
After "The Night Strangler", Curtis and Matheson planned a third Kolchak movie set in New York City. But ABC-TV had a different idea: they wanted a series of eight full-length Kolchak movies, each with a different supernatural menace. Nobody outside the boardrooms of ABC liked that idea very much, so McGavin proposed instead a weekly series of hour-long episodes. But, McGavin continued, he would only participate in the Kolchak series if he were the producer, and his production company was in charge of the whole thing. ABC agreed — or rather, appeared to agree: no sooner had they finished negotiating with McGavin than they turned back to Dan Curtis and asked him to take charge of the new series.
Curtis declined. He thought turning "The Night Stalker" into a regular weekly show was lunacy. He had a point: as the weeks went on, the writers of the TV series were unable to sustain the character (or the show) as McGavin had imagined. And McGavin, disappointed as he was with the declining quality of the writing, was also unable to sustain the grueling dusk-to-dawn schedule of the shooting, in which he played so crucial and visible a part. So the series ended two episodes short of its planned second season. But in spite of its hit-or-miss quality, and in spite of its final position in the worst time-slot of the least-watched major network of the mid-seventies, "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" performed surprisingly well in the ratings... even at the time of its cancellation. And while it's hard to argue with McGavin's complaint that the finished episodes only represented "about 60% of [the show']s potential" (especially considering episodes like "The Sentry"), the series still represents a relative high point in the history of TV horror.
Now, the funny thing is... in spite of Curtis's turning down the chance to produce "The Night Stalker" series (which would have been a serious affront to McGavin and probably would have doomed the whole enterprise), many people still assume Curtis was deeply involved in the show. In fact, people tend to give Curtis more credit for creative input on the original film than he really provided. It's easy to see why: Curtis played a pivotal role in the history of TV horror; he produced both Kolchak films, and he even directed "The Night Strangler". Had Curtis not been involved, the movies and the TV show might never have taken the form they did. But I think there's another reason people think Curtis had more to do with the Kolchak series than he did... and that's the fact that two of his subsequent TV horror movies feel an awful lot like unofficial "Night Stalker" sequels.
What, after all, is 1977's "Curse of the Black Widow" but a Kolchak episode manqué? Oh, sure, it's got Tony Franciosa instead of McGavin, and he's a seedy private detective instead of a seedy reporter... but the template is still obvious. And when ABC's much more successful rival NBC wanted a "Night Stalker" of their own (believe it or not, at the same time Curtis was preparing "The Night Strangler" for ABC), Curtis had no problem making one for them. That movie was 1973's "The Norliss Tapes" — and that movie, made a year before Curtis turned down "Kolchak: The Night Stalker", was originally supposed to be the pilot for a weekly TV series.
And that movie, ironically, suggests that whatever made "The Night Stalker" great, it was neither the formula nor the involvement of Dan Curtis... because "The Norliss Tapes" is no "Night Stalker", and no "Norliss Tapes" series followed from it.
David Norliss is, like Carl Kolchak, a reporter. Unlike Kolchak, he's young, and well-to-do enough that he has a hilltop house overlooking the Bay in San Francisco2
2. Also, he drives a Corvette.. Rather than pounding the pavement looking for stories, Norliss is working on a book. He intends to expose California's burgeoning occult industry — the psychics, mediums, astrologers, etc. — for the scam it is.
At least, that was his intention when he started his research the year before.
Unfortunately, he tells his editor over the phone, he will not be able to write the book after all. When Sanford, his editor, points out that he's had an entire year (and a substantial advance) to get started, Norliss tells him he can't write it... he's afraid to write it. He goes on to say that even though he hasn't put a single word on paper, the whole story is recorded on a set of tapes — tapes he's anxious for Sanford to hear. Norliss arranges to meet Sanford at a restaurant that very afternoon ("Tomorrow may be too late!" he insists). But even hours after the appointed time, Norliss fails to appear.
When Norliss still hasn't turn up several days later, Sanford goes to his house to investigate. The place looks as though Norliss has just stepped out for a moment... but nobody's seen him or heard from him since his curious call earlier in the week. As Sanford wanders from room to room, he finds a single sheet of paper stuck in his typewriter. Sanford reads what's written there in block capitals:
I SHALL TRY TO PUT THIS DOWN, EVEN THOUGH
I NOW KNOW I MAY NEVER FINISH THIS.
IT ALL BEGAN.....
And here we see the main difference between David Norliss and Carl Kolchak: Kolchak had style! Panache! A flair for vivid descriptions! True, none of his writing ever seemed to make it to print... but that wasn't a question of quality. Norliss, on the other hand, can't seem to write a single sentence without falling flat. OK, admittedly, it's a rough draft written by a man in fear for his life... but that's no excuse for the clumsily-repeated "this"-es, and the stumbling rhythm of the second half of the sentence. Or the BLOCK CAPITALS. If this is a representative sample of Norliss's work, "putting this down" wouldn't be much of a problem for his readers.
It's also very clear that Norliss never intended to go any further with his written record. He wasn't interrupted before he could finish, because he had time to type in that very long ellipsis. Nobody ever writes "It all began", dot dot dot dot dot, if he really plans to continue.
No: the key to Norliss's disappearance must be in the massive stack of Certron 90-minute cassette tapes lying on his desk. Sanford finds the tape neatly labeled "1" and pops it into the tape recorder. Out of the speaker comes Norliss's weary voice, as he begins his story. He glosses over the early part of his investigation ("... the floating face, which was a dummy's head on a wire... the ghost of a woman's son, who turned out to be the medium's own kid in a weird getup...") and gets straight to the case that changed his mind about the existence of the Other World, and started drawing him into dangers he never anticipated: the case of Ellen Cort.
Mrs. Cort (Angie Dickinson, only a year before "Police Woman") is a wealthy widow. Her husband, a sculptor named Jim Cort, had died only recently. Late one night shortly after her husband's death, Ellen had been awakened by her dog. It seemed there was an intruder on the property... someone sneaking into Jim's old studio. Ellen had grabbed one of her husband's shotguns and gone with the dog to investigate.
What she found was her husband's re-animated cadaver.
The dog had attacked it at once, but the thing that had once been her husband effortlessly tossed it aside. Terrified, Ellen had fired the shotgun at it, nearly point-blank... yet when the police investigated later, there was no body; and the only traces of blood they'd found at the scene had come from the dead dog.
Naturally, Ellen's story left the police a little skeptical about the details. Having nowhere else to turn, she decided to go to Norliss, who is a friend of her sister's. I'm not sure why she felt she should turn to a journalist, of all people, with a story like that... let alone a journalist whose current project is to debunk claims of the supernatural. Though I suppose, the script notwithstanding, she could still believe the appearance of her husband to be some kind of hoax.
According to Ellen, Jim Cort had died of progressive incurable dementia — a cruel way to die. As his symptoms grew worse and his personality began to change, he became desperate to try anything that might give him hope. One of his last attempts came through a fellow artist he'd met at a show at the Langdon Gallery, one Madame Jeckiel (Vonetta [Blacula] McGee), who had a side-interest in the occult and spirit-healing. Norliss wonders aloud how much money Mme. Jeckiel had squeezed out of him... but Ellen brings him up short: she'd never asked for any money from Jim. Not even for... the ring.
The ring? asks Norliss.
Oh, yes; the ring. The Ring of Osiris, Egyptian god of the dead and grantor of immortality. The ring which Jim insisted be buried with him. That ring. We're only 15 minutes into the show, and we've got our McGuffin... if this were a "Night Stalker" series episode, we could have the whole story wrapped up twenty minutes early. But this is not a "Night Stalker" episode, and our heroes have not yet figured out that the plot has just been handed to them.
Thus, before Norliss gets a chance to follow up the story of the mysterious ring, a defenseless shopgirl suffers two of the oldest and hoariest attacks in horror movie history: the first from a Spring-Loaded Cat, and the second, fatally, from the ol' Intruder Hiding Undetected in the Back Seat of the Car. This particular intruder has the advantage of being able to stay very still; but unless the girl has no sense of smell, it's hard to believe she doesn't realize he's there until he suddenly sits up and grabs her (he's blue, for crying out loud: you don't get to that stage of putrefaction without a little olfactory evidence). The police first think the girl's been killed by the subsequent crash; however, the condition of the body suggests something else may have happened. Sure enough, the medical examiner confides to the local Sheriff (played, as usual, by Claude Akins) that the girl was not only strangled to death, but her body was totally drained of blood.
The last thing the Sheriff wants is a journalist hanging around at a time like this. So, of course, this is the moment that David Norliss shows up asking questions about Ellen Cort. And Norliss, I am saddened to say, lacks Carl Kolchak's tact... his sensitivity... his (cough) lightness of touch with the authorities. At one point, he even tries to take one of the Sheriff's rifles off its rack out of idle curiosity — much to the Sheriff's distress; I'm a little surprised he doesn't throw Norliss out (or into a cell).
Having got nothing out of the Sheriff, Norliss proceeds to the Cort estate. There he checks first the studio, then the crypt where Cort lies buried. Cort's casket has a convenient easy-access flip top lid, but evidently he's not sealed for freshness... when Norliss opens the coffin (!) no noxious gases escape. There he lies, all blue and peaceful, with the ring of Osiris still on his finger. Now, you'd figure he'd have powder burns and a shredded shirt from the shotgun blast, which would at least confirm that he'd been out for a walk recently. But either Norliss doesn't think of that, or Cort has an extra suit stashed somewhere (or, I suppose, his clothing could come back from the dead good as new, just like he did).
The next step in the investigation is to check up on the people who were involved in obtaining the ring. First, Norliss goes to see Charles Langdon, owner of the Langdon Gallery and the man who introduced Cort to Mme. Jeckiel (amusingly, Langdon the gallery owner is played by none other than Hurd Hatfield, star of 1945's The Picture of Dorian Gray). Langdon has expressed a curious interest in buying the ring from Cort's estate. Ellen has informed him it's not for sale... but she hasn't said why. He explains to Norliss that his interest is purely antiquarian... and Norliss, for reasons I can't quite figure out, goes ahead and tells him where the ring is.
Predictably, while Norliss goes to find Mme. Jeckiel, Langdon goes to break into Cort's tomb. At first delighted by Cort's easy-access coffin, he's a little disturbed to find it empty. He's even more distressed when he turns around and finds Cort — with his purplish-blue skin and his burning orange eyeballs — waiting for him.
It turns out that Jim Cort has been revived through the magic of the Ring of Osiris, which for some reason has put him in the debt of a decidedly un-Egyptian demon called Sargoth. As Mme. Jeckiel eventually reveals, Cort must build a statue of Sargoth from clay mixed with human blood, and that statue will eventually become the vessel for Sargoth's banished spirit to return to Earth. Glossed over in this explanation is how Cort managed to extract and transport the blood of his victims: we've assumed he drank it, vampire style. But if he subsequently had to get the blood back out again to mix up his clay, then... ummm... OK, maybe it's better we don't know too many of the details after all.
The biggest problem with "The Norliss Tapes" is the script. The various characters do what they do solely because it's what the script compels them to do, whether it makes any sense or not. For all we see of them — including some sequences that Norliss wasn't present for, and which he had no reason to include in his narrative — we never get a glimpse into the motivations of any of them. For example, Mme. Jeckiel's sudden decision to switch sides seems a little arbitrary, considering how much of the current mess is her fault. Her decision to time her conversion so that her own doom is assured seems equally lazy. And when Zombie Cort, tears streaming down his graying face, staggers after Ellen — trying (and failing) to say, "Ellen! Ellen, it's me!" — it might have resonated more if Cort hadn't tried pretty aggressively to kill her twice before (for the love of pete, he tore the door off a car trying to get her!).
3. ...though I guess I should also point out that Norliss's eventual method of dealing with the reanimated demon Sargoth doesn't really make a lot of sense, unless the aeons-imprisoned Great Old One is seriously impatient..
This brings us to the second major problem with "The Norliss Tapes": Norliss himself. As played by Roy Thinnes, Norliss is a monotonous hero. He's cold, supercilious and unlikeable... and as if those weren't bad enough traits in a journalist, he's also not a very good writer. The brief fragment found in his typewriter read like the beginning of a seventh grade history paper, but we get other bits of narration as the story progresses that suggest David Norliss wasn't about to win any Pulitzers. Kolchak talked to the audience in brief, pithy comments; Norliss goes on like a freshman lit student trying to write the Great American Novel:
"2:30 AM: Willie Pike, one-time heavyweight contender... now just one heavy pile of lifeless junk."(Keep in mind: the rhapsody above is Norliss when his mind is not on the scenery. Imagine if he'd been giving it his full attention!)
Still, there are a lot of good things about "The Norliss Tapes". There weren't many zombies on television in the early 70's, and stuntman Nick Dimitri makes a good one: for one thing, he's large and threatening; also, his makeup is very effective, and his appearances are carefully shot, scored and edited to make the most of his frightening appearance. In fact, Dimitri steals the show every time he shows up on screen. That's not to suggest, though, that the rest of the actors aren't competent: the cast is made up of old pros, and they (with the notable exception of the bland Roy Thinnes) do very well with the paper-thin roles they've been given.
Best of all is the direction of Dan Cutis. Televisions in the seventies were very small by comparison to today's enormous flat-screens... and many of them were still black and white; Curtis was one of the directors who really understood how to create visual interest on that tiny little square. Consider the stereotypical Dan Curtis mis en scène: there's a single, very noticeable object, usually totally unrelated to the content of the scene, placed very prominently in the foreground. The actor at the heart of the scene will then be placed in the deep background; and a supporting actor (or perhaps another object, slightly less prominent than whatever's in the foreground) will be placed in the middle ground to form a triangle. The result is a real feeling of depth created within a very tight frame, as these examples illustrate:
The Night Strangler:
The Norliss Tapes:
Curse of the Black Widow:
But the good stuff just isn't enough to turn "The Norliss Tapes" into a classic. NBC, appreantly realizing the movie didn't quite add up to the sum of its parts, passed on the opportunity to pick up the pilot for a full series. Even so, there's a possibility "The Norliss Tapes" might have enjoyed a better reputation over the years... if that old reprobate Carl Kolchak hadn't upstaged his younger colleague on his own territory just a year and a half later.
The second episode of "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" was called "The Zombie". It involved Haitian black magic, organized crime, and one seriously dead-looking walking corpse. The episode hit all the right notes: an able blend of comedy4
4. The best joke in the episode is when the putrefying zombie gets on a public bus... and nobody notices.and stark terror, it came to a climax with Kolchak kneeling in the back of an abandoned hearse, trying to sew the zombie's lips together around a mouthful of salt... only to have the rotten-looking cadaver suddenly open its eyes and lunge for him. It's definitely one of the scariest things ever made for television.
Above all, the "Kolchak" episode seemed much more plausible — simpler and more down-to-earth — than "The Norliss Tapes". Instead of heiresses, undead sculptors and reanimated clay demons, it dealt with warring mob bosses (split along racial lines), a grieving mother, and snippets of authentic zombie folklore. Zombie Jim Cort from "The Norliss Tapes" had been enjoyably scary; but Kolchak's zombie was no fun at all — he was the real thing: raw, greasy, decaying, with the autopsy stitches visible on his chest... dead. And there was Kolchak — gruff, lovable Kolchak, the eternal underdog; Van Helsing as imagined by Ben Hecht; someone we could really identify with — sitting on its chest, a needle between his own lips as he tried to hold the corpse's mouth shut. In terms of sheer gibbering nightmare material, there's nothing comparable in "The Norliss Tapes"... and, come to think of it, very little in television history5
5. No, not even "The Walking Dead".that stands up to it6
6. And shambles after you..
If this whole review seems more like a love letter to "The Night Stalker" than a balanced review of "The Norliss Tapes", I apologize. It's not that "The Norliss Tapes" is that bad. It's... well... it's OK, though it's neither among the best nor the worst examples of the Golden Age of the made-for-TV movie. I suppose it's a little like, say, Beethoven's Fourth Symphony... a charming piece of music, but overwhelmed a little by the fact that it comes between the Third (which is the mighty Eroica) and the Fifth (which is Beethoven's friggin' Fifth, for the love o' Pete). It's a little difficult to stand out when you're bracketed by some of the best work your genre has ever produced.