Saturday, October 28, 2006

Vamp or Not? The Norliss Tapes


Contains spoilers

This Dan Curtis directed TV movie from 1973 shares quite a lot of the Kolchak legacy, beyond the fact that Curtis was heavily involved in both productions. Kolchak was a reporter who believed in the supernatural and got drawn into occult based investigations. David Norliss (Roy Thinnes) was a writer, working on an investigative book debunking the occult especially charlatan spiritualists who made money out of the beliefs of others, who got drawn into cases that made him a believer. Both started life as made for TV movies, both piloted to open a further series, which Kolchak got and Norliss did not. Perhaps that was because Norliss was a lot darker in essence.

The film begins with Norliss ringing his editor; Roy Thinnes as David Norlisshe has been working on his book for a year but has not written anything. He wants to see his editor, Sanford T Evans (Don Porter), that day, when the next day is suggested he claims it may be too late. The editor keeps the meeting but Norliss doesn’t show, he vanishes from the face of the earth and all the editor is left with is a series of tapes, his notes, if you will, of his investigations. This film is the story on the first tape. Obviously, if it made series, each tape was to be an episode.

In this Norliss is contacted by an Ellen Cort (Angie Dickinson), recent wealthy widow of sculptor James Cort (Nick Dimitri). She was awakened the night before by her dog barking. She took a shotgun and her dog led her to her husband’s studio, a building separate Angie Dickinson as Ellen Cortto the main house. In there a man lurches out of the shadows, blue/grey of face. He kills the dog with ease and turns on Ellen who blasts him with the shotgun and, rather sensibly, runs. By the time the cops arrive the body is gone. They believe she missed when she shot the intruder and do not believe her claim that the man was her husband returned from the grave.

She tells Norliss that her husband had been diagnosed with an incurable brain disease that left him wheelchair bound before he died. However he became obsessed with the occult and made a deal with an occultist, Madame Jeckiel (Vonetta McGee), the details of the deal unknown to Ellen. Jeckiel gave him an Osiris scarab ring which his will stipulated he be buried with.

Before Norliss gets to visit Ellen a young woman, Millie, is attacked by Cort. He lunges at her from the back seat of her car and strangles her, causing her to crash. When the police are called to the crash by a passing trucker they discover that, whilst cause of death was strangulation, her body has been drained of blood. The Sheriff, Tom Hartley (Claude Akins playing fairly much the same character, with a different name, that he did in the first Kolchak movie, The Night Stalker), wants this kept quiet. Norliss, with a gut hunch, believes that his case and that of the dead girl are connected. How right he is.

Look at his eyesSo far, so good, in a vampire sense. We have a man returned from the grave. He is impervious to bullets and we have a drained victim. He is immensely strong, we see him wrench the door of a car at one point, and has freakishly portrayed eyes.

Later we discover, when the sleep of the deadNorliss and Ellen go to the crypt, that he is back in his coffin. Thus we are led to believe that he only functions at night and this is confirmed later when Madame Jeckiel confesses the truth of what is occurring and tries to make good for the evil she has wrought.

Things are not so simple. Cort is fairly inarticulate, he mainly groans and roars. He does seem to mumble an occult ritual at the end and say “Ellen,” at one point. To a degree he is much more zombie like, though this would be one of the earliestCort attacks examples of a running zombie, and he is actually referred to as a zombie at one point, but never is the word vampire used except in a disparaging reference to the headline the press would produce if they discovered that Millie was drained of blood – “Vampire killer loose in Monterey.” On the other hand, towards the end of the film, when Cort groans her name, he obviously recognises Ellen and lets her go – not normal zombie behaviour as it displays complex memory and feeling and, of course, zombies are not known for their inability to function in daylight.

The blood draining is a red herring also. We discover later that Cort is making a statue and, it turns out, this is of the demon Sargoth (Bob Schott). This statue wasn't here beforeEssentially he was given the ring in a deal that it would grant him the ability to rise from the grave and in return he would use his skills as an artist to create a statue of the demon and be granted, there after, true immortality. The clay he uses is made with 40% human blood and the statue is to serve as a vessel to allow Sargoth to walk the earth. In other words Cort’s rising from the dead is at the behest of a demon and blood gathering (and not drinking) is secondary to his resurrection.

Can he be killed? Ellen and Jeckiel try to stop him by finding him during the day and taking the ring off him. Of course the signet ring is a favourite prop in Hammer’s Dracula Cycle, but removal of the ring doesn’t normally stop the vampire. Sargoth livesIn the end Norliss puts an alchemical blood circle around the statue and, when Cort completes the statue and the demon comes to life, he sets it on fire. This is meant to prevent anything within from leaving and the resulting inferno devours the studio. The next day Cort’s charred bones are found. However, it wasn’t clear to me whether the fire killed him or the displeased demon withdrew the spark of life from the corpse – the demon did turn on Cort when it discovered it was trapped.

This is a hard one to classify; it certainly has vampirish overtones, as well as zombie overtones and demonic overtones (in the source of the resurrection). It is also a film that appears regularly on vampire filmographies. Ultimately, however, I am tempted to go for not vamp (and yet discreetly secrete the DVD amongst my vampire collection in case I change my mind).

That said, I had been looking forward to watching this film and really did enjoy it, despite the fact that it was so heavily 70s that it hadn’t aged particularly well. I have read some disparaging comments about the noir styled voiceovers, but they added to the atmosphere for me and I feel that it is a great shame this was never picked up as a series. Whilst its premise was very similar to Kolchak it was darker and the central characters were very different, Kolchak dogged yet mischievous, Norliss dour and, certainly just before he vanished, terrified. I’d recommend fans of horror generally to give this one a watch – Sargoth, might have looked like a Hulk reject at the end but, overall, this was a class piece of TV cinema.

The imdb page is here.


Simon Dyda said...

Had me fooled into thinking it was a vampire flick until about the last fifteen or twenty minutes of the movie.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

It'll do that ;)

It is a great flick though