At the start of the television movie “The Norliss Tapes,” publishing editor, Sanford Evans, played by Emmy nominee Don Porter (Gidget), receives a phone call. Although it is a hectic Monday morning at the office, he takes the call, because it is from one of his prized writers, investigative journalist, David Norliss. Evans assumes that Norliss, who is portrayed by Roy Thinnes (The Invaders), is calling to tell him that the current book he’s working on is only half written, and that he needs more time to finish, but that’s not the reason for the call. In fact, Norliss hasn’t written a single word of the book. The news doesn’t sit well with Evans, who reminds Norliss that he received a sizable advance for his work, and has had a year to write it. The book Norliss set out to write was about debunking the supernatural. He wanted to prove, that people who hold themselves out as astrologers, mystics, and claim to have the ability to communicate with the deceased, are nothing more than con artists, exploiting emotionally vulnerable people to swindle them out of their money. Norliss does inform Evans, that even though he hasn’t written anything, he has recorded his findings on a series of cassette tapes that he wants the editor to listen to. Norliss needs to discuss the matter further, and asks Evans if he will meet him for lunch. Evans agrees to meet Norliss for lunch, but asks if they could meet the following day, while making protestations about how busy Monday is at the office. Norliss, sounding on edge, lets Evans know that by tomorrow, it might be too late; a concerned Evans agrees to the meeting, however, Norliss never shows up.
After a week has passed, an increasingly worried Evans, who has neither heard from, nor been able to contact Norliss, talks to Norliss’s lawyer (Robert Mandan). The lawyer feels that Evans is making too much of a missed lunch appointment, but promises that he will look into the matter. When the lawyer again meets up with Evans, he is apologetic for not taking Evan’s concerns more seriously. He lets Evans know that he has checked everywhere, but has had no luck finding Norliss, and that no one the lawyer has spoken to has seen or heard from his client.
Evans decides to go to Norliss’s home to see if he has returned. When he arrives, the house appears normal, no sign of forced entry, or a struggle that has ensued. While there, Evans comes across the cassette tapes Norliss mentioned to him during their phone call. The cassettes are labeled numerically. Evans takes the first one, places it into the recorder, and begins to listen. On the first tape, Norliss talks briefly about the scams he encountered when he first began to research the book. One case, he investigates, that of Ellen Sterns Cort, played by two time, Golden Globe winner, Angie Dickinson (Police Woman), is when his skepticism regarding the supernatural begins to change.
Ellen is a recently widowed woman, whose husband, James Cort (Nick Dimitri), was a successful sculptor who worked out of his studio on their estate in Carmel, California. Ellen relays to Norliss the story, that one evening, while sleeping, she was awakened by the barking of her dog. Before exiting the house, Ellen took a hunting rifle out of a gun case, and next, allowed the dog to lead her in the direction of James’s studio. The lights in the studio are off, and the door is locked, but since the dog is upset, Ellen goes inside to have a look around. A matter of seconds pass, and a creature, wearing a dark suit – who, except for his demonic looking eyes, and his gray-colored skin resembles a man – kills the dog, and is able to withstand, and walk away from, a gun blast that Ellen fires directly into his body from a short distance away. When the police arrive to investigate, led by Sheriff Hartley (Claude Akins), all they find is the dog’s body and blood. Ellen states to the police that she knows the man who she shot, but they don’t believe her. The reason for the lack of belief on the part of the police, regarding the validity of Ellen’s story, is that she claims, that the man she shot was James, her dead husband. Convinced of what she saw, Ellen contacts her sister, Marcia (Michele Carey), an acquaintance of Norliss, who puts Ellen in touch with him.
After Ellen describes what happened, Norliss begins to question her. He learns that James died from Frontotemporal dementia, more commonly referred to as Pick’s disease, for which there is no cure. Ellen states to Norliss, that James became increasingly withdrawn, depressed, and ordered his studio boarded up because he no longer wanted to work. Desperate for a cure, James attempted to find a supernatural remedy. Charles Langdon, played by Emmy nominee, Hurd Hatfield (Invincible Mr. Disraeli), is the owner of The Langdon Gallery, where James had his work showcased. He puts James in touch with someone who he thought might be able to help. The woman, Mme. Jeckiel (Vonetta McGee), is interested in the occult and healing the sick. She gives James The Ring of Osiris, an Egyptian deity. The ring is supposed to possess magic powers in regard to granting immortality to the person who wears it.
The deeper Norliss gets into his investigation of Ellen Cort’s mysterious attacker, the more he can’t merely dismiss it as some sort of hoax. The police are uncooperative, wanting to keep things quiet, especially since a short time after the incident with Ellen Cort, a truck driver (Stanley Adams) comes across a crashed car off to the side of the road. Inside of the car is the body of a young woman, or what’s left of her; the coroner will later reveal to Sheriff Hartley, that the body was completely drained of blood. As Norliss questions those involved in James Cort’s life, he begins to piece together the reasons why the murderous occurrences are happening, especially after a specific piece of information he learns from Mme. Jeckiel.
What information does Mme. Jeckiel provide to Norliss? How can it help him give Ellen Cort the answers she’s seeking about her dead husband? Has James Cort risen from the grave? If so, what deal did he make to insure that he would come back to life? What happened to David Norliss? Does he return from wherever he has gone off to? By the end of the 72 minute television movie’s runtime, most of those questions, but not all, will be answered. The reason is that “The Norliss Tapes” was intended as a pilot for a proposed television series of the same name, but NBC Television passed on producing it.
“The Norliss Tapes,” was Directed by Emmy winner, Dan Curtis (War & Remembrance). The teleplay was written by William F. Nolan (Trilogy of Terror) based on a story by Fred Mustard Stewart (Ellis Island). The movie first aired on NBC television on February 21, 1973. I have heard the television movie discussed a number of times over the years, but I had not seen it prior to writing this review. I am not sorry I watched it; I found it entertaining enough for at least a onetime viewing. If “The Norliss Tapes” were made today, and tweaked for modern times and technology, the premise is interesting enough that I could envision it finding a home as a series, for example, on Netflix. As of the writing of this post, the television movie, is available to be watched on youtube.com.