Sunday, 30 October 2016

Behind the Armchair Theatre… The Norliss Tapes (1973)

There’s something extra spooky about a low-budget TV movie. As movie theatres featured increasingly graphic horrors NBC sought to keep its audience in front of screen by doing as much as it could to scare them through atmospherics and acting.

The Norliss Tapes is one of the most memorable as an over-achiever in a medium in which output was auto-limited by self-censorship, advertiser and audience sensibility as well as budgets designed more for speed than comfort. Four stars out of five or seven out of ten is probably optimal for a seventies TV movie and on both scales The Norliss Tapes nearly maxes out.

Producer-director Dan Curtis had previously worked on TV movie The Night Stalker (1972) and knew his goggle-box-bound trade very well. This feature was intended, like that, to spawn an ongoing TV series but in this case the option was not followed through which is a shame but so it goes.

Angie Dickinson
The potential series’ ongoing structure is revealed in a framing device in which a publisher, in search of his deadline-dodging investigative author, starts playing tapes of his projected next book. The author David Norliss (Roy Thinnes) has set himself the aim of debunking the supernatural and, surprise, seems to have found that the opposite may well be the case. As Norliss’ voice-over fades her reveals his hesitancy in publishing is based on the fear his revelations will unleash…

Fade to flashback as we find Norliss pottering about his subject with a confident, professional air we know will soon dissipate… he has a call from a woman Ellen Cort (Angie Dickinson, building up her TV presence before Police Woman) who claims to have seen her dead husband – sounds fishy, surely a Scoobie Doo explanation must be forthcoming?

But Dan Curtis doesn’t hang around… soon we’ll see that there’s actual something specifically supernatural and the late Mr Cort is out and about killing…

Roy Thinnes
None of this sounds remotely gripping when I write but Curtis generates genuine tense through judicious low camera angles, lighting and the odd dollop of hysteria.

Ellen tells Norliss that her husband had recently died from a rare brain disorder - Pick's Disease (no, me neither… Dr House?) – and had been seeking magical help from a spooky yet sexy modern witch Mademoiselle Jeckiel (Vonetta McGee) – who along with the incense and peppermints had given him a scarab ring symbolizing the Egyptian god Osiris.

A visit to Mr Cort’s impressive mausoleum reveals him to be only an occasional visitor to his final resting place and what is more someone has been moulding a life-size demonic statue using a strange red clay… can you guess where the colour comes from?

Vonetta McGee
Naturally there’s a local sheriff, expertly played by upstanding Claude Akins – without whom no TV movie of the time would be complete – who, to his credit, plays fair but tends to rely too much on a fact-based approach. If only law enforcement officers were given a broader grounding in the occult…

Norliss applies his own research whilst the body count rises and a near miss with the red-eyed, blue-faced Mr Corpse… sorry Cort… who is strong enough to almost rip his former wife from within their locked car: no motor vehicles were harmed during the making of this film… On the contrary, it’s worth noting that Norliss drives a rather fine Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, one of my favourite cars of the period and more than a match for your Mustang or Jaguar.

The Chevvy
There are many fine shots of the car shooting along the Californian coast line, as Norliss heads off in search of resolution. But, all car fetishizing aside, there’s perhaps a juxtaposition of the modern against the unstoppable force of the ancient occult.

And there’s the rub: can Norliss find a way of working out what is happening, suspending disbelief of author and – being honest, audience – in time to save the beauteous Ellen. There’s twists and possibly untrustworthy humans as realization dawns and the way out is to trust to the old ways.

"You're in a deep, dark cave..."
Maybe there’s a deeper connection to the unease felt by many at headlong modernization or maybe it’s just mean to be fun? Either way the end result is still entertaining if you just turn off your mind, relax and float down main-stream…  Saturday entertainment has changed but we still like a little touch of the night.

Claud Rains is Claud Rains and perfect for his part, whilst Roy Thinnes makes for the ideal intellectual leading man. All he’s missing is a relationship with Angie Dickinson’s damsel in dead-husband distress but perhaps the wasn’t enough time. Angie gives could beauty and acts well within herself (code for actually needs a better script) whilst Vonetta McGee adds some class as the woman with satanic connections.

Low-angled tape listening
Dusty verdict: As always with TV movies there’s something missing: budget, freedom of expression time to fully develop the narrative… But there’s enough here to keep you interested whether it’s the nostalgia of reviewing after so much time or the simple fun of the finished product.

The Norliss Tapes is now available on DVD… worth a look but you may be disturbed if only for a little while.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Primal small screen… The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)

Brenda Benet and Chuck Connors
Back in the seventies there were only three channels on UK TV and you pretty much had to watch what you were given. Was it a co-incidence that families watched TV more as one and that there were many successes in appealing to their common tastes? Content was targeted at this mass demographic and was designed to appeal and not challenge… With our modern array of styles and genres – yet still an amorphous mass of the similar and the same on the hundreds of available channels – it’s hard to be measured about the output of the time. A little tame, a bit tame… obvious and predictable… really? So, not as cutting edge as XFactor or Bake Off then? How we’ve changed…

Movies began being made just for TV, spearheaded by CBS and ABC in the US, who were committed to producing family fare much removed from an increasingly explicit mainstream cinema. Probably it was a more cost-effective way of exploiting the newer medium – a low-cost ad-revenue-based model.

Buddy Ebsen, Lynn Loring, France Nuyen and Paul Winfield are shocked!
So it was that films like The Horror at 37,000 Feet were unleashed on the Saturday night public with special effects strictly limited to a not too convincing model 747, moody gurgling carpets and the odd flash of light.

This may have been the first time I’ve seen this film in over forty years (yikes!) and it still projects a residual impact: Shatner’s acting, David Lowell Rich’s well-disciplined direction and what I can now see as more than just fresh-faced charm from the lovely and then ubiquitous Darleen Carr… This is a visit to my primal televisual state when that tiny curved screen in the living room opened up the World to my pre-teen eyes.

Darleen Carr
It’s impossible to view on its own terms anymore and yet you can catch admirable glimpses of fine acting – it is a strong cast - and appreciate the construction of genuine suspense aboard that generic platform for so much dramatic tension: the jet plane. Where once people of different backgrounds convened at country mansions for murder and self-realisation, then as now the venue is likely to be a Boeing jet: shakes on a plane. Shivers too.

The flight is captained by Captain Ernie Slade (chiselled Chuck Connors) a man of heroic bearing who you’d trust to ride any horse and fly any plane… he’s aided by second-in-command Jim Hawley (Russell Johnson) and navigator Frank Driscoll (H.M. Wynant).

Darleen and Buddy
Naturally, there are two pretty stewardesses, super Sally (Brenda Benet) and the lithe Margot (Miss Carr) whose short skirt and tight-fitting, leg-revealing stewardess uniform provokes that instant connection with youthful response: topped off with her regular open-featured prettiness and you have the epitome of the American TV girl of the period. It may be just me but… I remember you well Darleen.

Of course she’s also a fine actress and she’s going need to be if we’re to survive the next 73 minutes…

Jane Merrow and Roy Thinnes
Other good actors with sometimes difficult words to say include Roy Thinnes (remember The Invaders?) as devil-may-care architect, Alan O'Neill and playing his long-suffering wife, Sheila, English export Jane Merrow – she of the ace-face and doe-eyed delivery. Sheila is from old money and has allowed marital loyalty to override her inherited duty: mad Al has uprooted the remains of a druid grave and is transporting it, lock, stock and headstone to top off a new apartment he’s building – oh, how the godless rich spend their money…

Objecting to all this, in the weirdest-possible terms, is the earnest Mrs. Pinder (Tammy Grimes) a woman from Sheila’s parish who understands far more about the true significance of the remains… she makes one last plea for O’Neill to abandon his plan before promising that he will regret it… In practical terms her intervention is a little late as the relic is all packed up in the hold and they are about to take off but… you know. Mrs Pinder has brought her dog along which is odd especially given the British control on animal movement… she must be thinking of more than a short stay in America as these things take so long to sort out…

Mrs Pinder issues a grave warning...
Anyway… Mrs Pinder is in first class with a second class ticket and is encouraged back to her seat allowing Sheila and Alan to continue an ongoing spat – his infidelity, lack of empathy, regard for tradition and so on… He leaves to go find a drink in the upstairs lounge bar.

Sheila tries to distract herself with music but her headphones don’t work allowing garish ageing cowboy actor, Steve Holcomb (Will Hutchins – an ageing cowboy actor…) to try it on… he strikes out but those headphones… there’s an other-worldly noise coming through… it’s chilling, she can’t listen and pulls the phones off: it’s been a stressful few days but she ain’t seen nothing yet.

Jane Merrow
Meanwhile, Mrs P’s fellow passengers are revealed: there’s a short-haired red-head with a guitar, Manya (Lynn Loring – Mrs Thinnes as it happens) whose long-suffering alongside a smart-looking man constantly topping up his alcohol level – it’s Paul Kovalik (William Shatner in one of his greatest/worst post-Trek appearances depending on who you read… it’s way more complex than that!).

There’s kindly Doctor Enkalla (Paul Winfield) and a young girl Jodi (Mia Bendixsen) who is travelling alone – why is there always a young girl travelling alone? All part of the arcane conventions of the airplane movie…

Bill is always brilliant!
Meanwhile in the lounge… Alan meets grizzled industrialist Glenn Farlee (Buddy Ebsen – a long way from the Texas Tea) who interrupts his chatting up of model Annalik (France Nuyen) to berate his profession and question his business sense in shipping such a commercially-irrelevant object across the Atlantic.

All is now in place for the demonic dance to begin…the mysterious object in the hold gets cold and freezes Mrs Pinder’s dog in an instant, as the cold mist spreads it’s also clear that the plane simply isn’t moving… almost as if something didn’t want to be flown from England to America… The emanating evil spreads and soon the body count begins: as the passengers become more revolting is there any way out that avoids human sacrifice and their reversion to savages?!

Can anyone step forward and save the day in as dramatically efficient way as possible?

Dusty verdict:  In truth it’s hard not to enjoy this film. The story may be as thin as Gaelic mist but the cast certainly believe in it and give their all with some fine character work. Of course no harm is done by the frequent deployment of Darleen Carr’s legs in key shots but she also acts up a storm as do Jane Merrow, Chuck Connors and Tammy Grimes in particular. Bill Shatner? He does very well – yes there’s the occasional mad-eyed glint, like Kirk under alien influence, but he’s having a ball and hasn’t overlooked the fact that this stuff needs to be fun.

Jane M
For some this is the epitome of Saturday night TV movies for others it may be more dated and televisual than cinematic but that’s not for want of trying.

Well worth seeking out on DVD from Amazon and elsewhere…

This ain't Texas Tea...
Not a real plane
Darleen again

Let's take a look around the Boeing 747...

Here's the holding bay
More storage over here.
Wide aisles for passenger comfort
Exceptional all round.