Ratings Key



★★★★
= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
★★★
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Norliss Tapes, The (1973) (TV)

Directed by:
Dan Curtis

The Norliss Tapes was the feature-length pilot episode for a proposed TV series that was never picked up by original broadcaster NBC. I have no clue why this never made it to series (the premise is certainly promising enough), but it probably just boiled down to poor or mediocre Nielsen ratings. After all, this was released not long after the Curtis-produced THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) made history as the highest-rated TV movie of all time and its follow-up, the Curtis-directed THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1973), likewise pulled in impressive enough numbers to prompt the short-lived series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75). Roy Thinnes, who appeared in made-for-TV terror flicks THE HORROR AT 37,000 FEET (1973) and Satan's School for Girls (1973) the same year, stars as eccentric writer David Norliss. A year prior to when the story begins, he was given an advance by his publisher, Sanford Evans (Don Porter), to write a book about the commercial aspects of spiritualism and the occult. In other words, he set out to debunk the supernatural and expose phonies who bilk millions of dollars from naive suckers each year in various scams. During a brief phone conversation, David informs Sanford that his research has taken a dangerous and unexpected turn. He claims he can no longer write the book but has recorded some of his findings onto audio tapes. After David doesn't show up for a business lunch and isn't heard from in a week, Sanford goes to his home only to find the door wide open and David nowhere in sight. He has, however, left behind a series of tapes. Sanford grabs one labeled "1" and pops it in for a listen, which is the story that makes up the bulk of this movie. Thinnes stars in and narrates the tale, and one would assume the series would continue along these lines with tapes 2, 3, 4, etc. telling new supernatural horror stories if it had been picked up.







On Tape #1 is a case concerning recent widow Ellen Sterns Cort (Angie Dickinson), who's just inherited a sizable fortune from her recently-deceased husband Jim (Nick Dimitri); a famous, reclusive sculptor stricken with crippling Pick's Disease. Late one night while investigating a noise, Ellen makes a shocking discovery in her late husband's studio: him. Now sporting a grey-blue face, blue-and-yellow eyes and exceptional strength, Jim kills their dog with his bare hands before Ellen shoots him with a rifle. She's flees and calls the police. When they show up, they find the dog but no husband. Naturally, no one believes her story about what really went down, especially when it's discovered that Jim's body in still at rest inside his crypt. Ellen's sister Marsha (Michele Carey), an associate of David's, has him investigate the claims. David meets up with Ellen and learns that Jim had become interested in the occult shortly before his death. In fact, he made some kind of deal with antique gallery owner Madame Jeckiel (Vonetta McGee) in exchange for a valuable Egyptian scarab ring somehow tied to Osiris; the God of Immortality. An ancient demon called Sargoth may also be involved. Meanwhile, Sheriff Tom Hartley (Claude Akins) is investigating a string of murders where each victim is drained completely of blood.








This modest production has some very good elements, as well as some not-so-stellar ones. The pacing is a real Catch 22. It frequently seems rushed; not surprising since this covers a lot of ground in a brief period of time, but it also moves along briskly enough to keep it from dragging. Some of the overly-descriptive voice-overs, attempting to capture the essence of a writer, are a bit corny, as well. You know, an overcast day turns into "a curtain of cold rain fell from a gun metal grey sky;" forests turn into "acres of lush cypress and tall pine." etc. Neither the characterizations nor the plot are much above passable and, since this was intended as a continuing series, we're not given adequate closure about the fate of David (though this perhaps works in an unintended ambiguous way). On the plus side, nice use is made of rainy Northern California coastal locations, the eye contacts / makeup design on the resurrected killer are pretty neat and, best of all, director Curtis manages to stage several highly-effective scare scenes; at least one of which is guaranteed to make most viewers jump out of their seats. So while not up to Night Stalker standards, this is still worth a look.







Next to impossible to find for the longest time, this is now available on DVD from Anchor Bay. The cast also includes Hurd Hatfield as an art gallery owner who unwisely attempts to steal the ring, Bryan O'Byrne as a goofy motel manager, George DiCenzo and Patrick Wright. William F. Nolan scripted from a story by Fred Mustard Stewart. Thinnes would later become one of the stars of Curtis' short-lived Dark Shadows reprisal in 1991.

★★1/2

Mortuary Academy (1988)

Directed by:
Michael Schroeder

Thanks to the mediocre hit comedy Police Academy (1983) and all of its progressively-dumber sequels and off-shoots (there was even an animated TV series), the 80s and 90s were rife with other goofy 'academy' comedies. We got Combat Academy (1986), The Princess Academy (1987), Dance Academy (1988), Ninja Academy (1988), Honeymoon Academy (1989), Vice Academy (1989) and its five (!) sequels, Witch Academy (1993), Bikini Academy (1996), Snowboard Academy (1996), South Beach Academy (1996), Kickboxer Academy (1997) and numerous others. And lest we forget Mortuary Academy, which also utilizes the same low-humor-at-an-institute-of-higher-learning scenario as many of the others. This time, many of the gags are extremely tasteless, so at least that's something to make this one stand out. I must start out this review by admitting a bias and warn that if you do not share an affinity for its stars you may find this a little harder to get through than I did. Dumb and ridiculous as much of this is, I simply cannot completely dislike a film that features both Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov in major roles. If you're not a fan of either, and don't enjoy crude humor, you'll probably want to give this a pass.






After their Uncle Willard dies, nephews Sam (Christopher Atkins) and Max (Perry Lang) Grimm are set to inherit his 2-million-dollar mortuary business. There's only one condition; both must complete a course of study at "Grimm Mortuary and Academy," which their uncle also founded. Since Max has a crappy job as a used car salesman and the suicidal Sam has been rejected by every college he's applied to and is dumped by his social-climber girlfriend as a result, the two decide to go for it. It's in the best interest of inept mortuary proprietor Paul Truscott (Bartel), a perverted necrophile, that the two do not pass their courses because then ownership of the mortuary will revert over to him. Paul has financially run the place into the ground and is a half a million dollars in debt, so he enlists the aid of the sultry Mary Purcell (Woronov), who teaches classes when she isn't pretending to be a corpse to turn her lover Paul on, to flunk both of the Grimm brothers.






Other students at the academy include facially-scarred psycho Abbott Smith (Anthony James), unintelligible, coke-bottle-glasses-sporting Larry Hirsch (Mark  Hammond), eccentric electronics wiz Don Dickson (Tracey Walter) and rapping, Jheri Curl-sporting James Dandridge (Stoney Jackson), who's kind of like a cross between Rick James and Prince. Sam finds a love interest in fellow student Valerie Levitt (Lynn Danielson), a sweet girl whose dog Mouse is squashed when one of her mother's obese friends sits on him. Max finds himself being seduced by Mary after she discovers Paul's been carrying on an affair with one of their 'clients' behind her back. Mary helps the students out in blackmailing Paul, but how are they going to raise the half-a-million dollars to save the mortuary. Well, let's just say it involves utilizing Dickson's skills to resurrect the New Wave band "Radio Werewolf" from the dead to put on one final concert.






There are numerous extremely tasteless gags which many aren't going to find the least bit funny. Creditors come to pick up a coffin and throw a corpse out of the casket mid-ceremony in front of the crying family. After a multiple car crash, rival mortuaries show up at the bloody accident scene to fight over the corpses ("Load up the meat!"). Most of the lowest gags, however, center around Paul and his romance with Linda Hollyhead (Cheryl Starbuck), a 17-year-old cheerleader who choked to death on her popcorn at a drive-in theater. When Linda's grieving boyfriend shows up, Paul drills him with questions such as "At the time of her death, was she still a virgin?" He serves his new love champagne, makes out with her and takes her to the beach, where her body drifts away in the tide and a bunch of young drunk guys gang bang her (!) The students eventually get their revenge on Paul by installing an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner inside Linda's vagina (!!) so they can trap him mid-fuck and then blackmail him. Hey, I don't write these things, I only watch them.






Making death, suicide, the nonchalant mangling of the deceased entrusted in the care of a mortuary, underage corpse defiling and other unsavory topics funny is tough to pull off, and the writers of this one don't really succeed at it. Most viewers are just as likely to cringe than laugh watching this one, and understandably so. However, the cast is good enough to keep it at least watchable. Bartel and Woronov are both highly skilled at comedy and are able to elicit chuckles from many of their outrageous scenes, though this concoction isn't nearly as successful as the duo's earlier black comedy Eating Raoul (1982). There are also standout contributions from Walter, James and Nedra Volz, who's quite delightful under the circumstances as the mortuary's elderly secretary. Wolfman Jack (playing a band manager) and Cesar Romero (in just one scene as a ship captain who accidentally pulls a hand off) both have small roles, and Playboy Magazine subscribers will want to note brief appearances from five different Playmates: Karen Witter (as a reporter) and Dona Speir, Kymberly Paige, Rebekka Armstrong and Laurie Ann Carr (all in a fantasy sequence as nurses).




Some sources (including IMDb) claim Bartel wrote the screenplay but the film itself credits only William Kelman as writer. Director Schroeder also made the above average killer clown flick OUT OF THE DARK (1988), which also featured Bartel, Danielson, Witter and Walter.

★★
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