Small Screen Treasures: Two Gems of Seventies Horror Television

In my previous post I focused on a classic horror film of the 1970s, and in this post I shift to commentary on horror television from the same decade.

Last weekend I watched a series of VH1 programs that looked back at various aspects of the 1970s. Although I was born in the mid-1960s I really grew up in the 1970s, and it is this decade that involves some of my most formative memories. Looking back, while the decade surely involved a number of questionable entertainment options on television, nevertheless this time period also produced some great horror on the small screen. Many readers will be familiar with House of Dark Shadows (1970), and The Night Stalker (1972) from this time period, but perhaps far fewer will be familiar with what I regard as two gems from the period: The Norliss Tapes and Satan’s Triangle.

The Norliss Tapes appeared on American television in February of 1973 as a part of the creative work of director Dan Curtis who was also involved in Dark Shadows, The Night Stalker, and his later effort in Trilogy of Terror (1975). The story (written by William F. Nolan who also wrote Logan’s Run, and Fred Mustard Stewart), was originally shot as a pilot episode for a series that unfortunately never materialized. As the program opens David Norliss, a writer in San Francisco (played by Roy Thinnes) contacts his publisher to report that his original plans for writing a book debunking the supernatural cannot move forward. Norliss has had a change of heart and he is scared. The situation is urgent as Norliss feels he is in danger and he asks his publisher for an immediate meeting over lunch so that he might share his recorded tapes that detail his experiences with the supernatural. When the publisher arrives to meet Norliss the house is empty and the only clues to the writer’s strange behavior are found on the tapes he has left behind which the publisher begins to play. As the narration on the tapes unwind, the viewer continues the journey into Norliss’s strange experiences involving an Egyptian scarab ring with the power to raise the dead, a millionaire’s widow who tells police she encountered the risen body of her recently deceased husband in his crypt, a number of bloodless corpses, and a ritual designed to raise an ancient pagan deity.

This television program was well written and directed, and from its opening scene involving a a brooding and increasingly paranoid Norliss to several scenes of a rainy San Francisco, the visual atmosphere compliments the story of occultic supernatural horror. But while this program is many times recognized for its quality, nevertheless descriptions of certain elements that to this writer seem silly crop up in many reviews of the program. It is not uncommon to see the zombie-like figure in the film who rises from the dead each night described as a vampire. It might be splitting horror hairs here, this is plainly inaccurate. Although the “creature” does have certain vampire-like characteristics it exhibits other important facets that put it in a different category. This walking corpse does not drink the blood, but collects it in order to mix it with clay in order to raise a deity through ritual occultic magic. In this context the creature resembles the zombie archetype influenced by voodoo legends and combined with foklorish and fictional depictions of the occult and the supernatural rather than a vampire or the flesh eating zombie archetype fashioned by Romero and others. The reader should note that while the creature in this film is frequently depicted inaccurately, it is also possible to find more careful and thoughtful writers on the topic.

Programming like The Norliss Tapes and The Night Stalker fit well within the social context of the 1970s that was still dealing with the increased interest in alternative forms of spirituality brought to the surface by the 1960s counterculture, and served as an exploration of the paranormal in the form of entertainment that came alongside more documentary-like approaches (albeit very speculative and with strong entertainment elements as well) in programs such as In Search of… Quality television programming like this also helped lay the groundwork for later programs in future decades such as The X Files.

Satan’s Triangle was first broadcast in January of 1975. It tells the story of two members of the Coast Guard sent out by helicopter to examine an apparently abandoned fishing boat off the coast of Florida in a part of the sea known as Bermuda’s Triangle. One Coast Guard member (played by Doug McClure) is lowered down to the vessel where he discovers a lone survivor (played by Kim Novak) of a fishing trip which was doomed to suffer from a series of what appear to be supernatural deaths including a victim floating in mid-air. Upon closer examination McClure’s character provides completely rational and non-supernatural explanations for the deaths even as he develops an intimate relationship with Novak’s character. At the end of the program the two are lifted off the craft which leads to a surprise ending and a showdown between good and evil.

Like The Norliss Tapes, Satan’s Triangle plays off of interest in the Seventies in paranormal phenomenon such as the Bermuda Triangle and combines it with the decade’s fascination with Christian forms of demonology, and it does so while providing a horror tale that still delivers good frights that can be expected to hold up for contemporary audiences.

For those who would like to add these gems to their horror treasure chests it is now possible to own copies of these Seventies horror television classics. In 2006 Anchor Bay released a copy of The Norliss Tapes on DVD. Interested readers can watch the whole program on YouTube courtesy of 70sHorrorRealm with the first installment here. The DVD can be ordered through the TheoFantastique Store with associated related to and video retailers like FYE. Satan’s Triangle is much more difficult to find and as far as I was able to determine it has not been released by a major company on DVD. However, Satan’s Triangle is now available for viewing on YouTube with the first installment here. It can also be purchased at select locations such as this website. Those interested in quality television writing and direction, particularly in the genre of horror, will not be disappointed by the addition of these programs to their video libraries.

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