Monday, January 24, 2011

Television Review: TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975, Dan Curtis)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 72 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Karen Black, Karen Black, Karen Black, Karen Black, Robert Burton (LASSIE, Karen Black's then-husband), Gregory Harrison (TRAPPER JOHN, M.D.; RAZORBACK), Jim Storm (DARK SHADOWS, ONE LIFE TO LIVE), George Gaynes (PUNKY BREWSTER, TOOTSIE). Based on stories by Richard Matheson. Special effects by Erik von Buelow (THE FOOD OF THE GODS, EMPIRE OF THE ANTS).
Tag-line: None.
Best one-liner: "This can't be happening! This can't be happening!"

Every once in a while, you have one of those rough days at work. You're a high-powered television executive, and the office is gettin' ya down. Some guys from downstairs are goin' out for happy hour, and you resolve to join them for just one. One turns into two, you're havin' a fine time of it, two turns into three, then four, and the next thing you know, you wake up at your desk realizing you've greenlit a horror picture where Karen Black plays four roles.

It takes brass balls to make a picture like (the Richard Matheson-penned and Dan Curtis-directed) TRILOGY OF TERROR. Seriously- you're in an 'ABC movie-of-the-week' scenario and the temptation must be to make the simplest, dumbest, most kiddie-friendly fare imaginable. The last thing you need is a thousand calls to the network bustin' your balls about some inappropriate content or the like. So we get a horror triptych which tackles such issues as: inappropriate student-teacher relationships, roofies and date rape, sexual blackmail, gang rape, incest, the failings of the mental health system, and much, much more. I remarked to my girlfriend as we watched this- Holy God, I'd hate to have been a parent in 1975, hosting a Saturday night creature-feature slumber party for the neighborhood kiddies, and having to field these awkward questions during commercial breaks, questions like 'what's a roofie' and 'why was he photographing her in that hotel room' and 'what does it mean when he says he has a bunch of friends he'd like her to meet?'

She surmised that playing dumb and hoping they'd forget about it would be in order, and I had to agree. But the purpose of my bringing this up is not some priggish rant: I applaud TRILOGY OF TERROR for refusing to censor itself, and, like so many imaginative films of the 70's and 80's, rejecting the idea that horror films for children and adults are necessarily mutually exclusive.

The first segment, "Julie," which could have easily been entitled "Hot for Teacher" if they weren't going with the whole character name thing, is about a fuddy-duddy female professor and the amorous Big Man on Campus who only wants to take her out on the town and drug her and photograph her in compromising positions and blackmail her and enter into a sexually extortive relationship.

As the collegiate lothario in question, Black's then-husband Robert Burton delivers a legendarily sleazy performance combining the creepy leer of Gary Busey with the pompousness of an 80's teen movie villain.

Black retorts by exuding pathos in a nuanced performance as the sad sack teacher, overwhelmed by the fiendishness of it all. Now, as is often the case with horror omnibuses, the ending of a promising segment will be 'Ye Olde Switch-a-roo,' a twist ending so ludicrous that it may force you to mock the piece as a whole. While "Julie" certainly is done no favors by its looney finale, it's a silly enough turnaround that I am wholeheartedly able to support it.

The next segment, "Millicent and Therese" sees Karen Black really entering tour-de-force mode. As both halves of a pair of twisted sisters who each think the other is evil and insane, Black prompts me to quote Loverboy in assessing her performance: "the kid is hot tonight."

Millicent is an old maid in the vein of Katherine Hepburn who dresses like an extra from THE CRUCIBLE and wears glasses capable of sizzlin' ants right off the sidewalk.

She accuses her sister Therese of practicing demonology, pornography, incest, Satanism, voodoo, and of being a chippy.

Black plays Therese as an over-the-top blonde wig wearing floozy, and this was definitely the point in the film when I realized that I was going to love every minute of it.

She sweet-talks her psychiatrist ("You know you're a very handsome man, Doctor..."), breaks little girls' dollies, and slinks around the house like a wacko, ill-advised caricature of female sexuality.

Again, the finale involves the Ye Olde Switch-a-roo, and a glaring plot hole which I will not specifically address should sink the whole thing, but instead you're left in a complete state of bemusement, because said finale also involves a voodoo doll embellished quite wonderfully with fingernails and rhinestones.

In the final- and most notorious- segment, "Amelia," Black plays a newly independent young lady with mommy issues who comes into possession of a Zuni fetish doll that wastes no time in awakening, stalking her about the apartment, stabbing her ankles, biting her legs, and all that jazz.

With gnashing teeth and sunken eyes, the doll itself is extremely freaky and may have inspired everything from BLACK DEVIL DOLL FROM HELL to CHILD'S PLAY. This segment seems to have scarred an entire generation of youngsters, but in hindsight, it's wildly entertaining and often hilarious. A lot of the credit belongs to voice actor extraordinaire, Walker Edmiston (THE FLINTSTONES, H.R. PUFNSTUF) whose constant, high-pitched "HUMMANA HUMMANA NUM NUM NUM NUM YAH YAH YAH YAH YAAHHHHHHHHs" fuse with the stilted movements of the tiny puppet to create one of the most surreal and enjoyable setpieces ever to grace our televisions.

Because the production schedule required such a quick turnaround, the special effect often leaves a little bit to be desired (i.e., the Bela Lugosi BRIDE OF THE MONSTER school of special effects, whereupon the performer holds the rubbery monster to their own neck and flails), but this only works in the film's favor. Regardless, Black holds it all together with élan: she is the only human character in the segment, and her connection to her character's many trials is palpable. Ultimately my favorite segment of the three, "Amelia" even pulls of a Switcharoo ending that's bold, a little scary, and actually feels like an appropriate payoff!

Four stars.

-Sean Gill


Tempest said...

I need to revisit these films you review as it has been years since I have seen them. I agree, the evil doll was trippy, but I am sure today I would find it funny. The ending of that segment was wild, too.

Mr. Gable said...

I need to see this movie.

And I just came across the sequel the other day on vhs.

Unknown said...

Karen Black is awesome and this film is proof of it. And you're right, depending on when you saw this film, the creepy Zuni fetish doll scared the crap out of you at an impressionable age. I still get weirded out whenever I watch this film and regret not buying an action figure of this that came out a few years ago. but then, I think having it sit on a bookshelf nearby would be too creepy so maybe it's just as well.

Sean Gill said...


I definitely stand by the ending of "Amelia"- I suppose some could say that it was predictable, but Karen Black's execution of it is pretty damned great.

Mr. Gable,

I haven't seen the sequel, but I'd like to- it apparently has a sequel to "Amelia" starring Lysette Anthony!


Always a fan of Karen Black. I need to eventually listen to her commentary track on this.

I kiiiiind of wanted the doll, too, but as you say, I'm not sure I could bear having its teeth staring me down from the shelf. The Amazon site for it (where they charge used through the nose) has some pretty silly customer reviews written from the perspective of the doll's victims.

Matthew Bradley said...

Interestingly, Black did not want to make the film at first (although I'm sure she's glad she did, considering what a classic it's become), and only agreed to do so on the condition that they give her husband a role. I admire your effort to transcribe the Zuni doll's voice!

TRILOGY OF TERROR II (written by Matheson pal William F. Nolan, who adapted the first two segments of the original, and director Curtis) does indeed preserve the stunt-casting effect by having Anthony star in all three segments. One is an adaptation of Henry Kuttner's "The Graveyard Rats," and another is a remake of "Bobby," a segment from the Matheson-Curtis DEAD OF NIGHT. "He Who Kills," the sequel to "Amelia," is marred only by an over-resemblance to the first film.

Ever get a chance to check out DYING ROOM ONLY?

Sean Gill said...


Thanks for stopping by! Interesting about Black's conditions, especially since they were divorced before it aired- yikes!

I think a viewing of TRILOGY OF TERROR II is in order. I haven't gotten to see DYING ROOM ONLY yet, but it'll be in my next Warner Archive order, for sure.