“This is Amelia Mom, I’m sorry I acted the way I did. I think we should spend the evening together just the way we planned.”
The unfortunate Amelia (Karen Black), post-Zuni doll attack, in “Trilogy of Terror.”
This groundbreaking television film, produced and directed by the late Curtis Hanson, remains a creepy treat over 30 years later. Based on a series of Richard Matheson short stories, “Trilogy of Terror” focuses on four intriguing female characters (all played by Karen Black) in three separate vignettes. Of course, this above-average telefilm is primarily remembered for its last segment which features Black being terrorized by a Zuni fetish doll that has come to life. Even fans of the film might be hard pressed to say exactly what the first two stories were about; eclipsed by the potent, surprisingly violent-for-its-time third story. Its cult following so huge that Hanson made a sequel (of sorts) exactly 21 years later for the USA cable network.
Though all based on Matheson short stories, the first two segments were adapted by noted screenwriter William F. Nolan (Burnt Offerings). “Trilogy” begins with “Julie,” where Black plays a bookish English professor who is pursued by an infatuated student named Chad (Robert Burton, Black’s husband at the time). The charming college boy persuades the timid teacher to go out on a date; taking her to a drive-in movie (where footage of Hanson’s TV hit “The Night Stalker” is shown). Chad slips Julie a sedative, knocking her unconscious and taking her to a motel where he rapes her and photographs the incident. Though she has no memory of the rape, upon reaching her home late that night, she tells him that they can’t continue to see each other. The next day, Chad shows Julie the incriminating photographs and blackmails her into a sordid sexual relationship. Their meetings continue until until a twist ending puts a spin on Chad’s motives. It’s an involving little tale given quite a bit of nuance through Black’s performance and her uneasy chemistry with Burton. The twist ending is novel, but could have been handled in a more visually interesting way. It’s a solid, moderately paced, opening entry.
The second story, “Millicent and Therese,” revolves around a set of twins (both Black) who share a tragic past. Millicent is the straight-laced sister who is always picking up the pieces of her sexier, trouble-making twin Therese. On the day of their father’s funeral, Millicent invites Mr. Amman (John Karlen) over to her family home. Amman is in a relationship with Therese and is surprised to find out that she has left the house to go to a party. Millicent has called the man to warn him about her sister. She goes on to describe how, at age 12, her twin began to seduce their father and eventually caused the death of their mother. “These books show what she is,” Millicent says pointing to a bookshelf, “demonology, pornography, Satanism, voodoo, witchcraft…” The frail woman goes on to say that her sister is damned and uses the books to capture the souls of others. After warning her sister’s boyfriend, Millicent seeks counsel from her family doctor (George Gaynes from the “Police Academy” films) hoping that he might be able to help the evil twin. When the doctor makes a visit to their home, Therese, in blond wig and “sexy” hooker garb attempts to seduce him. He ends up leaving before she can charm him with her wicked ways. At her wits end, Millicent decides that she will rid herself of her troubled sister by using one of Therese’s spell books. She creates a voodoo doll with hair and fingernails from her twin and attempts to cast a spell of her own. While the ending will surprise no one, it’s a fairly entertaining piece for Black’s performances alone. What is so striking about this story in particular is the adult subject matter. Themes of incest and pornography might not seem so out of place today, but on network television in 1975 it was still a rather potent (and taboo) mix.
The third story, Amelia” adapted by Matheson from his own short story “Prey” is “Trilogy’s” high point. It concerns a woman (Black) who has recently moved away from an overbearing mother. Dating an anthropologist from a local college, Amelia purchases an ugly Zuni warrior doll as a birthday present. Complete with razor teeth and spear, the foot tall talisman comes complete with a warning: if anyone removes the chain from around its waist, the soul living inside the doll will be set free and… horror will ensue. Amelia calls her mother to tell her that their usual plans will have to be postponed as she’s going out for her boyfriend’s birthday celebration. Mom’s not too happy with the news and eventually hangs up on her daughter. As Amelia leaves the doll to prepare for her evening, the chain breaks free. Soon the unpleasant little doll is chasing a bathrobe clad Black throughout her apartment. Clearly a lot of time and effort was put into the making of this last episode. It’s still a great ride watching the terrorized Black attempt to get away from the pint sized menace. A great physical performance from the actress and some smart editing bring the little doll to frenzied life. Cinematographer Paul Lohmann (who shot everything from “Coffy” to “Nashville” in the ‘70’s) cleverly uses low angle shots to great effect in this piece. Though the script adaptation is credited to Matheson himself, Black says that she was responsible for the memorable character nuance at the beginning. Amelia’s troubled relationship with her mom is key to the story’s ultimate success; giving her a slight character arc before the great payoff (and assumed payback) at the end. Maybe Black should have given the first two scripts a bit of a polish as well.
This Dark Sky Films release showcases a great looking full frame print of “Trilogy” with a crisp Dolby Digital audio presentation. The extras in this special edition include two featurettes: “Three Colors Black,” a short career retrospective with the actress, and “Richard Matheson Terror Scribe.” “Three Colors Black” is the standout, with the animated Black recalling her early career trajectory - up to the making of “Trilogy.” It’s interesting to note that Black doesn’t feel she’s ever made a horror film. Her more fantastic movies have all been “science fiction,” which might come as a surprise to anyone who has sat through “Auntie Lee’s Meat Pies” or “House of 1,000 Corpses.” It also turns out that she wasn’t crazy about doing “Trilogy” until she made a deal for her then-husband to play a role in it as well. The Matheson piece is short, but it’s interesting to see the respected writer discuss his work. It’s too bad that he doesn’t join Black on the fascinating commentary track. Screenwriter Nolan sits with the actress for the first two segments (which he adapted). While Black is satisfied sharing small anecdotes about costuming and how she prefers to be lit, Nolan adds quite a bit of information on the background of the film. It was smart to have the two of them reminisce together; Nolan is a perfect compliment to the Black. He’s got a great memory and shares lots of specific information and trivia while Black focuses on the smaller, seemingly inconsequential aspects. It’s an ideal combination and makes this special edition truly special. Nolan leaves the actress alone for the final episode and while Black’s commentary occasionally meanders, it really is a kick to hear her discuss this classic piece of “science fiction” history. She even concedes that while she’s gone on to do work that she’s very proud of, more people ask her about “Trilogy” than any other film that she’s made. For fans of this cherished Dan Curtis production, it’s a must-own DVD package.