For horror fans of a certain vintage, Dan Curtis is TV terror royalty. The Dark Shadows soap opera, The Night Strangler, The Norliss Tapes, Dracula, Dead of Night, and of course, Trilogy of Terror (1975) – a unique anthology telefilm that boasts not one, but four great performances by Karen Black. This one kept some night lights on, folks, mostly due to the final segment featuring an overly enthusiastic Zuni fetish doll.
Originally airing on Tuesday, March 4th, 1975 as an ABC Movie of the Week, Trilogy of Terror ‘s competition was M*A*S*H* / Hawaii Five – O on CBS, and the NBC World Premiere Movie. M*A*S*H* was always a hard one to pass up, but anyone into horror knew where their dial stopped.
Let’s flip open our tattered, ear marked, fake TV GUIDE and see what we have:
TRILOGY OF TERROR (Tuesday, 8:30pm, ABC)
A blackmailed school teacher. Differing twin sisters compete for survival. An ancient artifact proves troublesome for a single woman. Karen Black stars in this trio of horrifying tales.
That about sums it up, but we’ll expand on each story:
Julie – A college student, Chad (Robert Burton – Bucktown) feels a strange urge to ask out one of his professors, Julie Eldrich (Black), even though his friend considers her unattractive. Shy and withdrawn, Julie is very reluctant to see her student in a social setting. Eventually she concedes. While at the drive-in, Chad spikes her drink, checks them into a motel, and photographs Julie while she is unconscious, in provocative poses. He then blackmails her with the pictures in order to continue the affair – but this romance does not end well…
Millicent and Therese – Twin sisters at odds in life, Millicent and Therese (both Black, natch) share an estate together but little else. While Millicent is withdrawn and retiring, Therese, with her shocking blonde hair and loose morals, is a free spirit who feels tethered by her sister. In a conversation with their psychiatrist, Dr. Ramsey (George Gaynes – Police Academy), Millicent confides that she thinks Therese is planning to kill her. What follows is a battle of wills. Who will win?
Amelia – Living alone in an apartment, Amelia (guess who?) comes home with a Zuni fetish doll given to her by her anthropologist boyfriend. As she talks with her overbearing mother on the phone, the doll comes back to life. What follows is a fight to the death between Amelia and an ancient, evil spirit small in stature but wrought with relentlessness. And he has no plans to stop until she is dead…
Anthologies were of course nothing new on the small screen; The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, et al transferred the idea presented in early theatrical efforts like Dead of Night (1945) to stand alone efforts for the TV generation. Here we have a neat twist in having Karen Black portray all four protagonists over the three stories, and by doing so negating the need for a wraparound story; instead we have a through line that ties them together. Some may see it as gimmicky, but I think it’s a fascinating way to maintain interest outside of the norm.
Legendary writer Richard Matheson contributed to all three stories, with the third, “Amelia”, based on his short story “Prey”. That one he wrote himself, while the first two, “Julie” and “Millicent and Therese” were written by William F. Nolan based on Matheson’s story ideas. Nolan had worked previously with Curtis on The Norliss Tapes for TV and would work again theatrically on Burnt Offerings (1976). Matheson was revered for his work on The Twilight Zone, and had already collaborated with Curtis on The Night Stalker/Strangler, and Dracula TV movies.
Black would go on to work with Nolan and Curtis on the aforementioned Burnt Offerings, and always stated in interviews that Trilogy of Terror was the film that set her on the path to B movies, and away from the more respectable fare she desired. That’s a shame she felt that way – and whether or not Trilogy of Terror typecast her, there’s certainly quality filmmaking going on here.
The first two stories’ strengths lie in Black’s performances and Curtis’ direction. Curtis was always a great TV director; succinct with a very strong rapport with actors, the first two tales move along well, even if “Millicent and Therese” boasts a twist viewers will see coming a mile away. “Julie” is the trickier of the two; it’s the only piece where Black is truly playing off of anyone but herself (she was married to Robert Burton at the time), which opens the story up and creates a tension that isn’t present in “Millicent”, due to it essentially being a “two” women show. But while “Julie” boasts the better tale, “Millicent” soars on Black’s bravura dual performance, a short showcase of her considerable talent.
Now on to the third tale, “Amelia”. Yes, the one with the doll. This is the story that everyone remembers when reminiscing about the telefilm; the Zuni warrior being so iconic that he has gone beyond the medium and is used wherever and whenever horror imagery is displayed. It’s the teeth, really – sharp, overflowing with menace and venom. That, and the guttural cries and growls he emits during battle are unnerving. Curtis also shoots clever POV that gives a sense of his lowdown power. This episode offers full out horror – probably more akin to what people were hoping for when they tuned in. The pacing is relentless, the suspense palpable, and Curtis tops it off with a final shot more terrifying than the doll himself.
But good TV horror knows that you have to end with a strong shot; the superior shows all do. However, I think that Trilogy of Terror, due to the powerhouse performances of Black (in all four very different roles), the smart writing, and focused direction, is a TV anthology that spreads out its money shots, offering the viewer riches beyond one, final, iconic image. But man – what an image.
Trilogy of Terror is available on DVD from Dark Sky Films.Next: It Came From The Tube: HAUNTS OF THE VERY RICH (1972)