Posted: 8/1/00 Updated: 06/26/06

Trilogy of Terror (1975)
by Jon Bastian


Three stories, four Karen Blacks and one nasty little wooden doll add up to a fun evening of 70's TV nostalgia.


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Trilogy of Terror -
The DVD Re-Release

Coming on DVD from Dark Sky Films, August 29th – the Special Edition of Trilogy of Terror, and it's about time. Fans have been clamoring for this rarely seen cult classic for years, and they won't be disappointed. While there aren't a ton of special features, there are enough – and Dark Sky is savvy enough to know that a trailer isn't a special feature.

Included are the documentary "Three Colors Black", in which the always wonderful and glamorous (and still hot in 2006) Karen Black recounts her experiences making the film – including how quite a lot of that Zuni doll's performance was actually hers, and just how silly it was shooting the most famous of the film's segments; a featurette on Richard Matheson, the author of the stories upon which the film was based (as well as one of the most famous of Twilight Zone episodes – Bill Shatner's "thing on the wing"); and Karen Black's and director Dan Curtis's commentary track on the entire film – that alone worth the price of admission.

Quoth Ms. Black: "For some reason this show lives. For some reason, this show has had an amazing cult following..." There are two reasons for that. The crazy Zuni doll is what brings people in. Ms. Black's amazing work is what brings people back. At the height of her powers, at the same time she was doing such amazing work in The Great Gatsby, Day of the Locust, and Nashville, she gifted us with one of the most incredible MOWs ever made. Come August 29th, that movie of the week will get due justice as it finally comes out on DVD. Buy it. You won't regret it. Trilogy of Terror is a landmark in our cultural landscape and, thirty-one years after its debut, it still stands up, still bears repeat viewing.

Jon's Original Review:

The twenty-four minutes with a twist genre is almost as old as television itself, The Twilight Zone being the most enduring and best-known example, but far from the only one. I think the popularity of the surprise ending comes right out of the audience's desire to be tricked, or at least their desire to dare the filmmakers to trick them and then to be smart enough to see through it and crow, "Oh, I knew it all along."

Dan Curtis tried his hand at this genre back in 1975. The result is the TV movie Trilogy Of Terror. Curtis not only created and produced the vampire chic soap opera Dark Shadows, he also gave us the classic seedy detective meets supernatural forces movie of the week The Night Stalker (later a series), of which The X-Files is just a pale imitation. In short, Curtis made his career on dark and chilling goth noir TV, and his skill in this arena is on full display in Trilogy Of Terror.

For people who were around at the time, the phrase "Karen Black and that killer Zuni doll" is enough to generate a big nod of recognition. That doll is a great hook, and it's what lured me in as a kid to watch the film when it first aired. I remember reading the TV Guide article on the "making of," which focused on the special effects for that doll (quite elaborate for the time) and thinking, "Cool, I gotta watch this." I do vaguely remember finding the Zuni warrior doll sequence memorable, but nothing else from the film stuck in my head at the time.

Recently, I watched Trilogy Of Terror again on video, and it's interesting to see that, twenty-five years later, the Zuni warrior doll story is the least creepy part of the evening. The whole sequence is so over the top that it's funny and scary in a campy way, and was probably intended to be tongue-in-cheek -- or incisors in ankle, as the case may be. The other two segments in this Karen Black showcase, though, stand up very well and make the whole thing worth watching.

Ah, Karen Black. At one time, many years ago, she was a big star, the Julia Roberts of her day, a major sex symbol and a box office draw. Then, phoosh. She dropped off the radar. Not that she hasn't worked constantly, she just stopped working in the kind of quality projects she did in the 70's. Compare: here's the woman who starred in films like Five Easy Pieces, Day of the Locust and Nashville, with two Golden Globes and an Oscar nomination under her belt -- but her recent projects have included such midnight fodder as Plan 10 From Outer Space, Children of the Corn IV and the direct-to-video Invisible Dad. It's a shame, because she really is a very good actress, and she's still young -- younger than Harrison Ford and not that much older than Michelle Pfeiffer, for example. Trilogy Of Terror is entirely her piece, and she makes it work, playing four very different women in three stories. Actually, five, if you include the coda to "Amelia," but that would be giving away too much.

The first segment, "Julie," concerns a very repressed, starched-collar college professor who is courted, dated and then blackmailed by one of her students (Robert Burton). Black flawlessly plays a frumpy spinster, a frail and uptight teacher who hides one nasty surprise, but before we get to that point, we feel for her as she is used by the opportunistic student. The twist in the story (and they all have twists) comes as a surprise (unless you know how TV writing works) and leaves a nice bitter "ooh, geesh" as we end the first part of the trilogy. Incidentally, a very young Gregory Harrison has a cameo at the very end of this segment. This was his second job after his nude extra gig in the Don Johnson movie The Harrad Experiment, yet another example of how you never can guess who's going to get famous.

Part two, "Millicent and Therese," is about two sisters who couldn't be more different. One is a prude and the other is a slut, and Black plays both with aplomb. Millicent, the prude sister, decides the only escape from Therese's torments is murder. Millicent exudes overtones that remind me of the late Elizabeth Montgomery's performance as Lizzie Borden, and Therese prefigures the 1980's airhead/bimbo at a time when most TV women were burning their bras. Now, again, knowing how TV writing works and having seen the same shtick pulled many times since the original airing of Trilogy Of Terror will probably give the twist here away in the first scene, but back in 1975, it would most likely have been very surprising. I have to admit that I don't remember from my childhood viewing (you know, that "boring" grown-up stuff) so I can't comment. All I can say is that the ruse in "Millicent and Therese" was very transparent to me, but that's just me. You may not see it coming, or you may, but Black's performances are still enjoyable.

Which brings us to part three, "Amelia," aka "That Killer Zuni Warrior Doll Thing." This segment is entirely Black's show, as it's just her and the doll fighting it out in a high-rise apartment. Amelia has bought this wooden doll as a gift for her fiancé, who's into that sort of thing. Despite the attached card explaining that the gold necklace hanging around its waist should not be removed, that's about the first thing that happens, and the homicidal little tchotchke comes to life. Since the doll's name is "He-Who-Kills," this is not a good thing for Black. We proceed to a battle royale between the two, which is both pretty suspenseful and very funny. As the doll gets through closed doors, cuts its way out of a suitcase and escapes a drowning attempt, it keeps up a chatter that sounds like a dyspeptic voodoo doctor strangling Woody Woodpecker. Oddly enough, Black can't open a single outside door or window in her apartment while this is going on, and so has to resort to a good, old-fashioned housewife's defense, which may or may not work. The finale to this sequence probably inspired the famous microwave battle to the death in Gremlins, but Black had to do it without microwaves, or touchtone phones or even 9-1-1. It was the 70's, after all.

My verdict? As TV movies go, Trilogy Of Terror is actually pretty good and, while it may seem derivative in retrospect, it's really not. Things that seem familiar here are only so because they were ripped off later. You may get the twists long in advance, but only because you've seen the imitations so many times since. The stories are based on short works by Richard Matheson, the first two adapted by William F. Nolan and the third adapted by Matheson himself. Matheson, a pretty good, if demented, thriller/shock writer, was doing this kind of thing years before TV discovered it. He's also one pretty sick fuck, and it shows here -- but that's half the fun. His works and Black's performances make for a pretty fun party tape. Depending upon the age of your guests, you can either play the game of "remember this?" or "guess what's going to happen" and have a lot of fun. You could certainly do worse if you want to see some mid-70's television, but it would be hard to do better.

Jon Bastian, a native and resident of Los Angeles, is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.

Got a problem? Email Jon at filmmonthly@hotmail.com