31 Days of Horror – Trilogy of Terror

The DVD cover for Trilogy of Terror

I’m an adult, I’m all grown up. Nothing should scare me any more, short of death, taxes, and, of course, The Bride. But as an aficionado of horror movies, there are some flicks that do get a rise out of me. There are film nuggets that actually scare the crap outta me, some to the point where I won’t even watch them again. That’s how scared they get me. They are the stuff of vampires, gremlins, devil dolls, and the ultimate of all evils, mankind itself. We’ll take a look at one of them right now that haunted my childhood, after the jump.

Dan Curtis is a master of horror. Primary in his resume is a little show called “Dark Shadows.” In its day, “Dark Shadows” did for vampires what Anne Rice and Twilight did for them decades later. Dan Curtis’ Barnabas Collins made vamps cool again back in the late sixties. When the Gothic soap opera left the air, Curtis still hung around ABC doing various projects, one of them was the “ABC Movie of the Week,” and specifically a gem called Trilogy of Terror.

Over the years, on and off of video and television, it’s gone under other titles like Tales of Terror and Terror of the Doll, and been a Holy Grail of sorts for fans of the flick. It is thankfully now easily available. There was a sequel done late in the 1990s, and even featured the Zuni fetish doll, the monster of the moment for this movie, but while the effects were a bit better, the content was not.

Karen Black in one of four roles in the film.

As the title implies, the flick is three horror stories connected by the fact that actress Karen Black was the star of each one, all unrelated stories written by horror master Richard Matheson. Karen Black shines as four different characters here, and in the final segment, performing alone with just the monster, she delivers an acting tour de force. She has an impressive and fierce Hollywood resume, but as far as I’m concerned, Trilogy of Terror, a TV movie of the week, is her greatest film.

Each of the stories is named for the main character (or characters) played by Black. The first one, “Julie” has a college student seducing his mousy teacher only to have the tables turned in horrific O. Henry fashion. Story two, “Millicent and Therese,” is a twisted tale of sibling rivalry with just a touch of voodoo thrown in just for good measure. The first two segments are sadly forgettable, but it’s the third and final one that no one seems to be able to get out of their minds – including myself.

The Zuni fetish doll

The third one, “Amelia” is based on the Matheson short story “Prey,” and it is the Zuni fetish doll that haunts my nightmares still. Karen Black as Amelia comes home from shopping with this rare object, a small native warrior doll with crazy sharp teeth and a spear. The scroll with the doll claims it contains a real Zuni warrior, so in Gremlins like fashion, don’t break the rules or it gets out.

Of course it gets out and inhabits the doll and it chases Black throughout her apartment, screeching and mumbling in weird Zuni speak that still makes me edgy. The batshit crazy pursuit is relentless. The doll point of view camera angles of scrambling across the floor at Karen Black in her bathrobe are terrifying. And the visual of the doll running a steak knife under the bathroom door are insane. And if you ever wondered where the microwave scene in the aforementioned Gremlins is from, it’s here.

I remember staying up to see this the night it first aired in 1975, transfixed by the images on the black and white TV in the living room. No CGI, just low budget special effects, and no color TV for me, but this got to me big time. I remember being scared to go up the stairs to bed, and not being able to sleep, because this tiny doll could be right next to my bed in the dark… and I wouldn’t even know it was there until it was too late.

And when it is too late, we are witness in the end to perhaps one of the most chilling scenes in television film. Amelia calls her mom to come over, she wants to make amends for their shattered relationship. As the camera pans back, we see Karen Black squatting on the floor, stabbing a bloody knife into the rug. And then she smiles, revealing the dagger teeth of the doll. Brrr…

I know I’m not going to sleep easy tonight, are you? If you think so, check out Trilogy of Terror, and then we’ll see how your night goes…

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4 Replies to “31 Days of Horror – Trilogy of Terror”

  1. Glenn, thank you for reminding me of that scene with Karen Black stabbing at the floor and waiting for her mom. It was scary then and continues to still be scary.

  2. Like a few other TV-movies of that era, including the original DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK and Matheson’s own THE NIGHT STALKER (produced by Curtis) and DUEL, this film struck a chord that still resonates today. Matheson let his friend William F. Nolan adapt the first two stories, wisely saving the third one for himself. You’re right about “He Who Kills,” the Zuni doll segment in TRILOGY OF TERROR II (co-written by Curtis and Nolan), being a bit of a disappointment. It wasn’t badly done, but it felt too much like a rehash of the original.

    TRILOGY OF TERROR was the first of two unsold pilots Curtis and Matheson made for a proposed anthology series to be called either DEAD OF NIGHT or INNER SANCTUM. The second, also titled DEAD OF NIGHT, featured “Bobby,” an episode in which the creators tried to recreate some of the same vibe from “Amelia.” It concerns a woman who brings her dead son back to life, only to get more than she bargained for, and be pursued by an equally relentless foe; an original Matheson script, it was remade with virtually no changes in TRILOGY OF TERROR II.

    For further information on the many Curtis/Matheson collaborations, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4216-4).

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