Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Trilogy of Terror (1975) Bonus Roots of Personal Horror

Not only is this a movie review, but it's also another in my series of blogs about how certain things have affected me throughout my life in terms of horror - my Roots of Personal Horror entries. There's only been one other entry so far, but hey, now it's a series.

It's March, 1975. I'm in first grade, and I'll be eight in July. It's a northern Michigan twilight between winter and spring. I'm at my buddy Todd's house for a sleepover when I catch a glimpse of something in a TV Guide. It's something horrible, something wretchedly terrifying to a kid. It's this handsome fellow:

Yeah, that's right. The Zuni fetish doll from the 1975 cult classic TV movie, Trilogy of Terror. My little brain, despite the presence of superheroes and dinosaurs, was absolutely sure this toothy little guy was going to sneak into where I was sleeping at Todd's house and start stabbing me. I was positive that's what was going to happen. I couldn't sleep and when I dozed, there he was, whirling through my half-awake dreams. I did the only thing I thought I could do: I screamed like a banshee-in-training. Still a blur, but I think I calmed down eventually but I would have nothing to do with that little Zuni joker. I refused to look at picture of it for years. Even now, about 36 years later, I still hear the ghost of my seven-year-old self whimpering when I see a freeze-frame of "He Who Kills."

It occurred to me that I had never actually watched Trilogy of Terror. I should have by now. I mean, the trailer for Dawn of the Dead frightened me in 1978, and I faced that (obviously). The voice of little possessed Regan in The Exorcist made me cold with terror when it aired on broadcast TV, but I eventually faced that one down, too. Yet Trilogy of Terror eluded me.

No longer, dear readers. I pushed this baby to the top of my Netflix queue and it is now viewing history. And allow me to say this: it was worth the wait.

You know when a movie starts off with a title card over the actual film itself, it's scoring points in my book. Barely a few minutes into it, and the movie is already in the plus column. Did I mention that the three stories are based on the writings of the legendary Richard Matheson? Oh, and did I mention that the top star of each piece of the trilogy is the beautiful and talented Karen Black? And, oh, did I mention that Trilogy of Terror is directed by Dan Curtis, who helped bring the iconic gothic soap Dark Shadows to the viewing public, and who introduced us to the wily Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) in The Night Stalker, AND who directed the cult classic Burnt Offerings? Yeah...seriously winning points with me here.

Before jumping in, I'll warn you of spoiler material and black out the revealing sentences - highlight them if you want to take a sneaky peek.

The first story in Trilogy of Terror is "Julie," and if you look at the title card picture above, you'll see the characters Chad (the "douche") and Eddie (the "you'd-better-not-do-that sensible friend"). Chad is a privileged horndog who bets his friend he can bed their stuffy literature teacher, the titular Julie Eldrich. Chad makes advances and invites Julie to a drive-in to catch a horror film (actually clips of Night Stalker). He drugs her and brings her to a motel, where he takes provocative and - it's suggested - overtly sexual pictures of the unconscious teacher. Chad blackmails Julie into a dominant relationship that reeks of his misogynistic, douchebaggish stink. He even has a sneer. Perfect casting. I mean, Robert Burton (Black's real-life husband at the time) really nailed it.

It doesn't turn out well for Chad, though. SPOILER: Turns out Julie had been manipulating him the whole time, and she may or may not be a witch who derives pleasure from her own fear of the men in her life. When she no longer feels fear, she gets bored, and the boys get dead. She poisons Chad (great choking scene, too, by the way) and burns down his house. When the segments ends, she's meeting a new, handsome young man (Gregory Harrison in a small role) who just glows with the aura of a soon-to-be-dead-meat fellow.

The second story is called "Millicent and Therese." Black plays polar opposites in twin sisters, the prudish Millicent and the vivacious Therese. Millicent hates her twin, sure that she seduced their father and caused their mother's death. She's positive that Therese is a devil-worshipper and sex freak, and she may be right. Millicent keeps a diary of her observations, and she fears she may have to kill Therese at some point. Therese tries to seduce Dr. Ramsey (George Gaynes of the Police Academy movies), but he resists somehow. Millicent decides to kill Therese with her own black magic, and is successful in a way because...SPOILER: Millicent and Therese are one and the same, as Millicent suffers from dual personality syndrome.

The third segment, "Amelia," is the drawing power of Trilogy of Terror. Amelia, who's subletting a high-rise apartment, tries to have a social life despite being under the thumb of her domineering mother. She buys a gift for her anthropologist boyfriend: a Zuni fetish doll called "He Who Kills." You know what he looks like. I don't need to describe him. But beware, because if that gold chain is removed from his body, he'll come to life and...uh-oh, it just fell off and Amelia didn't notice.

Amelia hears little noises here and there, and sees no sign of He Who Kills, until she experiences a slight stabbing around her ankles. There's the little guy, poking her feet with a kitchen knife. He Who Kills is like a homicidal blend of the Tasmanian Devil and a Gremlin, frenetically chasing Amelia around the apartment, stabbing and cutting through everything. She tries drowning him and trapping him, to no avail.

After HWK gets all bitey, Amelia manages to throw him into an already-on oven, burning him to a wildly flailing little crisp. Amelia opens the oven to investigate the burning-Zuni-doll progress and freaks out. She apparently calms down enough to call her mother and invite her over. Amelia then crouches down - and you know it ain't good - and begins stabbing the carpet over and over before smiling...SPOILER: revealing a mouthful of thin, sharp teeth, just like that of the Zuni doll.


I made it through without screaming, but damn if I didn't feel that little crawl in the back of my neck, that slight shiver in the spine. It was 1975 all over again, only this time, I loved it.

Trilogy of Terror wasn't as hokey as I'd expected, and that's OK. Karen Black is tremendous, showing great range as each lead character. They're rich characters as well, and we get decent backstories for most of everyone who has a speaking part. The weakest segment for me was the middle one. It had an ending you could see a mile away, but it was still enjoyable. Of course, my favorite segment is the one that gave me nightmares oh, so long ago. It's taut and terrifying, and the relentless image of that doll shaking and flailing in murderous rage is unforgettable and scary as hell, even in this jaded day and age.

As for He Who Kills, who knew that one day, I could purchase him for myself years later if I'd wanted at Chiller Theater.

I didn't buy him, of course. I was too scared.

Until next time, fellow survivors, don't remove any gold chains from your kids' dolls. You know, just to be safe.

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  1. I never saw Trilogy of Terror as a kid but certainly knew about it. Finally about three or fours year ago I got it from Netflix and while I was only mildly pleased by the first two shorts, "Amelia" lived up to and surpassed my expectations. It's a stone-cold horror classic. Karen Black ruled that era of the '70s!

  2. I agree, that last story in the trilogy elevates the movie to full-on horror status! As I was watching it, I could feel the old familiar chills, and it made me love it even more.