Made for TV Terror

In Movies, TV by MichaelWDenney7 Comments

I agonized a bit over what topic to discuss in this, my first Cheese Magnet post. Ultimately it came down to what appealed to me last night as I looked at my DVD collection. My goal is to have some fun with these posts so I expect whims and whatever strikes my fancy will lead me to my topics. Anyway, this time my whims lead to a Trilogy of Terror.

Trilogy of Terror was made for television in 1975 but I first must have seen it on VHS some ten years later. As the name implies it is three independent stories in which Karen Black (known for Five Easy Pieces and The Great Gatsby) plays almost every female character.  The stories were written by Richard Matheson, a regular writer on the original Twillight Zone series and author of the novel I Am Legend. Each story is named after the lead character(s) as portrayed by Black.

Julie

Chad and his buddy are hanging out on campus complaining about the lack of attractive women when English teacher, Julie Eldritch (Black), walks by. Julie, despite being portrayed as a stereotypical spinster, catches Chad’s attention. His attempts to undress her with his eyes continue into the classroom although he does make time to show off his book smarts.

“That’s right. I know my basic literary triangle.”

Later Julie’s roommate Ann tries to convince her to get out a little (“If you’d work at it just a little you’d really be attractive”) but Julie resists. Instead she opts for undressing by a window under which Chad is lurking.

Eventually, Chad and Julie become chummy and Chad invites her to attend a drive-in movie with him. (Despite Chad’s claims that it is a classic vampire movie in French, the footage appears to be The Night Stalker.) Chad gets them each a large root beer (for a dollar) but spikes Julie’s with something that looks like Alka Seltzer.

"Plop, plop. Fizz, fizz..."

Despite commenting that her root beer tastes strange, Julie gulps it down and passes out almost immediately. In the process, I believe she spills the rest of the root beer in Chad’s car which, you know, serves him right. Chad takes the unconscious Julie to a hotel ($15/night), takes photos of her sprawled on the bed, and presumably has his way with her. Later Chad brings her home and Julie is none the wiser. However, she now decides that teacher/student dating is inappropriate and they cannot see each other anymore.

Chad develops the pictures from the hotel room and blackmails Julie with them. What this arrangement gets him is not spelled out but it appears that Julie becomes his personal maid/slave/sex toy. We are told that this continues for over a month but then Julie reveals the big twist (remember Matheson is a Twillight Zone writer). Turns out it is Julie that has been in control the whole time, not Chad.  She is somehow able to control Chad’s mind, caused him to become obsessed with her, and made him come up with the whole blackmail plot. But now she is bored with him. So she poisons him (“You’ve drugged me!” “No dear. I’ve killed you.”) and sets his apartment on fire. The segment ends with Julie looking through her scrapbook of dead boy toys when another male student (played by a young Gregory Harrison) comes looking for a tutor.

Chad is such a jerk from the first words he speaks that you feel no sympathy for him. But if Julie was influencing his mind, he can’t really be held responsible, right? Maybe we are expected to feel sorry for him…but I don’t.  Although this first story is a bit of a slow burn, my only real problem with it is the mind control part. It’s not really clear what exactly Julie has done to Chad. There is no attempt to explain how Julie came to have this mind control power or why she goes to such lengths to effectively abuse herself.

Millicent & Therese

Karen Black plays twins. Millicent is the prudish one (dressed so similar to Julie from the first story as to be a bit confusing) while Therese is the type of gal that goes out partying the evening of her father’s funeral. In fact, that is just the tip of the iceberg. According to Millicent, Therese is the embodiment of evil and a manipulator of men, including her own father.

Millicent has Therese’s suitor Mr. Amman come by the house so she can warn him away from Therese. She tells him how Therese seduced their own father and killed their mother. She also points out the collection of forbidden knowledge her sister uses to capture the souls of men.

“Demonology! Pornography! Satanism! Voodoo! Witchcraft!” - Wait…did she say pornography?!?

Dr. Ramsey (instantly recognizable by his voice as George Gaynes from Punky Brewster and the Police Academy movies) is the family physician. He comes by the house to talk with Millicent about the problems with Therese but instead finds Therese at home. Therese (in mini skirt, red lipstick, and an obvious blonde wig) both hits on and taunts the good doctor. At one point, she asks 58 year old Gaynes if he is still a virgin.  Eventually she drives Dr. Ramsey from the house and goes upstairs to yell taunts outside of Millicent’s bedroom door.

“Do you expect me to believe that is your natural hair?”

Millicent comes to the conclusion that Therese must die and decides that a voodoo doll is the most logical means to this end. Before putting her plan in action, however, she calls Dr. Ramsey to tell him that she will deal with the Therese problem herself. Despite the obvious connotations, Dr. Ramsey decides not to act until the next day when he stops by the house to  check on the girls. Why he is surprised to find Therese dead, I can’t imagine.  On the other hand, the voodoo doll with a large pin through it lying beside Therese doesn’t seem to faze him.  Again, there is an implication of some supernatural goings on but nothing is made clear.

Ramsey calls in the death. In so doing, he reveals that Therese is 26! I respect Black’s acting abilities but, I’m sorry, I don’t buy her as 26 (she was actually 36 when this was made). Our twist comes when Ramsey removes Black’s wig and reveals to the arriving ambulance attendants that Millicent suffered from a dual personality disorder.

This is, by far, the weakest of the three stories mainly because you can see the twist coming long before you even get your first glimpse of Therese. By Matheson’s own admission, his story was little more than a 2 page doctor’s report on split personalities that he was surprised they were able to extend into a ½ hour script.

Amelia

This is the one we have all been waiting for. Amelia is based on Matheson’s short story Prey and sticks very close to it.  Amelia is a single woman living alone. She has recently managed to move away from her domineering mother and the guilt tactics deployed by Mom but is obviously still not in control of her own life. The two regularly spend Friday nights together but this Friday Amelia attempts to cancel on Mom to spend the evening with her ‘fella’ on his birthday.

Amelia has a birthday present for this fella. It is an ugly doll with pointy teeth and a gold chain around its waist. During the phone conversation in which she tries to cancel on Mom, Amelia explains that it is a Zuni Fetish doll for the anthropology minded boyfriend who has everything. The doll is reported to contain the spirit of a Zuni warrior within it and the gold chain is what keeps the spirit from bringing the doll to life. After a less than successful conversation with Mom, Amelia slams the doll down on the table in frustration and goes to take a bath. As she walks out of the room, we see the gold chain slip from the dolls waist. We all know what is coming next.

My own replica of the Zuni Fetish Warrior doll. Note that I keep it on display with its gold chain lying conspicuously at its feet.

Amelia cancels on her fella in order not to disappoint Mom.  Then for reasons unexplained, she goes into the kitchen and preps some chicken.

Is that a giant wooden fork and spoon hanging in the background? It must be 1975!

Our Zuni friend goes missing as does a knife from the kitchen a short time later. The remainder of the piece involves Amelia being terrorized by the doll. Initially the doll is content with creepy, stalking behaviour. Tiny footsteps are heard, shadows are spotted, and lamps turn off.  Soon, however, the doll drops the skulking and launches a full frontal, flailing attack all the while emitting guttural gibberish similar to the titular characters in Gremlins. The ensuing fight between woman and doll includes many memorable events:

  • Amelia attempts to call the police (“I don’t know where I’m located!”)
  • The doll swings into a room while hanging from a doorknob.
  • Amelia attempts to drown a wooden doll in the bath.
  • The doll climbs out of the bath dripping wet with his knife clenched in his teeth.
  • The doll runs so fast he can’t stop and runs right into an open suitcase.
  • The doll uses his knife as a saw to escape from the suitcase.
  • The doll bites onto Amelia’s arm (and later her face) and hangs on like a pitbull.
  • Amelia fights off the doll while screaming continuosly…despite her mouth not moving.

Incidentally, you may wonder why Amelia doesn’t simply leave the apartment during the battle as she has several opportunities. She actually does try once or twice but the security bolt on her front door seems to be jammed. How this happened is another mystery. I had the opportunity to ask Karen Black about this when I met her at Toronto’s Fan Expo in 2006. Although she could not recall the details, she did mention that the final product as it exists today was severely edited down in order to fit television time limitations.

I’m clearly not too worried about giving away any plot details in this post. Despite the twists, I don’t think the enjoyment to be had from this movie comes from not knowing what to expect. That said, I won’t comment on the beloved ending to the movie other than to say that Black has indicated in interviews that it was her that suggested an important addition to the last shot. (Hint: she is showing off her contribution in the featured image at the beginning of this post.)

Black gives her all in the final segment. She is the only actor, besides the doll, in the entire piece and she plays it to the hilt. Her performance reminds me a little bit of her character, Myrtle, in The Great Gatsby due to the feeling that both characters are just on the brink of insanity, albeit for very different reasons. The doll is creepy looking and scary in a there-is-something-in-the-house kind of way. Thing is, it is also funny as hell. This viciously angry little doll attacking for no good reason other than it is described as vicious is so absurd and the charmingly simplistic puppetry is so limited that every attack is equal parts terror and humour. Over multiple viewings the terror has worn off for me, while the humour has remained. I do have to wonder what Black, who still seems to take the performance very seriously, thought of the audience that laughed through the screening back in 2006.

Karen Black and I after a screening of Trilogy of Terror in 2006

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