Written by: Richard Matheson and William F. Nolan
Directed by: Dan Curtis
Starring: Karen Black, Robert Burton, and John Karlen
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"This can't be happening! This can't be happening!"
American producer/director Dan Curtis seemingly never gets his just due as a horror master. Considering the guy practically ruled the genre on the small screen for a few decades, you’d think he’d be more recognized for his string of low-budget made-for-television chillers (and this is not to mention his somewhat underrated haunted house flick, Burnt Offerings). Perhaps his finest television moment is Trilogy of Terror, a fine anthology film featuring three tidy tales from frequent collaborator Richard Matheson with B-queen Karen Black inhabiting the lead roles in each.
The trio of macabre tales kicks off with “Julie,” wherein Black plays a mousy professor who gets some unwanted attention from a male student, who ropes her into a twisted blackmail scheme. In “Millicent and Therese,” Black plays a dual role of a couple of sisters engaged in a deadly sibling rivalry after the death of their father. Finally, “Amelia” finds Black being terrorized by a Zuni fetish doll in her apartment in the film’s most famous sequence.
Perhaps best described as "quaint," Trilogy of Terror is a neat little collection of scary stories. The finely varied assortment offer both psychological and visceral shocks that lead up to some decent twist endings. Matheson’s presence along with the surprising narratives will obviously recall The Twilight Zone, which is a fair point of reference. Like Serling’s anthology series, this one gathers together some bizarre concepts, some of which contain a supernatural slant. Most noteworthy is how even-keel Trilogy of Terror is--though the subject matter is diverse, the low-key, creepy tone weaves its way through each story. Furthermore, picking out a weak link among the bunch is quite difficult, as each tale is compact and effective.
The climaxing tale with the fetish doll is the one everyone remembers, I suppose, and with good reason. It’s certainly the strangest and most direct of the three, as it’s basically just about Karen Black being assaulted by this weird little doll for no good reason. Stylistically, this is the most dynamic and riveting, as it features some excellent first-person camera work that zooms and wends through the apartment, attacking Black at every turn. However, if I had to pick my own favorite, it’d probably be the opening story, “Julie,” which is genuinely unnerving because Black’s mousy character just doesn’t deserve the dark and disturbing things she gets sucked into. Robert Burton (who was married to Black at the time) is a creepy, seedy predator who is dangerously hot for teacher. His games are psychological, and Black completely sells it during a classroom scene where she’s forced to stammer through the end of her lessons after receiving a threatening note.
Like in its companion stories, we learn that not everything is quite as it seems, as “Julie” takes an excellent turn that sets you up for the further twists Trilogy of Terror has to offer. The film’s middle chapter has a revelation that’s rather easy to deduce as a result, but it’s no less fun than the other two, if only for the themes it presents. A sordid ale of two sisters at each other’s throats, it explores sexual freedom and repression through the personas of each. Millicent represents the latter, as she’s prudish, reserved, and completely at odds with Therese, a stunning, voracious blonde bombshell. If Millicent has her way, Therese will meet a grisly end thanks to a voodoo doll, though it could have deadly implications for both.
This segment aptly displays Black’s range and talent, which completely carries the film. Playing four different roles between the three stories, she transforms from a plain schoolmarm to a sexpot with ease. She’s able to portray both confidence and frantic timidity depending on the situation. Trilogy of Terror cemented her status as a horror star for a few years, but her performance here makes it obvious that she could have transcended the genre. That last segment is essentially a one woman show, and it completely works, right down to the final shot, which represents yet another transformation for the fine actress. The film’s made-for-television roots obviously force it to be a bit more character and story driven, and Curtis pulls it off deftly by trimming any sort of fat--these are some lean, mean tall tales for the small screen.
All told, Trilogy of Terror is one of the finer TV horror efforts you’ll come across; it’s also one of the more brisk, economical anthologies to boot, as it packs a lot of entertainment in each of its segments. A little silly and harmless? Sure, but there’s a place for that in any horror fan’s heart, I think. If it isn’t already on your shelf, pick up the Dark Sky special edition, which features the correct 4x3 transfer that’s nicely restored and accompanied by a good 2.0 mono track. This release also tosses in a commentary with Black and writer William Nolan, a featurette on Matheson, and a short feature entitled “Three Colors Black.” As it’s one of Curtis's best offerings and a powerhouse showcase for Black, it’s one any horror fan should snap up. Buy it!
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