One night, when I was in graduate school, I bolted up in bed from a deep slumber and let out a blood-curdling scream. It was a primal response to something happening on the other side of the wall from me. Back then, I lived with my grandmother who worked graveyard, and on her night off, she was up all night watching horror films. Normally, this wasn’t a problem as her taste ran to slasher flicks—which she laughed at, provoked by her sense of the ridiculous and the fact that she was stoned. But that night was different because she was watching a Chuckie movie, and the sound of the evil doll’s singular voice has breached the thin wall and my slumber. It wasn’t my grandma’s fault—though she never watched another of the Chuckie movies ever again. I blame my dad and Karen Black: they gave me the doll fear. Because they were responsible for me viewing the 1975 TV movie Trilogy of Terror, a film that many people don’t remember the majority of. But we all remember the doll. Some of us cannot forget. I’m not sure why my father decided it was a good idea to let his seven-year-old daughter stay up to watch a film called Trilogy of Terror. I was also allowed to watch Night Gallery and Kolchak: The Night Stalker at that age. I only enjoyed the latter, but I had to prove I was brave, so I sat through the former. So when he asked if I wanted to watch a movie—a scary movie—I really had no choice. Trilogy of Terror, directed by Dan Curtis–also responsible for the TV movie The Night Stalker (1971) which inspired the later series, and for another favorite, Dark Shadows (1966), before that—is a now out-of-print anthology film, tied together by the fact that their female protagonists are all played by the late Karen Black. Each tale bears the title of its lead character. In “Julie,” Black plays a mousy literature professor who attracts the predatory eye of one of her students. Despite the fact that Chad’s friend seems a bit disgusted by his interest in Prof. Eldrich and warns him against pursuing it, Chad begins to strike up barely-acceptable conversations with his teacher, and after some cajoling and promising to be discrete, Julie agrees to go to a subtitled French vampire film with him at the local drive-in. Chad is the perfect gentleman…until he spikes her root beer. Julie passes out almost immediately, and Chad takes her to an ugly little motel where he strips the unconscious woman down and begins taking pictures of her. He then undresses and descends onto the bed in what is hard to miss as an off-camera rape. By the time Julie wakes up, she is back in the car, suspecting nothing, and Chad drops her back off “safely” at home. She tells him that they cannot see each other again. He awakens her with a phone call early the next morning, insisting she meet him; he shows her the developed pictures from the previous night’s activities and informs her that she will do whatever he demands of her. The only one that we see him give her on-camera involves her coming to his apartment to “entertain” his friends. Our sensitivity today is heightened when it comes to rape, and date-rape especially. In 1975, it was even easier to justify Julie as having somehow deserved being raped and then blackmailed into on-going sexual slavery than it is today: she knew she was crossing a line simply by dating one of her students, and everything after that was fruit of the poisoned tree she planted. But that doesn’t mean that audiences then or now side with Chad in any way. When it turns out that Julie is NOT the victim here, and instead somehow implanted the idea in Chad’s mind to seduce her, it does confuse the sexual politics of the engagement. Was Chad already a predator? Or did she make him into the monster who attacked her? We never learn which because she poisons him in return, informing him that she has grown bored of their “games” together: evidently, his imagination was not depraved enough to keep her interest, and we soon learn—with the help of Gregory Harrison in a very small role—that Chad is merely the most recent in a long line of young men with whom she has amused herself. So while Chad is a rapist and, as such, is punished, the righteousness of such punishment is obviated by the fact that he finds justice at the questionable hands of what appears to be a murderous witch. I guess we really have come a long way, baby. What makes “Julie” work is the various turns of emotion we get from Black. In the course of 20 minutes, we see her go from buttoned-up but formidable English professor (and as a former one of those, I myself would kill if it meant my students were as well-read and articulate as hers seem to be—dark magic at work?) to nervous virgin to terrified, trapped victim to malevolent sexual monster and back again. The source of horror here is not only in the state to which Chad reduces his educational superior but in the sharp and unexpected turn we see in Julie when she chooses to reveal herself. We would not be horrified had not Black so solidly sold us on the sincerity both the sweet and the Satanic Julie. At first, “Millicent and Therese” seems to present a contrast to “Julie” in that, in the second tale, Black is playing two entirely different characters: the two sisters of the title. The story initially begins from Millicent’s point of view, as she writes in her journal about her father’s funeral earlier that day and about her wild sister Therese. Except that the straight-laced (almost nun-like) Millicent doesn’t use the word “wild.” She insists, both in her journal and to the family doctor, that Therese is evil, evidenced by her actions and her demonic book collection. Her sister, it seems, seduced her father when she was only sixteen, driving her mother and Millicent into despair and retreat not just from father and daughter but life. While Millicent only went as far as locking herself in her room, her mother turned to sleeping pills, which allowed Therese to eventually murder her mother by surreptitiously upping the dose. Now, after the death of their father, Millicent is left alone in the palatial house, trapped by her lack of financial resources, with only Therese—whose company she seems to avoid at all costs. We later meet Therese when the family doctor comes over. And if Millicent’s overly conservative take on the world has led us to doubt her, that is quickly dispelled when Therese comes onto their much older doctor while Millicent hides in her room. But certainly, we see little of the evil her sister does. Therese may be out of control, but it seems to end there. Millicent is not to be dissuaded though, and calls the doctor to tell him that she is going to deal with her sister using the knowledge in the books on the occult Therese keeps. As the doctor races over to stop her, Millicent fashions a voodoo doll of her sister. By the time the good doctor arrives, Therese is dead, the doll nearby with a long pin stuck in it. As the EMTs wheel Therese’s corpse out, the doctor remove the blond wig to reveal Millicent—or rather that Millicent was Therese: a second personality the disturbed Therese developed as a result of her relationship with her father. The least interesting of the three stories, you would at least think that it gives Black something to work with, playing two such different women. Unfortunately, the extremes come off more than a bit cartoonish in such close proximity. And what might have been a surprise to audiences at the time is now spoiled by the generations that saw Sybil (1976) and the glut of films and televisions shows that used the multiple-personality device in the years between that film catching the public’s imagination and the DSM-IV largely dismissing the psychological phenomenon in 1994. But most viewers who caught Trilogy of Terror on TV probably have no memory of Julie, Millicent, and Therese. What they remember is “Amelia.” On looking again—all these years later–at the first two stories, I have to wonder why I was not summarily packed off to bed long before “Amelia” began. It might have saved me from the coming trauma that made just the movie posters for films like Magic (1978) and Child’s Play (1988) (the first with a ventriloquist’s dummy, the second with Chuckie) frightening beyond belief for me. Nor am I alone in the suffering that effect. When, half in jest, I posted a Facebook message to our editor, telling him that there was no way I was watching “Amelia” right before bed, several others responded, sharing their own terror at the thought. It seems silly enough in print. “Amelia” begins with the professionally dressed and good-spirited title character returning from a shopping trip to find a gift for her new boyfriend. She opens a chest on her table to reveal a “Zuni hunting fetish”: a 10-12 inch razor-toothed doll, armed with a spear and sporting a gold chain around its torso. It is accompanied by a scroll which warns that the doll contains the spirit of a fierce warrior and that without the chain, the spirit and the doll will become fully one. Seconds later, after Amelia sets the doll down and retires to the bathroom to bathe, the chain—of course—falls off. When she returns, the doll is no longer where she left it and what follows is twelve minutes of the now-animated doll stalking Amelia from the shadows before attacking her outright, armed with a knife it stole from her kitchen. Having trapped Amelia in her apartment, it chases her round and round her home as she tries alternately to get away and trap it, first in a suitcase (which it saws its way out of) and eventually into an oven. The hunt is depicted with the precisely the kind of terrible special effects you’d expect from a mid-70’s TV-movie-of-the-week. In other words, if anything, these scenes should largely be laughable. What makes them work is Karen Black. We are terrified because Amelia is. As the only actor in the story, Black would already be carrying the entire piece. But paired with camera work done largely (and smartly) from the doll’s perspective, it falls entirely to her to sell the violence the doll is doing to her, as well as her ratcheting terror as it foils her attempt to escape or contain it. The small attacks escalate, and Black moves more and more slowly as the doll wears her down before eventually sinking its teeth in her neck. By the time she wrestles it into the oven and braces her weight against the door to hold it in as it burns, she is wild-eyed, desperate, and we have long-since forgotten any reservations we might have had about special effects. But it is the final scenes which sells the piece, as Black again turns—like we saw in the previous two stories—on an emotional dime and reverts into an even more sweetly tempered version of Amelia than the one who arrived with the doll. She calls her controlling mother, invites her over for the evening, and then crouches down on the floor, stabbing it over and over with a long knife before fixing the camera with an evil stare, baring the same pointed-tooth and menacing grin that the doll had (this was an ending the Black reportedly conceived herself). When I went to bed that night almost forty years ago, I took one look at the pretty dolls my grandmother had bought me, each in the costume of a different country, perched on a high shelf in my bedroom, and clambered up there to quickly turn each one around to face the wall; they would spend every night that way until I eventually couldn’t stand having them anywhere near me. It was quickly clear to parents and grandparents alike that the gift of a doll would bring horror. Twenty years later, I sat up screaming in bed. And two nights ago, I watched this film again for the first time in four decades—peeking through my fingers like the little girl I had been. As it turns out, I was not the only one who was scared/scarred by Trilogy of Terror. Over the years, as I have had to explain my near-phobic reaction to dolls and the doll-like to friends and acquaintances, I have been amazed at the number of people who have shivered in remembered fright, clapping their hands to their mouths as they gasped, “I remember that movie! Most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen!” “Great!” one of my friends announced when I mentioned writing about the film, “Now I will have nightmares all day.” It’s hard to imagine a mid-70’s, made-for-television film having that kind of legacy in a world that has seen the deluge of excellent high-budget horror films that we have in the last forty years. The fact that the movie is difficult to even find on DVD or VHS makes it all the more difficult to believe. But it is to Karen Black’s credit, if unhappily, that the film took such hold in our collective consciousness. Because while she left us with nightmares aplenty, Trilogy of Terror had another legacy. Part of the draw of the original film was that it starred a fairly respected film actress—Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Great Gatsby (1974)–who had never really done television. After it came out, Oscar-nominee Black found herself typecast as a horror film staple, first in a couple of comparatively well-received projects, before sliding into the B-frightfests which dominated the rest of her career. In the end, her conception of the end of “Amelia” came true: she was overtaken by the little Zuni doll who left her wild-eyed and monstrous on the screen, just waiting for her next horror film victim. [Editor’s Note: See the horror for yourself below! The entire film is free to watch on Youtube!] Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.