Trilogy of Terror was a made-for-TV production which aired on ABC in 1975. It was well-received at the time, and has developed quite a cult following, equally for high quality (in comparison with other TV movies, anyway), and for its accidental comic value. Don't let that fool you, though. This one really is worth seeing. It was conceived as the pilot for an anthology horror series which never managed to get off the ground. The film is broken into three distinct and unrelated vignettes, each starring Karen Black.
Just running down the list, the first segment is called "Julie," and tells the story of Chad, a college student who has become obsessed with his prim, bookish English teacher, Julie (Ms. Black, of course). He pesters her until she agrees to go on a date with him. They attend a drive-in screening of a French vampire movie, during which he slips something into her root beer which makes her pass out. Chad whisks her off to a seedy hourly-rates hotel and takes some candid photos, which he later uses to blackmail her into "entertaining" him. The story could easily end here as a cautionary tale, but the twist ending (which honestly, I don't much like) turns everything on its ear.
The second segment, "Millicent and Therese" is about the rivalry between a pair of sisters after the death of their father. Therese (Black again) is a fun-loving party girl who may have murdered (and certainly seduced) her father. She's also interested in witchcraft, voodoo, pornography, and satanism. Millicent (still Black) is her uptight, holier-than-thou identical twin who decides that the world might be better off without Therese. How will she do the deed, and will she have the mams to carry it out?
Finally, "Amelia" features Black (duh) as Amelia (duh), who has just purchased a Zuni fetish doll for her new boyfriend. Reading the certificate of authenticity, she learns that the gold chain around its waist is a protection against the spirit inside, which will unleash violence and bloodshed if released. So, of course, the chain falls off and the doll comes to life, Chucky-style, and stalks her through the apartment, intent on murder.
When I talked about Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, I essentially implied that 74 minutes wasn't long enough to tell that story. Trilogy of Terror clocks in at 72 minutes, and splits that time between three plots, but it works. Some stories work best in a short format which prevents them from becoming bogged down or straining credulity.
The third story is really the reason this film is still well-known, and I think I'll dwell on it for a moment. The Zuni fetish doll (picture here) with its razor sharp teeth and wild, matted hair, is as scary as hell. It's a memorable image. I'd seen the doll many times before I ever knew that it was part of this movie. "Amelia" is only 22 minutes long, and after the initial setup, it's pure survival horror. I can imagine it being either very scary or very funny; the doll is a stabby, bitey little beast who sounds like the tomatoes in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. All in all it's a good, exhilarating chunk of time, and I don't believe it would stretch comfortably to a 90-minute story (well, it's been done, but at least grant me that Child's Play is not a good movie).
The stories were all written by Richard Matheson who keeps popping up in this project, totally by accident. Matheson wrote the teleplay of "Amelia," but the other two were adapted for screen by William F. Nolan who also wrote Logan's Run and The Norliss Tapes. It was directed by Dan Curtis who created the vampire soap opera, Dark Shadows, and who made a sequel (along with Nolan) to Trilogy of Terror in 1996, which I hadn't heard of until about five minutes ago.
Karen Black is a veteran B-movie actress, and she probably blames Trilogy of Terror for that. She'd been drifing around Hollywood for awhile, and this movie sort of jump-started her career, but I don't think she was happy about the roles it got her. Her career was revived again within the last decade, and she's been appearing in all kinds of crap, some good, some bad. I suppose when you get to be a 72-year-old actress, you take what you can get, and she certainly gets more work than most former scream queens. Black's performance in this movie is perfectly servicable. I was initially quite impressed by her versatility, until I realized that Millicent and Julie are essentially the same person, and Amelia spends most of her time screaming. Still, that's more Matheson and Nolan's fault than hers, and she carries the movie well.
So now that I've spent several paragraphs making the movie sound mediocre, I'll tell you again that it's worth seeing if you're at all interested. Trilogy is good by the standards of made-for-TV productions, and I think I liked it better than Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. It's all about appropriate timing. Brevity, as they say, is the soul of fear.
Well, they don't really say that, but I mean, we could start.
I couldn't find a trailer, but here's a clip of one of the scary parts with the doll.