Friday, March 11, 2011

CULT TV-MOVIE REVIEW: Trilogy of Terror (1975)


Perhaps the most famous TV-movie ever made, Dan Curtis's Trilogy of Terror (1975) boasts an impeccable pedigree.  The anthology, which aired on March 4, 1975 as ABC's "movie of the week," consists of three Richard Matheson stories, two teleplays by William Nolan, four memorable performances by Karen Black, and sterling direction from Dan Curtis, the man behind Dark Shadows and the TV adaptation of The Night Stalker. 

If you're a fan of the genre on television, it really doesn't get much better than this...

Julie
The first Matheson story in this TV anthology is called "Julie," with a teleplay by Nolan. 

Here, a callow university student named Chad (Robert Butler) eyes the apparently prim-and-proper English Lit. teacher, Ms. Eldrich (Karen Black).  He fantasizes about her without her clothes on and then sets about making his fantasy real.  

Chad works up the courage to ask Julie Eldrich out on a date -- to go see a drive-in movie.  She accepts, and they watch The Night Stalker (!) on the big screen together.

At the movies, however, Chad drugs Julie's soda pop and takes her back to a seedy motel, where he snaps incriminating photographs of the teacher.  He then uses these photographs as a form of sexual blackmail, and makes poor Ms. Eldridge, essentially, his sex slave.

There's only problem.  Chad has assumed from the very beginning that he is in control of the situation; that Ms. Eldrich is exactly who and what she appears to be, a repressed, librarian-esque school marm.  Turns out that was an incorrect assumption, and Ms. Eldrich teaches an important life lesson to the "singularly unimaginative" Chad.

Although not the most-remembered segment of this horror anthology, "Julie" is pretty intense, especially because of the story's kinkier aspects: a student-teacher sexual relationship, and an early appearance on television of date-rape (replete with rape drug). The lurid segment's final revelation, that Julie is a veritable man-eater who maintains a scrapbook of her sexual conquests and murder victims, is also scarily effective.  Although it becomes clear that Julie is actually a wolf in sheep's clothing, the story nonetheless works as a "cosmic scales of justice righted" tale.

Chad certainly had it coming, given his misdeeds...

Prime among the Trilogy of Terror stories, "Julie" makes fine use of Karen Black's talents, understanding the raw, unusual allure of this distinctive performer.  Sometimes Black can look absolutely gorgeous, but she can also be made-up to appear somewhat homely.  In other words, Black is a performer with layers, and all those layers are put to tricky and clever use in the TV-movie's first story.  In "Julie," Black exudes coiled-up, repressed sexuality even in the most innocuous school room scenes.  Even "hidden" under ugly glasses and dressed in unflattering clothes, Black manages to project this electric sense of the dangerous, of the erotic.  And that's what this story is all about.

In Trilogy of Terror's second story, titled "Millicent and Therese" another apparently prim-and-proper woman, a spinster named Millicent (Black) plans to destroy her younger sister, the sexually-promiscuous and possibly Satanic, Therese (also Black).  Millicent communicates with a psychologist  (George Gaynes) about Thesese, and then plans to use her sister's own fondness for voodoo against her.

Of the triumvirate, "Millicent and Therese" proves the weakest story in short order.  It's pretty obvious from the get-go where the story is headed, and what relationship these "sisters" actually share.  There's much talk of sex in "Millicent and Therese," but in many ways, this story feels like a retread of "Julie" in that Black again plays both reserved and overtly sexy.  Despite the familiarity of the material and obviousness of the story's final "twist," Dan Curtis does an effective job of directing the tale.

Millicent and Therese
For example, most of the story occurs inside one room, inside a library in Millicent and Therese's mansion.  Curtis films several scenes in this locale from a low-angle that accentuates the architecture and decorations of the old world library. 

The idea being, I suppose, that those things which ail Millicent and Therese emerge from this particular milieu.  From this house; from this room. Even from the books on the shelf.

For instance, Therese may have killed her own mother as a child.  And she also seduced her own father when she was sixteen. The books in the library -- all about the supernatural and paranormal -- reflect those "evils" after a fashion.  These volumes also prove the gateway to the destruction of both sisters. 

It may not sound like much, but the nice staging of these sequences in the library somehow suggests a place of evil looming in the sisters' twisted history together.  And given what we come to know about them, it makes perfect sense.

In the third, final and most memorable of the tales in Trilogy of Terror, titled "Amelia," the audience is introduced to a weak-willed, mild-mannered woman, Amelia (once more, Karen Black). Amelia is constantly being bullied by her (off-screen) mother.  In particular, Amelia's mother does not like that her daughter has moved out of the house (to a spacious apartment sub-let) and that she is dating an anthropology professor.

On one Friday night, Amelia decides not to visit her mother and instead spend the evening with her boyfriend, since it is his birthday.  As a gift, she has purchased the anthropologist an authentic "Zuni Fetish Doll," a miniature monstrosity with sharp teeth and armed with a spear.  According to legend, the Fetish Doll houses the spirit of a great hunter, but the murderous soul is trapped inside the doll so long as he wears a golden necklace around his neck.

In short order, the necklace is removed (it falls off, actually...) and Amelia is forced to wage war in the apartment against a violent, miniature predator.

Amelia
Based on Matheson's short story, "Prey," "Amelia" is pretty clearly the go-for-broke segment of Trilogy of Terror.  After the relative restraint of the first two tales, this one truly goes all-out to get the blood pumping. 

Curtis and director of photography Paul Lohmann, untether themselves from they expectations they have knowingly fostered in the first two tales (of a relatively staid presentation) and with tremendous gonzo indulge in expressive, action-packed film making. 

Accordingly, this story features rocketing cameras bearing down on the imperiled Amelia, and other dramatic tracking shots, all lensed from the killer Fetish Doll's unique perspective.

Curtis achieves something else here as well, and it bears mention.  In particular, he stages many deep-focus long shots of the apartment, with Amelia framed in the background -- surrounded by door-frames on some occasions -- and only emptiness in the foreground.  The result is that we're actually looking furtively under coffee tables and chair legs for any sign of the murderous Zuni Fetish Doll. 

In many such cases, the doll is not present in frame at all...but we know he's nearby, and the deep-focus, long shots expertly set up the terrain of the battle and more than that, a sense of expectation.  These moments of silence and emptiness linger, and increase and enhance the mood of suspense. 

We wonder where the bloody monster is hiding this time...

As the battle grows more violent and intense, and Amelia grows more and more imperiled, Curtis makes these deep focus long shots turn cockeyed, which admittedly sounds cliched (like something out of Batman), but instead proves an effective tool in fostering real terror.  As the balance of power shifts towards the supernatural threat, it's only right that the "real" world's sense of order begins to literally and metaphorically tip over.  This technique of off-kilter shots successfully transmits the full-breadth of the monster's threat to Amelia.

Trilogy of Terror's Zuni Fetish Doll lives even today as one of the most potent 1970s "kinder traumas," responsible for God-knows-how-many youthful nightmares.   The creature has lost none of his macabre effectiveness some thirty-years later.  The Zuni Fetish monster boasts the sharpest teeth you've ever seen, has a big grinning mouth, and utters terrible, strange yells at it repeatedly attacks the imperiled Amelia.  You'll never forget what this creature is like in action; and you'll never forget the sound of his "voice," either.

Thematically, the Zuni Doll is surely an avatar representing Amelia's personal dilemma: the fact that in her personal life she constantly and continuously surrenders to others; to her Mother and also to her boyfriend.  The Zuni Doll makes Amelia -- for once -- fight back.  It's too little too late, perhaps, and Amelia makes the ultimate surrender to the Zuni Doll in the film's final, chill-inducing close-up.  But she puts up a hell of a fight before then, using everything from suitcases to the bathtub to the oven to battle the monster lurking in her apartment.

Another reason "Amelia" works so well is that it lunges directly into the horror territory that the other stories studiously skirted.  We don't know exactly what Julie's power is in "Julie," and in "Millicent and Therese" the voodoo doll is almost an afterthought in a psychological tale about multiple personalities. 

But here, the audience finally sees a supernatural monster in action; one with snapping, hungry jaws, and inhuman powers.  Crimson blood flows pretty freely in this segment too -- a surprise for 1975 television production -- and so again, the effect of the story is amplified.  The first time you see Trilogy of Terror, you aren't really prepared for the third story to descend into bloody murder and wildly expressive camera-work, and so "Amelia" becomes all the more powerful and stunning. 

The thrill of Trilogy of Terror after all these years is two-fold.  On one hand, it's terrific to see Karen Black's versatility used to such dramatic and purposeful effect.  She is a gifted, idiosyncratic performer who isn't afraid to express seamy, powerful and unattractive emotions.  And secondly, the Zuni Fetish Doll is the high octane fuel of a million (or more) bad dreams, and can still provoke throat-tightening terror in audiences. 

For these reasons, Trilogy of Terror doesn't play like a funny old artifact from the disco decade, but as a damn fine horror movie.   The spirit of the film -- like the spirit of the malevolent Zuni Fetish Doll -- endures.  The film's final shot -- a zoom to close-up of Amelia in her new state as a "hunter" --  is not something you can easily forget or put down.

So make sure you check for Zuni Fetish Dolls under your bed before you go to sleep tonight...

2 comments:

  1. Oh, what a great examination of this one, John! I believe both THE NIGHT STALKER, DUEL, and TRILOGY OF TERROR are the peaks of TV movies in the 70s, at least from a dread and tension perspective. And they all go to the genius of writer Richard Matheson and the directors of each. I also agree that the Zuni Fetish Doll is the avatar of many a childhood nightmare during that decade (with the Zanti Misfit insectoids holding down the 60s throne). I'd queue this one up for my kids right now, but I'm afraid my wife would never forgive me for the subsequent nightmares it surely would produce. Thanks for this.

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  2. Hi Le0pard13:

    I totally agree with your fantastic choices as "the peak" of TV movies in the 1970s (though I'd also have to add "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark!).

    With Richard Matheson and William Nolan writing this one, it doesn't skimp on narrative brilliance, though the second story is a little too staid and dull. But Karen Black is really great in this too; she's underrated in my opinion. I could probabl write the same words about Dan Curtis.

    The Zuni Fetish dolls are freaky as hell, and I agree this might not be a good one for the kids yet. I know I can't let Joel even catch a glimpse of that creepy thing. Oddly, I think he could handle the Zanti Misfits -- they are bug-like and sort of stylized, but this doll is just weird nightmare fodder!

    Thanks for the great comment!

    best,
    John

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