Friday, April 5, 2013

Anthology Quest: Trilogy of Terror (1975)

How could one little TV movie from the 70s become such a cult classic and icon? None of us in this generation should even know this movie exists - it should be in the black void with all the other TV movies that most people don't care about. And yet this one has become immensely popular and held that popularity for over 30 years. And it's all because of one little Zuni fetish doll. 

But! As this is an anthology movie, before we meet that little stinker we still have two more stories to work through, all of them starring Karen Black and all of them named after the character she is playing. The stories are all very different and one just follows another with a title card indicating the beginning of a new story - there is no connective tissue, or wraparound, between them like some other anthologies have. All you really need to know is that Black is the lead in all of the stories, and that all the stories were written by or based on works by the Richard Matheson, which was something I didn't know before. And I love Matheson, so this was especially exciting to learn.

Story One: Julie
Okay, this... was creepy. First off, we meet Chad and find out that he is maybe somewhat of a dick when he's sitting around outside school and complaining about all the ugly chicks. Nice. Then his teacher, Julie Aldridge, walks by. She older and frumpy, wearing a big suit jacket and long skirt, glasses, with her hair pulled back unattractively. And suddenly Chad wonders what she looks like underneath all those clothes... Long story sort of short, Julie and Chad go out one night, he drugs her, he takes lewd pictures of her while she's out (and maybe rapes her), then shows her the pictures the next day and blackmails her into becoming his sex slave or something. 

Wow. Did not expect something so pervy and disturbing, or that Matheson would be such a sick puppy. However, like any good storyteller Matheson had something else up his sleeve for this story and by the end turns it into a pretty clever little tale, though it still leaves some things unanswered. The guy playing Chad is equal parts creepy and douchey in his role as rapist-in-training, and Black easily plays the... well, easy role of a meek woman who suddenly turns on a dime in the climax scene and shows us a whole different side to innocent little Julie. I was hoping for more of a character analysis of Julie at the end, though, and some inkling of an explanation for how she put this all into motion, but for now I'm just going to have to be content with speculating on my own.

Story Two: Millicent and Therese
Another story with some pervy and disturbing moments in it. This time, Black plays twin sisters Millicent and Therese. Millicent is the bookish, frumpy sister (really not all that different from Julie in the first story) and Therese is the blonde bombshell, evil slut one. Millicent is becoming increasingly paranoid about her sister and tries to convince some random guy - Mr. Anwar, but they never explain just who he is or what his relationship to Therese is - and her doctor that Therese is evil and is practicing demonology. Or something. 

Doesn't take a genius to figure out that Millicent and Therese are actually the same person. Sorry to ruin the surprise, but it's really quite obvious. They're never in the same room together, and when the doctor shows up at the house at Millicent's request, he talks to Therese but never asks where Millicent is. With that being the big twist ending to this story, I was disappointed that there wasn't more to it than that. I hate to say this, but I didn't think Black did a very good job in the sex bomb role of Therese. The wig was really distracting (another obvious key to the twist) and she just doesn't seem to have the right look or movement for this role. Still love you, Mother Firefly.

Story Three: Amelia
Alright, here we go! Zuni fetish dolls for the win!

"Amelia" is based on Matheson's short story called "Prey," and is very much like a one-woman play, with our one woman of course being Karen Black again. Amelia comes home to her apartment with a small wooden doll she's purchased for her boyfriend. It holds the spirit of a Zuni hunter, a spirit that is kept inside the doll by a gold chain around his body. After having an awkward conversation with her mother, and canceling her date with her boyfriend, Amelia sets the doll down on the table. As she leaves, the gold chain slowly slips off the doll's body...
As simple as this story is, the slight creepiness factor and the utter delight derived from the noises and quite hilarious antics of the Zuni doll are what keep Trilogy of Terror near the top of the cult classics list. Like Chucky from Child's Play, there is sort of that silliness of being afraid of something so small but also that innate fear of something with more power than you would expect that would stop at nothing to end you. Mr. Zuni Fetish Doll definitely qualifies for the latter category. This little guy is resourceful enough to open doors and saw his way out of a suitcase (my most vivid memory of the movie from first seeing it many years ago) and just be one scary ass, pint-sized mothereffer. The design of the doll is also wonderful. The little spear, the pointy teeth, the hair, the wrinkles in his overlarge head - he's looking pretty fantastic and he's awesome. Funny, but scary, just like he should be.

One thing that is really great about the whole "Amelia" story is that it is so confined - and if there is one thing I love, it is a claustrophobic movie. Love 'em. The entire story takes place in Amelia's apartment and there is no real contact with the outside world, even when Amelia is on the phone with her mother and her boyfriend. We see things from Amelia's side - not just being attacked by the doll, but also her obviously smothering relationship with her mother and choosing her over her boyfriend. Maybe all that doesn't seem important to what really happens in the story, but I think it's good to know what kind of person Amelia is so that we can both have sympathy for her and be surprised at her tenacity in this situation. She seems like a timid, meek person at the beginning, which makes her final "transformation" at the end all the more awesome and satisfying. That ending is also one of the best endings ever, I gotta say.

Though Trilogy of "Terror" is a bit of an overstatement for this anthology, as there is only one remotely terrifying story in the bunch, there is no doubt that it will continue to be a favorite cult classic for many years to come. Because we love killer Zuni fetish dolls. And because we like saying the words "fetish doll" and not meaning anything dirty. 


  1. Scared the crap out of me in 1972, and it still entertains me today!!

  2. One of the best TV movies ever! The 90's TV movie sequel is watchable but not a patch on this one.

  3. Great Blog Michele, congratulations and greeting from:


  4. What are some of your favourite horror anthology? I don't know anyone who doesn't like Creepshow, just the right amount of fun and terror.

  5. Como hago para verla?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!