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Movie of the Weak: Trilogy of Terror (1975)

To begin with, Karen Black didn’t even want to appear in Trilogy of Terror. To hear her tell the story, it took an all-night coaxing session by her agent, as well as the promise that her then-husband Robert Burton would also appear in the anthology and the assurance that she could wear a particular pair of bug-eyed glasses, which embellished her peculiarly beguiling facial features. She secured these demands, but the resulting made-for-television movie, air date March 4, 1975, left her to wonder how such an oddball project could acquire its enduring cult status. Now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, Black says she has no idea why Trilogy of Terror lives on as it does.

That’s a good question.

Directed by Dan Curtis, based on three stories by Richard Matheson, Trilogy of Terror was, according to Black, mentioned to her more often than most of her other work. This includes her distinguished appearances in Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, for which she received an Oscar nomination, Drive, He Said, The Great Gatsby, and Airport 1975, all released prior to this quirky ABC Movie of the Week. She doesn’t say as much outright, but when watching Trilogy of Terror today, especially in light of these superior features, it’s easy to appreciate her initial reluctance. And the first two instalments of this roundly inferior production do little to assuage such misgivings.

“Julie” starts the program, telling the story of Black’s titular university professor and her vindictive association with one of her students, Chad (Burton). He’s a conceited, cruel young man, who offends the seemingly prim Julie, convinces her to go to a drive-in movie (supposedly a French vampire flick, but actually the Curtis-directed and Matheson-scripted The Night Strangler, from 1973), he drugs her soda, rapes her, and takes lewd photos of her for later blackmail purposes. All is not as it seems, however, for this enchanting teacher exceeds what her studious veneer implies; literally letting her hair down at one point, disrobing as voyeuristic Curtis take a peep, it is a slight hint of her concealed psycho-sexual potency. Owing to some supernatural capacity, the segment suggests it is Chad who is under her thumb, that perhaps it is she who dominates and manipulates this lascivious co-ed. A dual façade is also central to Trilogy of Terror’s second instalment, the worst of the lot. In “Millicent and Therese,” Black plays both women, sisters apparently. Millicent is a button-down, prudish spinster, ornamented with the magnifying eyewear Black required, while Therese is a bleach-blonde, cavorting, potentially evil seductress who is responsible, in one way or another, for their parents’ death. Millicent’s concern is that Therese is not only threateningly violent but is thoroughly demonic. The two are never seen together, for reasons that are painfully obvious from the start, and the conclusion of the chapter adds little consequence to this schizophrenic familial spat.

The most significant issue with “Julie” and “Millicent and Therese,” considering they comprise two-thirds of a film called Trilogy of Terror, is that neither are in any way scary. Despite the paranormal reveal of “Julie” and its elements of perverse fantasy, the short isn’t so much frightening as it is ethically alarming. Chad’s casually criminal conduct is troubling, but the tension is less like the uncanny disquiet of, for example, The Twilight Zone (several episodes of which were, incidentally, written by Matheson), and is more of the Lifetime Movie variety. Even with the ominous nature of Therese’s fatal promiscuity, “Millicent and Therese” also fails to achieve any sort of fearsome concentration in its allotted time.

Fortunately, there is “Amelia,” the final part of Trilogy of Terror and the one for which the horror omnibus is best known and treasured. In this one-woman show, Black’s Amelia, who mostly engages by phone with her domineering, off-screen, never-heard mother, brings home a Zuni fetish doll as a gift. A nice thought, but the unnerving figure also happens to be possessed by the spirit of a Zuni hunter (portentously named “He Who Kills”), and the only thing containing this wicked force is a gold chain … and guess what falls off. Inevitably, this rabid, maniacal, blade-wielding little monster begins terrorizing Amelia, jabbing at her bloodied legs and feet and dashing around her apartment in a wild torrent of shrieks, hisses, and largely effective sound effects. While there is something rather comical in the sight of this diminutive demon scampering about, the whole thing isn’t as funny as this summary might suggest. Nor is “Amelia’s” mischievous finale, which avoids the hokey contrivance of “Julie” and “Millicent and Therese” and instead extends a concluding punctuation that promotes the potential of a story still to be told, as if it were nearing the midway point of what could have been a decently complete feature. (A TV sequel, Trilogy of Terror II, also directed by Curtis, was released in 1996—recognizing what worked before, it brought back little Zuni.)

Interviewed on the Kino Lorber disc is composer Bob Cobert, who comes from a musical family but admits to not being a fan of the horror genre (a bad sign). On the other hand, there is a documentary about Richard Matheson, who has considerable horror credentials (he also wrote the famous Good Kirk/Bad Kirk episode of Star Trek, “The Enemy Within,” which likewise dealt with character duality). Of his three stories that shaped Trilogy of Terror, the author only adapted “Amelia,” which left William F. Nolan to write the other two teleplays and to joking accuse Matheson of saving the best for himself. The Blu-ray’s 4K restoration is solid, underscoring the sporadically colorful cinematography by Paul Lohmann—mostly in “Julie”—and for additional information about who was involved in Trilogy of Terror, how their careers intersected in certain cases, and what else they accomplished, the commentary by historian Richard Harland Smith is an impressive almanac of information, even if it struggles to make a strong case for the film at hand.

In addition to a featurette on Karen Black, the Kino Lorber release also includes a commentary between the actress and Nolan. This double dose of the film’s leading lady is understandable, of course, because as the star of the show across all three shorts, Black is the one reason why Trilogy of Terror is worthwhile (barely, at that). She furnishes “Julie” with delightful, effortlessly satisfying vengeance and her amusing final posture in “Amelia”—her idea—is an outstanding finish to the trilogy. It’s also not surprising, then, that in addition to primarily praising “Amelia” (initially via the praise of others), the Kino Lorber essay by Simon Abrams celebrates Black’s commitment to whatever she had to work with. Like Black herself, though, Abrams tends to be rather generous in his lofty analysis of Trilogy of Terror, reading too much into certain aspects of the film. While he declares that all three segments deal with “the way modern women are either tragically marginalized, or made to go insane while trying to remain independent,” in actual, on-screen corroboration, Trilogy of Terror hardly meets such a high-minded evaluation. Further observations, clearly attempting to raise the picture above what it is, similarly advocate a strained appreciation. Meant as complimentary remarks, when Abrams writes of “Nolan’s deceptively layered dialogue and scenario” or when he notes, “Curtis’s direction of Black is also exceptional, albeit in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kinds of way,” the cautious wording only reinforces the impression of a film that might have some decent features—slight though they may be—but in general, on the face of things, it simply isn’t up to snuff.

About Jeremy Carr

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, and Fandor.

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