Trilogy of Terror (Dan Curtis, 1975)
A female college professor blackmailed into sexual submission by a scheming student… only to reveal herself to be much more than the uptight prude her appearance suggests. Deadly sibling rivalry plays out between two sisters as the prudish Millicent is determined to get back at her lascivious sister Therese, whose uncontrolled lust, Millicent believes, is what destroyed their family. Amelia, burdened with an overbearing mother, finds herself alone and under siege in her high-rise city apartment by the very gift she bought for her boyfriend. Trilogy of Terror is a triptych of female-centric terror showcasing the dynamic talents of the tragically deceased Karen Black in four – count ‘em – four roles… and that savage little Zuni fetish doll with razor sharp teeth that everyone’s always talked about…
Continuing one of my many trips-down-memory-lane, this time a small-screen detour into some of maverick TV horror creator Dan Curtis’ finest hours (though I don’t think I’ll dare touch the run of his ground-breaking gothic daytime soap Dark Shadows, running from 1966 to 1971, because even if I started with the arrival into the narrative of the brooding 175 year old vampire Barnabas Collins – which overnight changed the fortunes of the previously ratings-starved show – as well as that of creator Curtis – would still number over a staggering thousand episodes, which I’m afraid would be a rabbit hole in which I would be facing my mortality sooner than getting through the whole thing – and I hate to leave things unfinished), after the satisfyingly creepy and amusing adventures of intrepid news reporter Carl Kolchak and his eternally aggravated editor Tony Vincenzo, with the horror/noir hybrid, and ratings bonanza, The Night Stalker (1972) and its sequel The Night Strangler (1973), brought me to Trilogy of Terror, one of the classic Curtis TV horror joints I’d always wanted to see but never got around to.
Not surprisingly, there’s plenty of delicious pleasures to enjoy in “Trilogy”. The joys, however, are not based upon the shocks or attempts at surprise endings each of the tales aspire to. In fact, you can practically guess the reveals at the conclusion of the first two segments within the opening scene(s). And while the last segment’s concluding image is wonderfully effective (and seriously creepy), it’s not so as a surprise, but as a culmination (and literalization) of the demonic female madness and sexual repression we’ve witnessed play out across all three tales (they are each named after the main female characters after all).
All I’ve ever heard talked about has been the final tale and its killer doll and, yes, the last segment is suspenseful (with perhaps a bit too much repetition of Black’s character just closing a door in time before the little critter can take a bite of her ankle), surprisingly vicious (the doll certainly knows how to use those sharp teeth) and the little black critter effectively shot (while being more than a little racist in conception – with the “ooga booga” shrieking, the spear-chucking and all that). It’s certainly not easy making an inanimate object appear real, nor a small doll appear to be a genuine threat and Curtis pulls it off with TV-style aplomb… but what really surprises is the canvas of performances delivered by Black.
Revelling in characters crassly sexual, uptight and/or just outright whacky (with at least two of those traits I’m guessing not veering to far from home for her), Black is great, with her already substantial stature in my eyes growing even higher. “Trilogy” relies so much on her (and would lead to a follow-up collaboration with Curtis just a year later, a rare theatrical offering, Burnt Offerings –but more on that film in my next post) that I did some research afterwards to see if Black wasn’t dating Curtis at the time, as it feels so much like a director’s muse-piece (turns out I was wrong – she was actually married to the actor who played her college boy antagonist in the opening tale – she originally turned down “Trilogy” and only re-decided after her husband was cast!).
If the previous two Kolchak films hinted at Curtis as a fan of European genre cinema (with the stylistic and violent Blood and Black Lace Bava-esque set-piece with the black-shrouded ghoul crashing through a front window to brutally attack his beautiful female victim in The Night Strangler being the most telling moment), Trilogy of Terror cemented the notion. From the first tale having a scene at a drive-in playing ‘one of those French vampire films’ (which, amusingly enough, when we see the screen, are actually clips from Curtis’ own The Night Stalker, only in black and white), to the second tale’s opening scenes of the quietly angst-ridden Millicent writing introspectively in her diary as the grandfather ticks away in the background being reminiscent of a Bergman-esque chamber piece, then shifting gears into showy and colorful Brian De Palma territory (who hadn’t yet reached the identity-shifting heights of his 1980 Dressed to Kill, but was already making his presence known as a Hitchockian-styled horror film lover of schizophrenia with Sisters – in fact, I could almost imagine the influences bending back in on each other, with Trilogy influenced by Sisters, then DePalma’s Dressed to Kill catching some cues, such as the blonde wig of Therese that’s so obvious it operates as pure open self-reflexive cinema, from “Trilogy”), to the clear genre-adoring thrills of the last, Zuni fetish doll piece, Curtis’ love and appreciation for cinema is obvious. Even the re-titling of the second segment to “Millicent and Therese” (from simply “Therese”, the name of the Richard Matheson’s short story from which the episode was adapted) resonates with the great 60’s/70’s adult cinema filmmaker Radley Metzger’s milestone of erotic cinema Therese and Isabelle, where two schoolgirls — one adventurous and the other innocent — become friends and share sexual awakenings together.
Legendary horror author Matheson, screenwriter on both Kolchak films, was now a staple in Curtis’ TV horror production ensemble (wisely, as the TV maverick clearly recognized quality when he had it) and all three female-centric tales are based on his tales (with only the last, however, brought to the small screen by him – the other two are adapted by another noted horror author, and Curtis regular, William F Nolan).
Re-watching the Kolchak movies and Trilogy of Terror, with Curtis working with genuinely celebrated horror writers like Matheson and Nolan, is a nice reminder… Curtis wasn’t the most brilliant of auteurs, or the greatest of filmmakers, but he was instrumental in not only introducing the small screen audience to horror, but providing a quality view of the genre above the standard television fare of the time. I’m glad he was around.