In honor of the recent passing of ’70s stalwart Karen Black . . . Fondly remembered by many fans as the TV movie in which Karen Black plays a woman who is menaced in her apartment by a tiny doll that attacks her with a miniature spear, Trilogy of Terror is a fairly pedestrian anthology of stories that sprang from the pen of prolific fantasist Richard Matheson. The author of countless memorable stories—from I Am Legend (originally published as a novel in 1953) to “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the 1963 Twilight Zone episode in which William Shatner plays an airplane passenger who sees a gremlin on the plane’s wing—Matheson was a master at contriving frightening situations. And while none of the stories in Trilogy of Terror represent the author’s best work, since all three are predicated on hokey contrivances, each component of Trilogy of Terror is somewhat droll. The problem, however, is that producer/director Dan Curtis (of Dark Shadows fame) shoots each story in such a stripped-down fashion that there’s not much in the way of atmosphere. The camerawork is bland, the lighting is flat, and the sets are sparse, so the only time Trilogy of Terror kicks into gear is at the end, when that nasty little doll goes on his rampage. Another dubious aspect of Trilogy of Terror is that it’s presented as a tour de force vehicle for leading lady Black, who stars in all three mini-movies. A unique screen personality with an eccentric brand of sex appeal, Black was usually best in small doses, and this project pushes her talent way past its limits. Still, she’s committed and energetic from start to finish. (Supporting actors include Robert Burton, George Gaynes, and Kathryn Reynolds, although this project’s all about Black’s multiple performances.)
The first story, “Julie,” stars Black as a mousy college professor who is drugged and violated by one of her male students; her attacker, however, soon realizes he messed with the wrong woman. The second story, “Millicent and Therese,” is a clunker about two dueling sisters whose battle hides a not-very-surprising secret. The last story, “Amelia,” is the one about the doll. Black plays a woman who buys an African ritual doll that is rumored to contain the soul of a savage warrior. When she accidentally “activates” the doll, it chases her around the apartment, biting and stabbing her as she tries to fight back with closet doors, suitcases, and an oven. The last 15 minutes of Trilogy of Terror are so enjoyable that they (more or less) justify watching the entire brief movie, although none could be blamed for fast-forwarding straight to “Amelia.” The doll sequence has lost some of its ability to shock because the special effects are so primitive, but “Amelia” is still a nasty piece of business, and the final shot is truly haunting. FYI, the doll from “Amelia” returned in the made-for-cable sequel Trilogy of Terror II (1996), which was once again directed by Dan Curtis. With British starlet Lysette Anthony following in Black’s footsteps by playing separate roles in three different spooky stories, the sequel failed to gain much attention.
Trilogy of Terror: FUNKY