Dan Curtis, 1975
Starring: Karen Black, John Karlen, George Gaynes
Also known as Tales of Terror and Terror of the Doll, Trilogy of Terror is a made-for-TV horror film comprised of three parts. The latter two do in fact involve tales about a killer doll. The first, “Julie,” concerns a conservative college teacher who arouses interest in one of her students, Chad. He becomes determined to seduce her. When she eventually agrees to go out with him, he takes her to a drive-in movie, but drugs her drink. He takes nude photos of her and it is implies that he rapes her. When Julie recovers, he blackmails her into continuing their affair, but things might not be all that Chad believes they are…
The second tale, ”Millicent and Therese,” involves incest and murder. The brunette, repressed, librarian-like Millicent (not unlike Julie in the previous segment) becomes convinced that Therese, her blonde, sex-kitten sister, is practicing voodoo and hopes to kill her. Millicent pleads with their doctor friend, who seems reluctant to help. Can Millicent survive her sister’s evil plans? The final story, “Amelia,” concerns a woman who lives alone in an apartment building. She receives a package that contains a menacing-looking Zuni fetish doll accompanied by a scroll that explains it is called “He Who Kills.” Amelia has a fight over the phone with her controlling mother and the Zuni doll soon awakes and disappears. Later, making dinner alone, she realizes that “He Who Kills” is hunting her down…
As with Dan Curtis’s The Night Stalker, Trilogy of Terror was first screen as part of the ABC Movie of the Week, a surprising gold mine for horror in the ‘70s. As opposed to something like The Night Stalker, Trilogy of Terror is women-centric, with far more female characters than male and is driven by the four separate performances of Karen Black, who plays each of the main women in the three separate segments. The lives of different kinds of women are explored — the prude, repressed teacher, sisters, and a mother-daughter relationship.
Director and producer Dan Curtis made his fame with made-for-TV horror, including The Night Stalker and House of Dark Shadows. He was not the strongest director, but wisely chose the great Richard Matheson as either his script or story writer, sometimes both, given this an edge in terms of accomplished writer that later horror television would fail to reach.
Though all three tales are based on stories by the late, wonderful horror and sci-fi writer Richard Matheson, the first two were scripted by William F. Nolan (Logan’s Run). “Julie” is based on Matheson's story “The Likeness of Julie.” Amusingly enough, the film they watch at the drive-in is Dan Curtis’s The Night Stalker, which Chad claims is a French vampire movie. There are plenty of horror references, in-jokes, and red herrings, enough to keep this amusing even though it isn’t the strongest tale in the trilogy. There is a satisfying bait-and-switch, even though this first entry doesn’t hold up as well upon repeat viewings.
“Millicent and Therese” is an average-at-best reworking of something like Brian de Palma’s Sisters, a story of two identical sisters, one good and one insane. It’s fairly predictable and Karen Black’s wig for the second sister, Therese, is just painful. The much more memorable “Amelia” is based on an enjoyable Matheson story, “Prey” and ranks as the finest tale in Trilogy of Terror. This is also supposedly the only script written solely by Matheson himself, with some contributions surprisingly from Karen Black.
Karen Black may not have been a genre actress at the time — she was known for Five Easy Pieces, Nashville, Day of the Locust, and Easy Rider, among others — but at her own admission this TV film had her type cast in genre films for nearly the rest of her career. Here is she is way over the top, similar to her performance in Dan Curtis’s later haunted house tale Burnt Offerings with Oliver Reed. I have to admit that I’ve never cared for Karen Black. I never found her attractive or a compelling actress, though she manages to carry Trilogy of Terror enough that it has survived with a solid cult reputation. But if you hate Karen Black, this is really not the movie for you.
There are some good side performances from genre actors, including John Karlen (Daughters of Darkness and Dan Curtis’s House of Dark Shadows), George Gaynes (The Boy Who Cried Werewolf), Robert Burton (Black’s then-husband), and others. There are some memorable moments, particular the balls-to-the-wall frenzy in “Amelia,” and Trilogy of Terror still has the power to entertain after all these years.
The film is available on DVD and will appear to anyone who enjoys ‘70s horror, anthology films, or Karen Black. It’s hardly a contender against some of the films I’ve written about in my series on ‘70s horror, but it’s a fun little blast from the past and is a good way to pass a dark and stormy night alone.