The entire time he was writing this review, Judge Brett Cullum had the spear of a tiny Zuni hunting fetish doll held tightly against his neck.
[On the phone, threatened by a supernaturally animated Zuni hunting fetish doll] Operator, get me the police! I don't know where I'm located, just get me the police, there's a…there's a…[looks at doll menacing her under the door with a steak knife]…just get me the police, please?—Karen Black as "Amelia"
Actress Karen Black and producer/director Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows) teamed up in 1974 to create an anthology tv project comprised of three short horror stories by famed horror author Richard Matheson. Black played multiple roles, but the film became famous for an animated Zuni warrior doll that stole the show from her in the last reel. Dolls are creepy, man, and this one does a great job. He inspired endless imitators including the infamous Chucky of the Child's Play series. Everyone involved with the project is mystified that of all the work they've done, Trilogy of Terror lives on over thirty years later. Yet it makes sense, because the television movie is visceral and has a kick ass African doll. What's not to love?
Facts of the Case
The three installments of the film break down like this:
Chapter Two—"Millicent and Therese"
There are three reasons Trilogy of Terror works so damn well. Dan Curtis masterminded horror on television with both Dark Shadows and The Night Stalker, so he knew how to produce a teleplay that could be frightening and get past censors for broadcast. Richard Matheson's stories have an unusual depth that give both director and cast plenty of material to work with. Finally, Karen Black turns in an immaculate performance showcasing her ability as a character actress and scream queen. With all of these talents together, the film had a magic that transcended its small screen origins to develop a cult following. You have the right script, the perfect director, and a lead actress at the top of her game going for broke.
Strangely enough, though people remember the doll, the other two chapters of Trilogy of Terror are equally impressive. Perhaps even moreso than the simple chase scenario, because they rely on relationships as a source of horror coupled with a kink factor that can not be denied. It's a joy to watch Karen Black create complicated women with many layers trapped in terrifying predicaments with no escape. These aren't the simple "victims" we see later in slasher movies, but portraits of complex characters who resonate enough to make the short narratives deeper than they should be.
Previously Trilogy of Terror was released by Anchor Bay on a bare bones disc, but Dark Sky Films loads the title up with substantial extras. Front and center is a commentary track with actress Karen Black and writer William F. Nolan (Logan's Run and Burnt Offerings) which is a joy to listen to. Black is kooky as you'd expect with a great sense of holding nothing back. She makes no bones about what a small film she thought this was, and offers her take on her own brilliance in it. Nolan also contributes whenever Karen says "enough about me, what do you think of me?" There is also a couple of featurettes including one on Karen, and another on author Richard Matheson.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's a tv movie from the '70s. Trilogy of Terror may be an exemplary example of that genre, but it smacks of the small screen, with low budget and small amounts of skin and gore. The transfer is full screen and monaural. The color palette is muted, and it has a hazy '70s television look and one channel of audio. The DVD is authored well, but Trilogy of Terror does not have roots in cinema. This is a small screen affair, and it feels like it every step of the way. Discerning viewers will notice many visual goofs. Watch closely when the Zuni doll loses its chains, and you will notice the fishing wire that triggers it. Also, in the third chapter there are moments when the screams are not in synch with the action, and you notice they resort to simply throwing the doll at the actress.
If you're a fan of anthology horror such as The Twilight Zone or Tales From the Crypt, Trilogy of Terror is a blast of television nostalgia and a great contribution to the horror genre. We get to watch Karen Black managing to make a doll seem real, as well as infusing all the stories with her own sexy, complicated charisma. She's one of Hollywood's greatest character actresses, and Dan Curtis knew how to exploit her talents for television. Trilogy of Terror is a classic that finally gets the respect it deserves.
Guilty of being a shlocky, fun ride that fans will snap up. Dark Sky Films deserves a special commendation for making this a fully loaded special edition.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
• Commentary with Actress Karen Black and Writer William F. Nolan
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