Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review: Trilogy of Terror

Today, we continue our Karen-Black-a-thon with what is probably the movie for which she is best know, 1975's Trilogy of Terror. Usual disclaimers about spoilers: there are spoilers here.

Directed by Dan Curtis and written by William F. Nolan and Richard Matheson, based on three short stories by Matheson, Trilogy of Terror was an ABC movie of the week. As the title suggests, it is an anthology film, comprised three separate stories. The three segments all star Black and are named for the protagonist of each segment (Julie, Millicent and Therese, and Amelia), but otherwise no effort is made to connect the three segments, which is probably just as well.

It's interesting to note that two of the principle contributors to the film were reticent about it. Matheson wasn't keen on the idea of an anthology film, believing audiences wouldn't get invested in the characters or story lines, and Karen Black at first turned down the part(s), only agreeing later when her then-husband was cast as the date-raping Chad in the first segment, Julie. Matheson has since praised the film, but I'm not sure Black is pleased she changed her mind about starring in the movie. As I said at the top of this post, Trilogy of Terror is Black's best known work, and since starring in it, she's been forever associated with the horror genre, much to her chagrin. Up to this point, Black had been an A-list actress, garnering an Academy Award nomination for her role in Five Easy Pieces. After Trilogy of Terror, she pretty much became a horror icon. That said, she delivers four standout performances here, so while it's a little awkward knowing Black probably regrets doing the film, it doesn't really diminish its effectiveness.

Let's talk about the movie, then, shall we?

As I said, each segment was based on a Richard Matheson short story. Matheson is, of course, the author of so many classic science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories, as well as being an accomplished screenwriter. He wrote, among other things, the classic Twilight Zone episodes, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet and The Invaders (more on this later), as well as the novel I Am Legend, which, if you've only seen the Will Smith movie, do yourself a favor and read the book. William F. Nolan adapted the first two segments, with Matheson adapting the third.

After watching the movie again recently, I went back and re-read all three stories. I thought it would be fun to compare and contrast the stories with the segments of the film. Fortunately, all three are in Collected Stories of Richard Matheson, Volume 3

So on to segment 1: Julie

Chad is a college student who has an interest in photography (this will become important later). One day, he and a buddy are sitting around campus, checking out all the hot young co-eds, whom Chad refers to as "dogs." Then Ms. Julie Eldrich, their English lit teacher, walks by and Chad finds himself wondering what she looks like "under all those clothes." Julie is as school-marmy as they come, wearing high-buttoning collars and long, full skirts, her hair up in a  Victorian bun.

Chad peeps at Julie's window where he sees her undressed. Inflamed by this, he asks Julie to go see a drive-in movie with him. She demurs, saying she could be fired for dating a student, but Chad is relentless and Julie agrees. At the drive in movie Chad drugs Julie's coke (!) and takes her to a motel where he photographs her in various compromising positions (!!) and date rapes her (!!!).

Later, he shows Julie the pictures he's developed and blackmails her into being a kind of sex slave for him. (There's also a gang rape pretty strongly implied. Chad says he wants her to come over to "meet some friends of his." Yikes, 1975!)

Three months pass and it is taking a toll on Julie. Her work is suffering and she isn't acting herself.

Then we get to the classic Matheson twist. Chad demands Julie do something or other and she refuses. Chad reminds her who is in charge only for Julie to blow him off. You see, Julie has been behind this all along. She's the one who planted these ideas in his mind. (How is never stated, but something supernatural is implied.) She's been pulling the strings. And now she's bored. She tells Chad not to feel bad, she always gets bored sooner or later. Chad begins to choke on the drink Julie's just given him. He collapses, dead. Julie drags the body into his darkroom and lights the developing chemicals on fire.

The next day, Chad's death is reported in the paper. Julie snips the article and puts it in her scrapbook, which is filled with similar headlines of attractive, young men who have gone too soon to their deaths. Just as the segment ends, there's a knock at Julie's door. A young man saw her ad for tutoring. She invites him in and, we are too assume, the cycle begins again.

Julie is the second best segment of Trilogy of Terror. The performances are strong and the twist is appropriately twisty.

It was based on Matheson's story "The Likeness of Julie," which I think works better, however, if only slightly. In the story, we get more of a sense that Chad (whose name is Eddy in the story), is not in his right mind. He's disgusted with himself when he gets the idea to drug Julie's coke. He can't understand why he's become so obsessed with her. This makes the twist ending make more sense. In the film, Chad is presented as the kind of sleezeball who would come up with just such a thing himself. His pursuit of the older, homely Ms. Eldrich seems like a bored kid wanting a challenging conquest. One change that Nolan made that improved the story, however, was making Julie a teacher rather than a fellow student, as in Matheson's story. The power dynamics make for a more interesting tale and Julie's reasoning for not wanting the photos to be make public (losing her job as well as ruining her reputation) are more plausible.

Fun facts:

The movie playing at the drive-in where Chad drugs Julie is a black and white copy of The Night Stalker, which was written by Richard Matheson and directed by Dan Curtis.

Nolan peppers the script with references to his literary heroes. Julie's last name in the story was "Eldridge" but Nolan changes it to "Eldrich" a play, no doubt, on H.P. Lovecraft's favorite word "eldritch." When Chad checks in at the motel, the false name he gives is "Jonathan Harker," as in the character from Dracula. And finally, Ms. Eldrich lists Dashiell Hammett among the greats of early twentieth century literature. Nolan is a huge Hammett fan; he has written a Hammett biography and has included a fictionalized version of Hammett in his detective series "The Black Mask Boys."

Segment 2: Millicent and Therese

Millicent and Therese are twin sisters, though the two of them couldn't be more unalike. Millicent is a wholesome, conservative lady while Therese is a wild woman who seduces men and practices witchcraft and other dark arts. Though neither woman can stand the other, they are forced to live together in their deceased father's house. Until one day Millicent gets an idea. She'll use Therese's voodoo against her. She creates a voodoo doll of her sister and rams a needle through its heart.

We then cut to Millicent's psychiatrist friend. He comes over and discovers the dead body of Therese. As the ambulence takes Therese away, the doctor removes Therese's wig and wipes off her lipstick and we see that she was Millicent all along. He tells the orderlies that Millicent and Therese are the same woman, and that she had the most advanced case of multiple personality disorder he had ever seen.

This is the slightest segment of the movie, but that's to be expected given that the original story on which it was based is about two pages long. Nolan did a fine job of padding the story out without it feeling at all padded, and it works very well. It works better here as it's more of a real story rather than a vignette.

Millicent and Therese continues the kinky sex party started in Julie. Millicent reveals to one of Therese's boyfriends that Therese told her all about the weird lovemaking they engaged in. Once again, it's not stated, but is pretty heavily implied that there's some S&M stuff going on. Also, Millicent tells Dr. Ramsay that Therese seduced and slept with their father. So add incest to the list of weird sex stuff in this movie. And somehow this was on primetime TV back in the day.

The twist at the end is something of a cliche now, but that's something that can't be helped. I do think, if you can put yourself in the right frame of mind, that it's still a rather shocking and well-done twist, even if it's one that has been done elsewhere before and since.

Not as much fun trivia from this segment, but fans of Punky Brewster will recognize Dr. Ramsay as Henry Warnamont.

Segment 3: Amelia

Oh Shit!

And here's what we've all been waiting for. The first 2/3 of Trilogy of Terror are excellent. Don't get me wrong. But Amelia is what pushes the movie into all-time great status.

Amelia is a young professional, living in a sub-leased apartment, away from her overbearing mother for the first time in her life. She likes her newfound freedom, though she and Mother still go out every Friday night.

Well, this Friday Amelia has other plans. She's been dating an anthroplogy professor from the local college and it's his birthday and the two were going to spend the evening together. Amelia calls her mother to tell her this and it goes . . . not well. She tries to change to conversation to something lighter by telling Mother what she got her boyfriend for his birthday: a genuine Zuni fetish doll. About 18 inches high, the doll has a face not even a mother could love, with beady eyes and rows of jagged teeth. It holds a spear and around its waist is a gold chain. A scroll that came with the doll informs her that his name is He Who Kills. That the spirit of He Who Kills is trapped inside the doll, held in place by the chain.

Amelia gets off the phone with her mother and sets the doll on the coffee table. Then the gold chain falls off and the shit hits the fan. The doll comes to life and chases Amelia around her apartment, inflicting some serious damage with a kitchen knife and his teeth. In the end, Amelia traps the doll in the oven and we see him burn to a cinder. Then Amelia opens the oven door. Something rushes out at her and we cut to what would have been a commercial break.

In the next scene, Amelia places a call to her mother and apologizes. She invites her mother over. Then she removes the largest knife from the block in the kitchen and crouches down to wait. The camera zooms in and Amelia's face splits open in a hungry grin, revealing rows of sharp pointed teeth. She is now the vessel for He Who Kills.

Amelia was based on Matheson's story "Prey" and I think that the two versions are pretty well equal, though I might give a slight edge to the movie version. The doll should look ridiculous--and to some eyes it might--but it works for me. It's genuinely menacing. I think the filmmakers made a brilliant decisions to get gory pretty fast. That helps to up the stakes here. And the design of the doll is really pretty grotesque. It also helps that Curtis went the Jaws route and didn't show the doll as much as he might. It's mostly glimpsed in short bits, never still, always moving. Again, this helps keep the appropriate menacing tone.

Amelia/"Prey" is one in a long line of living doll horror stories, but I think it might just be the best.

Fun Facts:

Matheson originally conceived this idea as an episode of The Twilight Zone, but was told it was too grim. He reworked it with a science fiction twist and it was aired as The Invaders. Later, he wrote it as a short and then adapted it for Trilogy of Terror.

Stephen King wrote a very similar story called "Battleground" that was undoubtedly influenced by either The Invaders or "Prey" or both. (King is a huge Matheson fan.) In it, a hit man is chased around his apartment by an army of toy soldiers. "Battleground" was adapted to the small screen for the King anthology series Nightmares and Dreamscapes. The teleplay was penned by Richard Christian Matheson, Richard Matheson's son. In one shot, we see a curio cabinet in the hitman's apartment. In it is a replica of the Zuni fetish doll from Trilogy of Terror. Also, the episode has no dialogue, a tribute to The Invaders, which is dialogue-less until the final few minutes of the episode (excluding Serling's opening narration).

The pointy teeth Amelia sports at the end of the movie were Karen Black's idea. She was afraid audiences wouldn't understand that Amelia had become He Who Kills otherwise. Dan Curtis was at first against it, but decided to try it. It's a good thing he did. I think most folks would have figured out the story without them, but those teeth add a great little stinger at the end.

Majestic Studios offered a replica Zuni fetish doll for sale a few years back. You can find one on eBay right now for $200. So if anyone is looking for a present for me . . .

Overall, Trilogy of Terror is absolutely worth your time. As of right now, it's streaming  on Amazon (free if you're a Prime member). Sadly, the DVD is out of print, but used copies can be found for reasonable prices.

If you like Twilight Zone, Tales from the  Crypt, Night Gallery, etc., you absolutely have to check out Trilogy of Terror.

Monday, June 5, 2017

New Kicks

If you've seen me in the last twenty-odd years, there's a good chance you saw me wearing a pair of Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars sneakers. Powered by 1950s nostalgia, I got my first pair sometime around 1995 and have been wearing them more or less daily ever since. I've had different shades over the years but have mostly stuck with classic black. At first, I wore only hi-tops, but in recent years have been sporting the lo. If I flatter myself to say I have a "signature look," then Converse All-Stars are an integral part of it. I love Chuck Taylors. They are a classic of American design, up there with the Fender Stratocaster, the IBM Selectric typewriter, the Eames lounge chair, the Coca-Cola bottle, and those coffee mugs that have a slight hour glass figure to them--you know the ones. If there isn't a pair of Chucks in the Smithsonian, there damn well should be. Which is why it feels strange to write this with another brand of old-school canvas sneakers on my feet. Namely, PF Flyers.

I won't say that I liked Chucks before they were cool. These sneakers have been around, more or less unchanged, for close to a hundred years now. Obviously someone has been buying them all that time. But I did jump on the bandwagon when their popularity was at a relatively low ebb. Sure, Kurt Cobain had sported All-Stars, but for the most part, all the cool kids at the time were wearing Vans and Sketchers. The hip shoe stores at the mall (remember Journey's, everyone?) didn't sell Chucks. I think my mom and I finally found a pair at Mervyn's (remember Mervyn's everyone's mom?). Then a few years later, two things happened: Chucks got cool again, and Nike bought Converse in 2003.

In many ways, these were good things. More people buying Chucks meant they were easier to find. This paired with Nike's deep pockets, meant more variety in styles and colors available. Not that I ever strayed very far from classic black, but it was nice to know the option was there. Chucks are pretty well ubiquitous now, and that's all to the good.

But something else happened to Chucks post-Nike buyout: the started to get crappier.

Being sneakers made of vulcanized rubber and canvas, Converse All-Stars were never the sort of shoes you were going to pass down to your grandkids. They were meant to be worn hard and then tossed. But over the years, I've watched the lifespan of a typical pair of Chucks get shorter and shorter. Used to, you could wear them for about a year before they gave up the ghost. For the last decade or so, it has seemed I am lucky to get six months out of them--still not too bad. But the last few pairs I've purchased have started to crap out at around the three month mark. The bottom soles on the two pairs currently in my possession started to separate from the rest of the shoe about 90 days after I took them out of the box, producing an infuriatingly loud squeak when walking on hard surfaces and making me look like a cartoon hobo in the process. The Chuck Taylors of 2017 may look more or less like the Chuck Taylors of 1957 or 1997, but since the Nike buyout, they are pale imitations. (Some diehard Chuck fans date the beginning of the decline to 1993, when Converse switched from all cotton canvas to a blend of cotton and synthetic fibers; if that's true, I missed the heyday by a couple years.)

It seems to me that not only are the shoes not made as well as they once were, they're also less comfortable, though I'm willing to admit that I might just be getting old. And while adjusted for inflation, they're about the same price as they were back when I got my first pair, when you think about the dip in quality and the fact that those old Converse were made in America, they're starting to feel a little like a rip off.

So when it came time to replace my worn out Chucks with a new pair this time around--I didn't. Instead, I took the plunge and ordered a pair of PF Flyers.

The PF Flyer name has been owned by several companies over the years, and was recently revived. The new shoes were based on patterns from the past, giving them a pedigree more or less as pure as Chucks. They've even got a Sandlot model, patterned after the all-black PF Flyers that Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez wears to retrieve the signed Babe Ruth baseball from The Beast. I went with the "Center Lo" in classic black and white.

When the arrived, they looked . . . really weird. They're not quite identical to Chucks and my eyes were so used to All-Stars, that these just looked off. They're wider in the toe area and the soles are chunkier. At first, I kind of hated them. But they were pretty comfortable out of the box, and I didn't want to mess with sending them back.

Chucks on the Left, PF Flyers on the Right. Side-by-side, they both look weird to me now.

It's now been a little over a week since I got the PF Flyers, and I'm digging them. They seem to fit me better than Chucks do, and so far are more comfortable than I can remember my All-Stars ever being. The weirdness has worn off; they look normal to me now. The only gripe I have is that the opening is rather large and they sometimes feel like they're going to slip on my heel, but they don't, and I'm getting used to it.

Will PF Flyers replace Chucks as my go-to shoes? I don't know. I'll have to see how they hold up over the long haul. But so far, I'm thinking that they just might. Which makes me a little sad, honestly. Maybe it's silly to get sentimental over a brand of shoes, but I've walked many miles in Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars. And what's more, they're something of a symbol for both mainstream and counterculture America in a way that no other sneaker--no other article of clothing--ever will be. I hate to admit that such an American institution may have outlived it's usefulness.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Review: Family Plot

Note: This blog post contains spoilers for a 41-year-old movie. You have been warned.

With Family Plot, Alfred Hitchock ended his career not with a bang, but with a wry chuckle. After the daring and disturbing Frenzy, Hitch was in the mood for some lighter fare, and Family Plot, a cat-and-mouse dark crime comedy, certainly fits the bill. It's relatively minor Hitchcock, but not without considerable charms.

The (family) plot concerns two couples: a sham psychic and her actor-turned-cab-driver-turned-ersatz-private-eye boyfriend, and a pair of kidnapping jewel thieves. The screenplay was written by Ernest Lehman, who also wrote the Hitchcock classic North by Northwest, and some of the witty sex-charged banter of that film makes its way into Family Plot, though much more explicitly that was allowed by the censors of 1959. Family Plot was based on a novel called The Rainbird Pattern, which I have never read, but which Pat Hitchock (Alfred's daughter--you may remember her as the secretary in Psycho who is not Janet Leigh) informs me via the  DVD special features, that it is quite different than the film it inspired. The book's tone is deadly serious, whereas the movie, though not without the trademark Hitchock suspense, is light. In the novel, Madam Blanche has real psychic powers; in the movie, she's a phony. And the novel is set in the English countryside, whereas Family Plot has been transplanted to southern California. It's this last change that works the least well.

One of the main (family) plot* threads is that an elderly woman, the last in line in an old-money family, hires Madam Blanche to find the long-lost son of her younger sister. You see, forty years earlier, the sister became pregnant out of wedlock and was forced to give the baby up lest a scandal ensue. The baby was whisked away in the night, by the family chauffeur. We later learn the child was given to a local couple who had suffered multiple miscarriages. However, the couple died in a house fire twenty-five years before the events of the film, and the son may have as well--or did he? There is one person in the world who knows the true identity of the child, the local parson who baptized the baby before he was given away.

Now, does this sound like Southern California in the 1970s? It does not. It sounds like the sort of story that would take place in . . . the English countryside, which, as I mentioned, is where the novel is set. However, I don't think that this is too much of a problem. Family Plot is clearly not trying to be a deadly serious documentary, and the transplanted plot serves to give the movie a cozy, otherworldly feel that works in a strange sort of way.

So, Madam Blanche and her taxi-driving boyfriend George are trying to track down the Rainbird heir. What about the jewel  thieves?

William DeVane plays Arthur Adamson, a smooth-talking jeweler who has a side business as a kidnapper. He and his inamorata Fran (Karen Black) have been kidnapping high-profile middle-aged men (an out-of-the-box demographic to kidnap, when you think about it) and demanding ridiculously large diamonds as ransom. And apparently it's going quite well!

These two plot threads at first seem to have nothing to do with one another, and watching them converge over the first third of the movie is one of the delights of the film.

That's all I'll say about the (family) plot. I fear I've spilled too many beans as it is. Let's discuss the performances, shall we?

Okay, let's.

Blanche Tyler is played by Barbara Harris, and she steals the show. The scenes in which she conducts seances for her gullible, wealthy clients are worth the price of admission. Opposite Harris' Blanche is National Treasure Bruce Dern as her boyfriend and co-conspirator George, a Bruce Dern-esque cab driver who spends the movie poking around in things he shouldn't and tapping ash out of his pipe in inappropriate places. The chemistry between the two is great and their arguments are comedic high points. DeVane is appropriately smooth and sleazy as Adamson, and though Karen Black is excellent as Fran, it's a shame she wasn't given more to do. She does cut a striking figure decked out in all black (including a bitchin' 1970s floppy hat) and a blonde wig, however.

Hitchock's direction is, of course, as close to perfect as is humanly possible, and there are several beautifully constructed shots that make you wish more modern filmmakers would do something half as stylish from time to time. I'm thinking of a great cat-and-mouse chase between Bruce Dern and a recently widowed character in an overgrown cemetery. And then there's the edge-of-your-seat sequence when Blanche and George careen down twisting mountain roads without aid of brakes.

One particularly Hitchockian moment occurs early in the film. To this point, we've only been introduced to the Blanche/George (family) plot line. The two are in the car, discussing their game plan for finding the Rainbird heir, when a woman steps out in front of their car. George slams on the brakes, utters something Bruce Dern-y, and then we cut to an overhead shot. The woman walks on, and we follow her into a nearby police station. The woman is Karen Black's Fran, and she's going to the police station to pick up the ransom. It's a perfect way to segue between the two (family) plots. And one cannot help but think of the famous shot in Psycho when Marion sees her boss crossing the street in front of her car after she's stolen the money. (See also: Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames in Pulp Fiction.)

One last thing: the score was written by John Williams, and is excellent, in a great 1970s sort of way. Lots of harpsichord and synth in there.

In conclusion, Family Plot isn't essential Hitchcock, but it is a lot of fun. Definitely worth checking out, if you haven't seen it, and worth another watch if you have.


*Yes, I'm going to do this every time.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

"The Ring of Truth" Now Available

My short story "The Ring of Truth" is available now in the June 2017 issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine.

Read an enticing excerpt and buy the digital version here. Or go to Amazon and purchase the print edition here.