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.