Dan Curtis and Richard Matheson pretty much ruled 1970s made for TV horror. But when you throw in Karen Black and a memorable miniature villain, you’re left with pure nightmare fuel for 70s kids. Sure, we can endure all sorts of gore and doom now, but on March 4, 1974, the ABC Movie of the Week was about to give you all sorts of bad dreams.
STORY 1: Julie
Chad (Robert Burton, then-husband of the delicious Ms. Black) has it bad for his English teacher, Julie Eldrich (hey, Karen Black is in this, did I mention that?). So much so that just the glimpse of her thigh can make him totally forget all about class and fill his mind with daydreams. His friends don’t get it — his buddy Eddie says she’s ugly. But that won’t stop Chad, who watches Julie undress through her window before he asks her out to the drive-in.
But Chad’s a creep. Instead of just being happy about getting her to go out with him, he roofies her at the drive-in (The Night Stalker is playing, as an easter egg for Dan Curtis fans), checks into a motel and takes all manner of sexually provocative photos of her. Yep. This is a TV movie playing during prime time — the 70s were fucking nuts.
Chad gets what he wants — a blackmailed Julie who will do whatever he wants. Until a few weeks later, she announces that the game is over. Julie’s been a power bottom all along, setting the whole thing up. “Did you really think that dull, little mind of yours could possibly have conceived any of the rather dramatic experiences we’ve shared? Why do you think you suddenly had the overwhelming desire to see what I looked like under ‘all those clothes?’ Don’t feel bad… I always get bored after a while,” she says before poisoning him and setting his darkroom on fire. She adds his obituary to a scrapbook but there’s no time to rest. Another suitor has already shown up…
STORY 2: Millicent and Therese
Millicent is a brunette prude. Therese is a blonde minx. They’re sisters — both played by Karen Black — and it’ll take you all of ten minutes to figure out the truth. This is a common portmanteau trope, but be patient. This film is about to get awesome.
STORY 3: Amelia
This is a tour de force for Black, who is all alone for the entire story, playing Amelia. Cursed with a mother who questions everything she does and hunted by a Zuni warrior trapped inside a doll, she owns the screen. You may question — well how scary is a little tribal warrior doll going to be? You’ve obviously never seen this. From stabbing Black in the ankles to surviving all manner of damage — even being burned alive in the oven — the Zuni doll is the image that dominates this film and is what most remember it for. The twist ending — back before the “what a twist!” M. Night Shyamalan-style ending got stale — is a great payoff.
Black added a lot of herself to the final story, rewriting much of her dialogue. Sadly, she ended up feeling Trilogy of Terror typecast her for the rest of her career. She never intended to be known as a horror actress. I guess that’s a shame, but she really excelled in every role in every fright fest she appeared in.
Curtis made a new Trilogy of Terror in 1996, even bringing back the Zuni doll. I’ve never seen it — something that I feel I should remedy soon. If you haven’t seen this yet, please stop reading B & S About Movies and come back once you’ve done your homework. Thank you!