Monday, September 30, 2013
This review was originally published on Earcandymag.com in 2006. R.I.P. Karen Black.
Made for TV movies from the 1970s were fertile ground for schlock, horror and the occasional eccentric masterpiece. From Linda Blair being raped with a broom handle in Born Innocent to Bad Ronald to occult movies like Satan's School For Girls and Race With the Devil, made for TV movies have earned a fond place in the hearts of pop culture geeks.
One of the most notorious made for TV horror movies wasn't a full film, but the last story in Trilogy Of Terror, a 1975 film produced by Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis and starring quirky, underrated screen icon Karen Black. Ms. Black has appeared in some legendary films (Five Easy Pieces, The Great Gatsby, Easy Rider), but one of her most offbeat and gripping roles co-starred a wild-eyed Zuni fetish doll, not an actor.
The first two segments of Trilogy of Terror dim by comparison to the final one. The introductory vignette, Julie, casts Black as a prim and proper college English teacher who has an affair with one of her students, (played by Robert Burton, Black's husband at the time.) For most of the story, the student is a blackmailing date rapist and Julie is the victim, but there's a macabre twist at the end.
Millicent and Therese features Black in a dual role as sisters. The repressed Millicent chronicles the sins of evil, slutty sister Therese in her diary. The physical transformation Black achieves as Millicent is amazing, one of the most extreme examples of the spinster ever committed to film. These episodes, written by William Nolan, who later co-wrote Burnt Offerings, (which also starred Black), are taut but predictable psychological horror.
While both of these stories were passable entertainment in 1975, they wouldn't even merit a blink now. The final story in the trilogy, adapted for the screen by Richard Matheson from his story, Prey, is the crème de la crème of made for TV horror, and one of Black's most infamous roles. Amelia begins with Black on the phone with her annoying mother, describing a Zuni fetish doll she's just bought for her anthropologist boyfriend. And this is one angry, fugly doll. I doubt all the CGI experts at today's studios could conjure up such a demonic doll, even with all the technical shortcuts at their disposal. A modern-day icon like Chuckie pales in comparison to our Zuni friend. The tiny terror, equipped with a spear and razor-sharp teeth, comes with a scroll that warns the warrior's soul will escape if the chain around its waist is removed. You guessed it, Amelia walks away for a minute and when she returns the chain has fallen off and the doll is nowhere to be found. It reappears reanimated and ready to slice and dice hapless Amelia. The manic fight between Amelia and the doll that follows is one of the most frightening sequences in any horror film released in the 1970s. Hell, ask anyone who watched Trilogy Of Terror when it was first broadcast and they'll tell you about the sleepless night that followed. The chilling final shot, where Amelia has assumed the spirit-and the sharp-toothed pose-of the Zuni doll as she waits for her mother to arrive, was not in the original script. In the featurette, Three Colors Black, we learn that Black suggested the ending, fangs and all. An interview with writer Richard Matheson and a full audio commentary track for the film by Black and William F. Nolan are included as special features.