Black shines in Trilogy of Terror

Welcome to a month-long celebration of the horror genre!

Typically, Sawyer is the Agora’s go-to media critic, but I’ll be taking over. At least for this. So, continuing my love affair with that most polarizing of genres, we have our inaugural feature.

“Trilogy of Terror” was first broadcast as an ABC Movie of the Week on March 4, 1975. Directed by Dan Curtis, each installment in the anthology was adapted from one of Richard Matheson’s short stories. Karen Black stars as the main character in each tale.

As you might imagine, this makes “Trilogy of Terror” a vehicle for Matheson and Black. To my sensibilities, both come out the other side all the better for this.

Black especially shines, making each character she plays unique, engaging, and believable. I was consistently impressed, having previously only known her from a gag in the Family Guy episode “Death is a Bitch.” This film really is a testament to her skills as an actress.

Past this point lie spoilers. Turn back now if you don’t want them.

No titles greet the viewer. Instead, we’re thrust right into the main action with “Julie.”

Chad (Robert Burton) and a friend of his (Jim Storm) are scoping out coeds on campus. The real horror here is their overt sexism, declaring all the girls “dogs.” That is, until English professor Julie Eldrich (Black) walks past. Chad is smitten, and ponders aloud, “I wonder what she looks like under all those clothes?”

A real charmer, our Chad.

What follows is a series of rather uncomfortable scenes. Chad invites Julie to the drive-in to see a foreign-language film. He then proceeds to roofie her root beer, take suggestive pictures of her unconscious form on a motel bed, then use those to blackmail her into continuing their affair.

While Chad was merely a sexist pig before, he morphs into a domineering, controlling creep. Burton segues between them so naturally that the ending is a real surprise.

The blackmail goes on for a month before Julie has had enough. As Chad dies from a poisoned drink, Julie reveals that the entire thing was her doing. Ever since Chad had wondered what Julie looked like naked back on the first day, he hadn’t been acting under his own volition, and never even knew.

Black’s shift from the dowdy, reserved English professor to the cool, calm, and collected vamp in this scene is pitch perfect.

So Chad dies, and Julie covers it up. She later takes a newspaper clipping about his death and stores it in a scrapbook. Then a new student arrives, eager to get help on his homework. Julie ushers him into her office and smiles at him, assuring the young man that they’re going to be friends.

Oh, is that what they’re calling it these days?

It is unclear what Julie is supposed to be. By her admission that she more or less controlled Chad for the entirety of the story, she confirms she’s not human.

There’s no bloodletting in the story, which sits at odds with the “Dracula” references in the proceedings. The film at the drive-in was a vampire flick and when Chad checks into the motel he uses the alias of Jonathan Harker.

More than anything, this strikes me as being a tribute to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla”.

Julie herself, while framed vampirically, is ultimately more like a witch. It’s all there if one looks. Her magicking of Chad into a sexual pawn and the fact she keeps the newspaper clipping of his death smacks of a trophy, or perhaps more aptly, a totem. Something to draw power from. Very witchy.

“Millicent and Therese” is next, and what an interesting tale this is.

Millicent Lorimar’s getup immediately reminded me of the farmer’s wife in Grant Wood’s 1930 painting “American Gothic”. It’s perhaps better remembered as “the painting with the old folks and the pitchfork”.

Regardless, Millicent is codified by her appearance as, at the ripe old age of 26, a conservative religious spinster. You could easily mistake her for being in her late 40s or early 50s.

In stark contrast is Therese Lorimar, her older sister. Long blonde tresses of hair, low-cut tank tops, and orange Daisy Dukes are all she’s seen in. I was, quite honestly, put in the mind of a Hooters waitress when I looked at her.

All this will be important later.

The main thrust of the plot is Millicent’s enmity with the more libertine and aggressive Therese. Millicent alleges her sister to be evil, engaged in arcane occult practices such as voodoo and Satanism. Most galling of all, though, is her assertion that Therese raped their father.

As things unravel, Therese drives away the family doctor, a fellow called Ramsey (George Gaynes), and Millicent grows more and more determined to rid the world of her sister.

Ultimately, she is driven to an extreme and makes a voodoo doll of Therese. When Dr. Ramsey arrives the next day, he finds Therese dead in her bedroom.

Upon the paramedics’ arrival, he reveals the truth. The apparent murder was actually a suicide. Therese Millicent Lorimar’s split personality formed from immense guilt after she sexually assaulted her father following her mother’s death. This is why Therese was always dubbed the “older sister”.

Millicent was a dowdy, repressed spinster precisely because Therese felt that it was necessary to repent for her misdeed.

The whole thing is very akin to the original “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” story.

Once again, Black shines, making both personalities so distinct that when Therese appears, it’s easy to believe that it’s a new actress, and not Black in a blonde wig.

Image courtesy of absurd_hero on flickr.

“Amelia”, adapted by Matheson himself from his short story “Prey,” finishes things off.

This installment seems to draw influence from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lot No. 249 and legends of demonic possessions. The former was the earliest use of a vengeful mummy as a plot element in Western fiction and had a profound influence on horror in the 20th Century.

Amelia is a shy young woman who’s just gotten out on her own. Her domineering mother keeps trying to control her life, even attempting to force Amelia out of a date. That night is the birthday of Amelia’s current amour, an anthropologist.

For the occasion, Amelia’s purchased an authentic Zuni fetish doll. Allegedly, inside the wooden figure is the soul of a Zuni warrior. However, this will only occur if the gold chain around the doll’s midsection is removed.

Guess what spontaneously falls off the doll as soon as Amelia sets it down?

The build-up before the fetish doll’s first attack is truly nail-biting and has you either on the edge of or at the very back of your seat (the latter with a hand over your eyes). It was probably the only time during this film that I was genuinely frightened.

With the doll now armed with a butcher knife, a game of cat and mouse ensues. Amelia tries to call the police from her bedroom, but the doll manages to unlock the door and chase her into the bathroom. After an attempt to drown it in the bathtub fails, Amelia captures it in a suitcase.

However, she didn’t take the knife away from it, so it carves its way out and attacks her again. Finally, she burns it (alive?) in the oven. But upon opening the oven door, she screams, inhaling the smoke within, and collapses…

We next see Amelia in her bedroom, eerily calm. She tells her mother over the phones that she’d been wrong earlier, and insists that her mother come by for dinner. From there, she goes to rip the deadbolt off the front door. As she crouches before it, stabbing the floor with an enormous butcher knife, the camera pans in, revealing the doll’s needle-sharp teeth in Amelia’s mouth.

Black’s physicality is excellent here, portraying Amelia – or, rather, the Zuni spirit in Amelia’s body – utterly at odds with her demeanor in the rest of the piece. It really feels as if this is a hunter awaiting their prey.

All in all, I thought “Trilogy of Terror” was good, but more for Black’s performances than anything else.

The first two stories struck me as rather tepid as far as horror goes, while the third was the standout, being quite tense and having a solid ending.

The focus here is more on the twist in the tale, being adapted from stories intended for magazines and anthologies rather than tailor-made for television. These are different beasts to the modern stylings of horror.

It’s not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s perhaps not the horror most people are used to. These stories are certainly not “It” (more on that later) or even tomorrow’s film, “Poltergeist.” But they have their place.

Overall, I’m going to give “Trilogy of Terror”…

Three out of five skulls!