Friday, October 24, 2014

Shocktober Review: Trilogy of Terror

 The Cap'n was a little young for Dark Shadows, so for the most part my only experience with the long running horror soap opera was through reruns on The Sci-Fi Channel (back when it was called that) and maybe USA. It seems like I saw it before The Sci-Fi Channel existed, but I know that it was always in the early afternoon and that I rarely caught every episode in a given week. My experience with it tended to include some member of the Collins family being pulled back in time (the Salem witch trials run stands out in my mind) and then being sidelined / imprisoned so the show could immediately begin telling the soap opera lives of their ancestors, often not involving monsters. It led me to pick up a tape called "The Scariest Moments from Dark Shadows," which was (no joke), a 60 minute compilation of monster reveal scenes with no sense of context whatsoever.

 All of this is to give you some sense of context that the name Dan Curtis doesn't mean to me what it did to a generation younger than the Cap'n. Uber producer and director, on an intellectual level I know he's responsible for Dark Shadows, The Night Stalker and Night Strangler, both House and Night of Dark Shadows movies, and that he adapted Bram Stoker's Dracula with Jack Palance. I know this, and his role as producer and director is well known, if you're just a little bit older than I am. As a result, I've long known Trilogy of Terror, and I'm positive I've seen it, but I'd never associated Curtis with the anthology of stories. Watching it again, it's funny, because he directed the whole thing, cast Karen Black to appear in all three stories (playing four characters), and brought in William F. Nolan (Logan's Run, Burnt Offerings) to adapt three Richard Matheson stories.

 The end result, as anthologies often are, is mixed. While I'm fond of the movie overall, there's no arguing that two of them barely muster "terror." Two of them are kind of conventional stories, one - "Julie" - about a student (Robert Burton) who seduces and later blackmails his teacher (Black), only to find he's in over his head. The other - "Millicent and Therese" is about a pair of sisters (both Black) who are at odds after the death of their father, but is there more to their rivalry than it seems? The final segment - "Amelia" - is probably the most well known, as it features Karen Black at the titular character being stalked by a Zuni fetish doll in her apartment. It easily has the most energy and comes the closest to being suspenseful / terrifying, if sometimes amusing as a result of the noise the doll makes.

 Maybe I give Trilogy of Terror too much grief - we are talking about a made-for-TV horror anthology from 1975. It's not as though it's any more or less tame than an episode of Night Gallery or some (emphasis on "some") of the Amicus films. In order to get more specific, I'll have to venture into SPOILER territory, specifically about "Julie" and "Millicent and Therese." Continue accordingly.

 While I chuckle at the Zuni fetish doll (or, rather, the low-fi way Curtis and company bring it to life), "Amelia" is easily the best segment and the closest that comes to horror. "Julie" is, technically speaking, about a serial killer, although there's a bit of bait and switch about how she "implants" the idea of pursuing a teacher into Chad (Burton)'s head. I honestly thought it was heading in a supernatural direction, but nope, Ms. Eldritch just lures students in, lets them think they're in control, and then murders them when she gets bored. It seems like a horrible idea to have a scrapbook filled with nothing but articles about college students who died under mysterious circumstances, but that's how Curtis, Nolan (and, I guess, Matheson) wanted to end it.

 "Millicent and Therese" is horror / terror in the most tertiary sense - Millicent accuses Therese of using witchcraft and being a demon, and then kills her with voodoo magic. The only problem is that it's abundantly clear that since we never, ever seen them occupy the same space that Millicent IS Therese. Possibly this wasn't as easy to guess forty years ago, but it's not exactly subtle in foreshadowing, and by the time Millicent's doctor (George Gaynes) interacts with both of them (separately), it's easy to figure out the "twist." Split personalities makes for an interesting challenge for Karen Black, but it's hardly terrifying.

 That said, Karen Black is easily the main draw of Trilogy of Terror - in the span of 71 minutes, she plays four completely different types of characters and never draws attention to the gimmick of having one actress headline the entire anthology. She's so different in behavior, in delivery, and in body language from one segment to the next that it's easy to overlook the shortcomings of the rest of the movie. "Amelia" is essentially a one woman show, and she sells the fact that a mostly stationary doll is stalking and violently attacking her. When it bites her neck, the moment should be patently ridiculous, but instead it's quite tense. Black even makes the ending, which could be laughably bad in less capable hands, ominous.

 I'm a sucker for anthologies, even ones that barely qualify as horror, and Trilogy of Terror delivers just enough and doesn't overstay its welcome. Yes, Chad is possibly the most loathsome protagonist (?) you're going to see in any horror movie, but it's nice when he gets his. The second segment is at least atmospheric, if not very predictable. For a TV movie, the production values are pretty good. And, again, Karen Black is the main draw here, and she goes for broke to elevate Trilogy of Terror beyond just another TV movie. You can find creepier, or more violent, but for entertainment value, Trilogy of Terror is just the kind of anthology to put on for friends at a Halloween party.

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