As someone who’s fascinated by how popular horror was in the 70’s, I’ve long wanted to take a deep dive into the television horror movies of the era. It’s one thing for horror to have been a hit at the cinemas and bookstores, but TV is the ostensibly “safer” and more “family friendly” entertainment guest you invite into your home1 It brought you the programming you watched in your living room with the spouse and kiddos. Shows often intended to make you laugh, sometimes intended to make you think, and other times, especially in the extended wake of the success of Rosemary’s Baby, meant to frighten you.
Before I could ever do a “deep dive” into the halcyon days of TV-horror flicks, I would have to start with some of the most well known movies of that era, bobbing on the surface. And one of these stand-outs–at least in the memories of those who saw it when they were younger–is Trilogy of Terror. Similar to how some folks closer to my generation have such fond / scarring memories of the original It mini-series that they shut down any criticism of it that they come across2, some people of earlier generations might have blood-rose-tinted glasses on when looking back on how scary and effective Trilogy of Terror is as a whole. Or maybe they’re just primarily remembering the final sequence of the anthology film, which may indeed be worthy of the hype, especially when considering when and how it was released.
Trilogy of Terror is a portmanteau film, as the Brits would call it, featuring three unrelated stories connected only by the fact that Karen Black stars as a different lead character in each of them. She does a decent-enough job in the first, although it’s hard to gauge how well she’s acting when she isn’t given all that much to do in that dud of a first segment. More on that in a bit. The second segment gives her more to chew on and she takes advantage of that, even though the twist seems like it would have been painfully obvious even in 1975. In the third story she’s reduced mostly to a more classically distressed woman in a horror flick, until the last shots, when she gives all she needs to give to a flat out excellent moment.
The film opens with its weakest effort, making it fairly remarkable that anyone stuck around to see what came next. “Julie,” the first story, is about a dowdy college professor named Julie who inexplicably catches the attention of old-ass college student Chad, played by Robert Burton. Burton was 29 at the time but I swear he looks like he’s the slightly younger brother of Robert Urich from his Spenser for Hire days, and Urich was entering his 40’s when that series started.
Anyway, we’re introduced to the definitely 30-something Chad as he’s disparaging the women on campus for being ugly. “Dogs” he calls them. So, you know, charming guy. But then Julie walks past, all classically frumpy in the style of “a beautiful woman with her hair up and glasses on is suddenly unattractive,” featured in many movies and television shows. For some reason, Chad suddenly wonders what she’d look like under all those unfashionable clothes. No reason at all, the thought just popped in there. He says as much, after he’s done imagining her asleep and in bed as he approaches her, less “Sleeping Beauty fantasy” and more “drugged and assaulted fantasy.”
Which is exactly what happens later, so again, what a gentleman this Chad is. In fairness, the movie doesn’t even remotely present this as anything less than deplorable, criminal, and worthy of fatal comeuppance. Maybe it reflects a prejudice I have against people of the past, but I’m always slightly, pleasantly surprised when a movie from several decades ago treats a “sneaky” sexual assault as a heinous thing as opposed to an example of a dude outwitting a chick. Nope, Chad’s just an awful person who also photographed his assault and uses that to blackmail Julie into more non-consensual sex.
But then, completely out of nowhere, comes the twist. Julie actually set all this up from the jump, but has now grown bored with Chad, and he’s not the first young man she’s done this to. See, she made Chad start thinking about her when he previously hadn’t found her attractive. How? No explanation given. Absolutely none. Is she a witch? A vampire? A scientist who concocted a love potion? A mesmerist? Nope. At least not so far as we can tell. In the short story this segment is adapted from, the implication that Julie has some kind of mental power is much clearer. It’s still not Richard Matheson’s best, by any means, but you won’t be surprised to know his execution of the story on the page is much better than what appears on the small screen. From what we see in the adaptation, she was able to do what she did just…because. It makes a boring story feel like lazy one. Anyway, you’ll be happy to know she kills Chad.
On to “Millicent and Therese,” adapted from Matheson’s story “A Needle in the Heart,” a very, very short tale that is not built to support even a ten-minute television retelling, much less the twenty minutes or thirty minutes or nine hours or however much time was devoted to this interminable segment, saved only Karen Black’s turn as the second of her split personalities, Therese.
Oh, I just let the twist out of the bag. Millicent and Therese, “sisters” who hate each other enough to drive one of them to murder, are actually the same person. You could probably tell this immediately when watching because they’re both played by Karen Black, never appear on screen together3, and Therese is wearing the most obvious wig this side of a 17th-Century noble. Louis the XIV would tell her, “That’s a lot of wig. Maybe scale it back a bit.”
This is basically the entire story, which, again, is super-short on paper. As in two-and-a-half whole pages long. It’s probably a flash-fiction piece, in fact, though I’m not going to count the words to declare that officially. It feels like a throwaway story. Something Matheson put on the page just to get it out of his brain to free space for better things, and managed to sell because who’s going to turn down a story from Richard Matheson? Still, even in 1969 when it was first published, the surprise “multiple personalities” twist ending was already over 80-years-old courtesy of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
But if you power through those two stories you get rewarded with the last segment, “Amelia,” the one the Trilogy is remembered for. There’s a reason why you first see images of the Zuni fetish doll when you search for Trilogy of Terror. You’d have to dig deeper to find Chad or of Milicent’s doctor removing the wig from her dead body. The latest Blu-ray release goes so far as to spoil the film’s only good twist, coming from this segment, right there on the cover. Fortunately no one except stubborn Luddites like me bothers with old tech like Blu-ray discs anymore.
Anyway, this is a super simple story done exceptionally well. Watching it was a a marvel. It was like a completely different movie starring Karen Black had come on helmed by people who actually wanted to tell a great horror story. Unsurprisingly, it’s the one story in the film that Matheson directly adapted from his own work, instead of trusting someone else to adapt what he’d written.
It’s the one story I don’t even want to write much about because it deserves to be seen and, as it is with many shorter stories, it’s possibly more effective if you go into it as blindly as possible. I will say, however, that the effects hold up surprisingly well even 45-years later. It’s very easy to screw up a “killer doll comes to life” effect, but this segment wisely employs quick glimpses, perspective shots and the like to largely keep the doll from ever looking truly goofy.
“Amelia” really is an achievement, especially in the way it comes to its final, chilling images. It’s just a shame that this segment is attached to so much dead weight.
Final Verdict: If you see a review praising this movie as something special, or claiming this is one of the greatest made-for-TV horror flicks of all time, they’re really just talking about that final segment, which is genuinely good. The earlier segments, however, were commissioned by the gods of boredom to steal an hour of your soul. Do not fall for this trap. Watch “Amelia” only.
- Of course, once upon a time horror radio shows were a solid hit as well; we’ve always collectively been bigger fans of horror stories than many people realize, even in days gone by.
- I’m not exactly in that same lane; I was never that in love with the mini-series to begin with, partly thanks to my older brothers calling out some of its absurdities in real time as I watched it. Nowadays it’s very clear to me that Tim Curry’s performance is the redeeming factor and it has little else going for it.
- Even The Patty Duke Show and The Parent Trap had figured out how to pull that trick off a decade earlier–they weren’t even trying, here.