Kindertrauma Classics:: Trilogy of Terror (1975)

Trilogy of Terror is an anthology horror film created for television that premiered on the night of March 4th, 1975 on the ABC network. The telefilm contains three distinct tales based on short stories written by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Hell House), features multiple performances by award winning actress Karen Black (Burnt Offerings, House of 1,000 Corpses) and is directed by the legendary Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, The Night Strangler). At this point in his career Curtis had produced the highest rated original television film of all time, The Night Stalker (1972).

Trilogy of Terror’s first story entitled “Julie” concerns an introverted English teacher named Julie Eldridge who finds herself the focus of her student Chad’s sexual fantasies. Against her better judgment she agrees to a date with him to a drive-in movie. Unbeknownst to her, Chad spikes her root beer with narcotics that render her unconscious and takes her to a local motel where he photographs and takes advantage of her. Afterwards Chad utilizes the photos of a compromised Julie to begin a sadistic campaign of blackmail and humiliation against her. Unfortunately (yet karmatically appropriate) for Chad, Julie is not quite the vulnerable pushover she seems.

“Millicent and Therese” features two sisters at a crossroads in their relationship (both played by Black). Millicent is a dowdy spinster while Therese is a flashy blonde troublemaker who enjoys seduction, Satanism, witchcraft and (to both of their future detriment) voodoo. The two could not be more different but we come to find, are more alike than either realizes.

The final yarn “Amelia” is easily the most vividly remembered. Amelia is a young woman who has recently secured an apartment in order to gain independence from a smothering mother. She’s even found a boyfriend, an Anthropology teacher who is sure to appreciate the gift she has purchased him, an 8-inch Zuni fetish doll. The hideous figurine comes complete with a sharp spear, teeth a piranha would envy and a scroll chained to it declaring it “He Who kills”. The scroll also warns that removal of the chain would set the spirit of the Zuni warrior trapped within free. What could possibly go wrong?

The first two segments are wonderfully crafted capsules of suspense and intrigue but it is undoubtedly the third “Amelia” that has spurred many a check under the bed and many a sleepless night. The somber dread and Twilight Zone-flavored twists of the first two installments should never be undervalued though, as they brilliantly work as a covert springboard to propel the third act into the chaotic heights of frenzied terror it achieves. The Zuni doll is a horror icon and is so because of incredibly creative camera work, intuitive puppetry and the massively pervasive musical prompting of long long-time Curtis cohort Bob Cobert. When the little Zuni devil is inevitably released from its binding, shadow play, disturbing sound effects, POV camera angles and everything but the kitchen sink (including the oven) collaborates to make this impossible imp ferociously alive.

On the other hand, no special effect or camera trick is as instrumental or persuasive as actress Karen Black. She skillfully inhabits several roles in this production but as Amelia, the authentic terror she emotes is infectious and impossible to deny. By her account, Black also contributed heartily to the segment’s impossible to forget final image.

Why is the Zuni doll so effectively scary? Maybe the anxiety of repercussions for not respecting another culture’s beliefs is involved. Perhaps it’s an intuitive primal panic of the herculean damage diminutive wild beasts can cause. Or is it the trepidation every child has felt looking at a beloved toy after dark and sensing it might somehow come to life? Whatever it is, Trilogy of Terror taps a worry and it taps it well and good.

Trilogy of Terror was an instant hit with both critics and television viewers. Its impact was immediate and profound and it inspires spoofs and winking references to this day. According to actress Karen Black, the TV movie’s impact was enough to forever alter the course of her career. Ongoing interest was strong enough to inspire a sequel decades later that was again helmed by Curtis entitled Trilogy of Terror II (1996). This incarnation featured a trio of performances by actress Lysette Anthony rather than Karen Black but again the cinematic triptych’s highest point boasted the infamous Zuni menace. The popular Child’s Play/Chucky franchise and ongoing Puppet Master series owes much gratitude as would perhaps any horror movie that involves pint-sized threats. The reach of “He Who Kills” is far, wide and ever growing.  

Trilogy of Terror is a class “A” traumatizer of legendary proportions. The jewel in its crown, the Zuni fetish doll, is a gift that keeps on giving and a TV-born monster for the ages.

Name That Trauma:: Juan M. on a Hand Blender Threat

I saw this scene or part of this scene back in the early ’90s or before, when I was a kid (I was probably 6,7 or 8 y.o).

This is more or less what I remember from the scene: There is a girl that is attacked by 3 or 4 guys, probably in her kitchen. I am not sure if the guys take off her clothes or if the girl was already topless. I don’t remember actually seeing her breasts, but in the next shot of the scene, one of the guy threatened her with a hand blender. I remember that the camera focused on the blades of the blender as it is moved closer to her chest. Don’t remember how the scene ends.

Could be that the girl was the girlfriend of some guy and these guys were rivals of the boyfriend. For some reason, I think it was some kind of revenge or trying to get information. I also think that the boyfriend was in the house.

I know is not much information about the movie, but that is all what I remember.

Name That Trauma:: Wendy J. on an Ageing Lady Portrait

I am trying to think of a scary movie made in either the late ’70s or early ’80s. All I can remember is there is a young beautiful lady who is cursed and even though she looks young in the mirror, there is a painting of her down the hall that keeps aging. Eventually, she turns into this old lady in a black dress and dies. I remember she is blonde and I remember the house is old and there’s a long hall and a big room with the painting in it. It scared me so much when I was little. It’s not Dorian Gray because it’s a lady.

Can anyone help? I’ve looked all over!

Name That Trauma:: Dan Trashcan on Nuclear Meltdown & Anti-Smoking PSAs

A friend of mine told me about a PSA that spooked him, but fully traumatized his younger sister when they were kids, so I had to send it along. Here’s the info: “It aired in the late ‘80s, I think it was on either public access or PBS. It was some anti-nuclear power short film with really low production values. It specifically centered around a meltdown at the Seabrook Power Plant and some guy who worked there. When the meltdown happened he went home and his wife was a skeleton who yelled at him. I’ve looked all around for it” Considering the regional, low budget nature of this, seems like a slim chance of anyone else knowing about it, but you never know.

Also, this is a separate thing but definitely related. A notorious PSA from NYC was considered lost by lost media types but just showed up on youtube in November. I don’t think there was ever a name that trauma about it but I know I’ve seen it show up in the comments on other PSA posts before. I had heard about it in college from a professor who said it was pulled cuz it was disturbing too many kids. Frankly, that, and the description that my Prof gave had me visualizing much more haunting and disturbing. I know in movies and stuff, kindertraumas often lose their punch, but I”ve never felt that way about PSAs….they usually live up to their reputation…like that f*cking heroin monkey! YIKES.

Traumafession:: James Lewis of LARPing Real Life on Reflections of Murder (’74)

The Frankenstein Monster, submerged in a bathtub, slowly emerges from the water and sits bolt upright. Its hair is matted to its squared-off skull. The dark, half moons of its dead eyes are rolled back in their sockets. It steps out of the tub, dripping water on the floor, and towers over a cowering woman in a white gown…

I have carried that image in my mind for as long as I can remember. I’m fifty years old now, and I can recall being terrified by it as a child of five. For 40+ years, I had no idea where that image came from or why it’s played on a never-ending loop in my head. Unable to track down its source, I’d come to accept the possibility that there was no movie, no TV show from which it came. It was just something my five-year-old brain invented, something it created to deal with some real life fears, perhaps. As a last ditch effort, I thought I would reach out to the Kindertrauma crew with a “Name That Trauma” post. It couldn’t hurt, right?

Before I could pen that post, however, the universe figured it had tortured me enough and decided to cut me a break. By chance recently, I caught sight of a video thumbnail on YouTube that stopped me dead in my tracks. There it was. THERE IT WAS! The very image that had haunted me all my life. The exact image! Feelings of excitement and relief swept over me…as well as a sense of confusion. It seems that the Frankenstein Monster of my nightmares was really…Sam Waterston?

The source of my lifelong trauma is a made-for-TV movie called Reflections of Murder. A remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 classic suspense film Les Diaboliques, Reflections of Murder aired on ABC in November of 1974 (when I was three!). It was written by Carol Sobieski, who also wrote The Toy (1982), Annie (1982) and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), and directed by John Badham, who would go on to direct feature films like Saturday Night Fever (1977), Dracula (1979), Blue Thunder (1983), and WarGames (1983). Starring opposite Sam Waterston and completing the movie’s love triangle are Tuesday Weld and Joan Hackett.

I hit play on Reflections of Murder as soon as I saw that thumbnail, but I don’t know if my viewing was a watch or a rewatch. Though my mother and father were as lax as most 70s parents when it came to my TV-watching habits, I doubt that they would have let me watch the picture with them in 1974. I can only imagine that I saw the image of Sam Waterston in the tub in a commercial, and it stuck, shambling after me my whole life like a Romero zombie. Many years later, I saw Les Diabolques, and when Paul Meurisse as Michel rises up out of his own tub of water, I had the feeling that it was familiar, but the camera angles were somehow all wrong. He sat up on the right side of the screen, looking left; my Frankenstein Monster looked to the right. Little details, sure, but they were big differences to my memory.

So how did reliving the source of my childhood nightmares go? When Sam Waterston emerges from the bathtub to surprise his wife, I have to admit to being a tad underwhelmed, but not by much. It’s hard not to compare and contrast it to the same scene in Les Diaboliques. The distorting effect of the water does much to contort Waterston’s face as he sits up. The scleral lenses he wears also give him the dead eyes of Boris Karloff’s Monster from Frankenstein. While Clouzot and company kept their scene silent musically speaking, Billy Goldenberg, who also wrote the music for such made-for-TV movies as Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), Helter Skelter (1976), and This House Possessed (1981) uses shrieking violins and skittering strings to punch up the proceedings in Reflections of Murder. There’s a very Psycho-like feel to all of it. While Goldberg’s score works in the context of the film, I prefer the silence in Les Diabolique. It allows the wife’s groaning as she dies of a heart attack and the water dripping off the husband as he stands in the tubs to take center stage.

When all is said and done, however, I have to say that Reflections of Murder is a pretty darn good little thriller. While perhaps lacking in the black-and-white moodiness of the French original, Reflections of Murder’s setting and muted, 1970s color palette does create a unique sense of gloomy atmosphere all of their own. The entire picture, with its rainy locale, spooky schoolhouse, and falling leaves, has a wonderful, autumnal quality to it. Compared to other made-for-TV movies of the 1970s (and we’re talking the Golden Age of MFTVMs), I think it more than holds its own and is well worth checking out.

I am also very pleased to have finally solved my little mystery. For a while there I was really doubting myself. I was thinking this was my own personal, one-man Mandela Effect. Instead, I have a fun story to tell and a new film I can recommend to people.

Now…if I can just prove to the world that it’s “Berenstein” and not “Berenstain”…

-James Lewis of LARPing Real Life