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.

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Chuckles72
Chuckles72
9 months ago

Ah yes. My mom still talks about how terrifying this was – although she really focused on part III – the Zuni doll. I remember that we had some of these pacific island coconut mask things hanging on the walls – part of the whole tiki 70s decor thing – and those things came down immediately! Years later I found them hanging in my grandma’s garage (???). My mom still liked “apple head dolls” though, which I was pretty sure were WAY more possessed than those masks,

Caffeinated Joe
9 months ago

For awhile, pre-internet, I thought the Zuni doll segment was a whole film! Surprised when I was able to rewatch and it was part of a larger trilogy. Still so well done, when it could have turned out so cheesy!

Chuckles72
Chuckles72
9 months ago

BTW – Amelia is clearly a crap cook.

Spoilers follow!!!

Why she is a crap cook
At the end of Part III, Amelia whizzes the Zuni doll into her oven. We see from inside the oven, where she has a steak cooking in there. In mere seconds, the Zuni doll bursts into flames! I mean, cooking a steak in the oven is ok to get it up to temp before searing – but she must have had that oven at 600 degrees! What the hey?

Ghastly1
Ghastly1
9 months ago

I love Trilogy of Terror. I feel fortunate that I got to meet Karen Black at Chiller Theatre in New Jersey in 2003, right around the time House of 1000 Corpses came out. She was really nice; she actually took the time to talk to me and one of the things we talked about was Trilogy of Terror and what it was about Amelia that really stuck with everybody. I always felt that what unsettled everyone about it was the regression to a bestial state that came through in that lingering shot of Amelia at the end. She said that is what she was trying to convey. That is also what scared me about Regan’s look in The Exorcist. Chucky doesn’t have the same force as He Who Kills because he looks non-threatening, even goofy; like Dee Snider said step on him, it’s over. He Who Kills on the other hand definitely isn’t cherubic; he looks terrifying, he is all business; there are no jokes and wise cracks coming out of his mouth.