Sunday, September 07, 2008

Trilogy of Terror

TRILOGY OF TERROR (Amelia Episode)
Directed by Dan Curtis, USA, 1975, approx. 25 minutes (entire movie 72 minutes)

Arguably one of the most famous short horror films to come out of the 1970’s, Trilogy of Terror was powered by the writing of Richard Matheson (a prolific author and screenwriter who penned I am Legend among many other things), the directing of Dan Curtis (probably best known for his work with Dark Shadows), and the on-screen appearance of a murderous, sputtering, demon-possessed doll (some 13 years before “Chucky”).

Trilogy of Terror appeared on ABC for the first time in March 1975, and featured three original stories, all acted by Karen Black. The first two segments, entitled “Julie” and “Millicent and Therese,” while interesting and creepy, never quite generate the sense of explosive power of the final segment, “Amelia,” which features the aforementioned doll, specifically a Zuni hunting fetish doll which comes to life and stalks Black (Amelia) throughout her apartment. In this way, the first two episodes soften the audience up for the final act.

The story begins with Amelia at home with the fetish doll, a gift for her new boyfriend Arthur (an anthropology professor). Amelia calls her mom to break their usual Friday night date which displeases mom. Amelia, who reads out all we need to know about the doll through the phone (including the solemn warning to not let a gold chain about its waist break) then proceeds to set the expected in motion, when she sets the doll down, accidentally loosening the chain, as wanders off to take a shower. She comes back to find the doll missing, heads into the kitchen to discover one of the knives gone, and then eventually comes face to face with the angry demon doll, fully possessed and in full hunting spirit. Amelia tries a variety of methods (beating, drowning, stabbing) to dispatch the little indefatigable gremlin, but only manages to get rid of it when she chucks it into the oven. Problem is, the evil spirit is impervious to fire, which she discovers when she opens things up to check on the damage.

There’s an amazing sense of horror that the filmmakers are able to provoke with their limited ABC budget through the clever use of a claustrophobic set (we’re stuck in that apartment throughout), the aural effect of both Amelia’s screaming and the creature’s incessant growls, and a series of intense images. Among the latter are the dripping-wet doll clambering out of the bathtub with a knife securely tucked into its fangs, its kitchen knife flashing and probing under doorways, and the obligatory camera angles from a doll’s eye perspective chasing Amelia through her apartment. The most effective image, though, apparently suggested by Black herself, is the ending one. Amelia, who has been possessed by the evil hunting spirit, has called mom to come over to the apartment, and is patiently waiting in the middle of the darkened room. The camera slowly closes in on Amelia, who is crouched on the floor, stabbing a much larger kitchen knife into the floor again and again, until her face fills the frame. At this point, her mouth opens and the audience sees a fresh set of sharp, very familiar fangs.

The effect of this film is incalculable but significant - a short cruise through the IMDB or Amazon pages on Trilogy of Terror reveals a host of comments along the lines of “this film scared the bejesus out me as a kid and I’ve never forgotten it.” Amazon even offers a Zuni doll replica (for only $44!) to relive your favorite moments from the movie. While I don’t remember if I specifically saw this when it first came out, I actually remember quite well the school bus ride of the next morning and the bleary eyes of many a fellow student who couldn’t sleep after seeing it.

The 1970’s seemed to be a prime time for horror (both in the theaters and on TV), and there are websites devoted to listing these out and recounting them. There was something about that postwar period, right after Vietnam, when the nation's filmmakers captured a sort of national angst, and it was readily available to a large percentage of the population even on TV. Much of the horror of that time involves possession and the devil, and Trilogy of Terror is very much about that, presenting a dark portrait of a battle fought and lost.

I suspect that I didn’t see Trilogy of Terror when it first came out, because I had already been too badly frightened by another TV horror movie which aired in January of that year, titled Satan’s Triangle, which featured a boat-load of passengers getting bumped off by the devil in the Bermuda Triangle. It also featured a very similar ending, of a smiling face revealing murderous intent. I would have reviewed that if it was available and if I had the courage, but I believe Trilogy of Terror is a great representative of a decade rich in horror shorts.

1 comment:

K. Eng said...

I searched this film out on youtube and I can honestly say that it was one of the most enjoyable horror movie experiences I've had. I was skeptical at first, but I was pleasantly surprised by the extremely simple yet undeniably scary antagonist. "He Who Kills" is freaky enough before he comes to life, and even more so after he starts opening doors.

My one problem with modern horror films is that they are trying to get too creative with more complicated plots and subplots and unnecessary extra elements that muddy up the experience enough that the movie isn't even scary anymore. This film has none of that, and is actually scary. Go figure.