Zombos Says: Very Good
The year 1975 was a banner year for horrorheads. Stephen King's Salem's Lot was chewing up the bookstalls, a hungry and demonic shark was chewing up anything that moved in Jaws, and the gender-bender Rocky Horror Picture Show, with Meat Loaf, was chewing on some tasty morsels of iconic horror like a bat out of rock and roll hell.
And on television, horror and terror were being introduced to a new generation of viewers by producer and director Dan Curtis. In 1967 he thought long and hard on his failing soap opera, Dark Shadows, and out of desperation tossed in a vampire to shake things up.
Sure, when all else fails, call in the monsters. It worked.
Dark Shadows, with the help of passionate and pathetic vampire, Barnabas Collins, grabbed the ratings like a banshee screaming in the wind. Like many boys in 1975, I became hooked with the goings-on at the decaying Collinwood Mansion, and I hurried home from school to watch each episode. I even took Barnabas as my Confirmation name. And while the priests thought I took the name of Saint Barnabas, one of the first prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch, I knew the truth.
Dan Curtis' horror express sped into high gear after that, and the stops along the way produced some of the best terrorific television series and movies the genre has seen, heavily inspiring future fright-meisters and their cinematic and literary creations.
He also had the good sense to work with one of the best writers in the field, Richard Matheson. Together they brought Trilogy of Terror to the small screens of millions of viewers in 1975, and created a diminutive image of horror that still brings chills and thrills today.
Originally conceived as a pilot for a television series, Trilogy of Terror takes three of Matheson's stories, adds the talented Karen Black in numerous roles, and for an extra dollop of terror, peppers in a little Zuni Fetish Warrior doll with a hideous grimace of pointy teeth and a penchant for bloody mayhem. Throughout the three stories there is also the quintessential Robert Cobert music, so much associated with Dan Curtis' gloomy cinematography.
While the first two stories, adapted by William F. Nolan, may seem cliche today, they were highly original back in1975. In the first, Julie, Karen Black plays a reserved, plain-looking English professor who unwillingly becomes embroiled in a sexual tango with one of her students. Or so it seems. In the second story, Millicent and Therese, Ms. Black plays two sisters at polar opposites in their personalities, and heading for a violent confrontation because of it.
Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay for Amelia, the third episode which is based on his short story Prey. And it is this story that stands out as an important and memorable entry in cinematic horror. Indeed, in the audio commentary provided by Nolan and Black, Nolan jokes how he was always congratulated for the Amelia episode—the one he didn't write—when approached by fans. He eventually stopped telling fans he didn't write it and just accepted their appreciation.
The story is that good.
Take a lone woman, psychologically battered by her mother, add a little present wrapped in a curiously odd-looking box for her anthropology boyfriend, and toss in a warning not to remove the little chain that holds the savage warrior’s spirit at bay, and you have a simple recipe for…disaster!
As the chain falls from the little, and hideously looking, doll, you know what's coming. Curtis builds it slowly, with a little foreshadowing as Amelia cuts her finger on the very sharp spear the doll carries. After her bath, Amelia, dressed only in a bathrobe, notices the doll is no longer on the table. Curtis also changes the camera angle, and moves it lower to the floor, heightening our fears of what is to come. As Amelia reaches under the couch she again gets cut, and reaching further, pulls out the spear. Even with the lights on, her apartment is dark—Dan Curtis dark—and Cobert's music hits its ominously strident tones.
Out of the corner of her eye, a shadow scampers across the floor. She begins to suspect something crazy is going on, and just before you can say ‘Zuni Fetish Warrior Is Alive!’ the lights go out, and the bolt on her front door is reshaped into a metal pretzel, trapping her in the apartment.
The first frenetic attack is sudden, loud, and brings her down to floor level as the little savage uses a knife swiped from the kitchen counter to stab her feet and ankles again and again. The rushing of the little doll, screaming as it relentlessly attacks her, is still amazingly effective and scary. Locking herself in the bathroom does no good, as the little monster is very resourceful. She tries to drown it in the bathtub, but that also fails. The scene, as it climbs out of the tub with the big knife firmly gripped in its mouth, borders on almost funny, but Curtis' direction keeps this story deadly serious.
Karen Black, speaking in the Three Colors Black featurette on the DVD, describes the fear of vaginal entry that this episode plays on. She also mentions the humorous troubles the special effects people had in animating the little bugger. In the first attack, where she stumbles to the floor, she describes how they had trouble keeping the limbs on the doll as they rapidly pulled it along the floor. In the scene where it clamps down on her neck, she also describes how she had to hold onto it and act like it was alive and biting her. In the hands of lesser talent, this episode would have become a quirky absurdity; instead, it remains one of the most intense sessions in terror committed to the small screen. Interestingly enough, she explains that the dental work appearing at the end was actually her idea, which Dan Curtis did not agree with at the beginning. But it works well, and provides a lasting image of horror that speaks volumes even to this day.
Additional featurettes on the DVD include Terror Scribe, in which Richard Matheson talks about himself and the film, and the audio commentary by Karen Black and William F. Nolan. Dark Sky Films has done a wonderful job in releasing this horror classic again on DVD.
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