Consensus is that the third story of, Trilogy of Terror, Amelia, is the best part of the 1975 TV movie. I don’t disagree; it’s a masterpiece of horror on any sized screen. However, because Karen Black stars in the other two stories as different characters, I tend to enjoy them, as well. Although they move at a slower pace, they also have great plot twists. Together, the three stories are a wonderful tribute to the unusual, yet beautiful actress, who died in 2013 at the age of 74.
Black was born in Park Ridge, Illinois, on July 1, 1939. She studied acting in New York City and appeared on Broadway before making a big splash in Hollywood with movies like Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970), both for which she won Golden Globe awards. (She was also nominated for an Academy Award for Five Easy Pieces.) I probably first saw her in Trilogy of Terror, or Dan Curtis’s mid-70s theatrical horror feature, Burnt Offerings (1976).
The three parts of Trilogy of Terror are all based on original stories by Richard Matheson. William F. Nolan wrote the teleplays for the first two (Julie and Millicent & Therese) while Matheson adapted Amelia. On the surface, all three stories deal with women under attack. However, in this day and age, it’s interesting to focus on how Black and her characters carry their sexuality, each in a different way. Sometimes it makes her the victim and other times it makes her the victor.
In Julie, Black plays a mousy college teacher with little sex appeal, until she gets under the skin of one of her students, Chad Foster (Robert Burton). He fantasizes about her in class, insists she go on a date with him, then slips a roofie into her root beer at the drive-in. His hobby is photography and he subsequently blackmails her with incriminating pictures. SPOILER ALERT! The tables are abruptly turned in his apartment one night when we learn he’s really the victim, not her.
I found Julie to be just as relevant in the Me Too era as it probably was in the age of women’s lib. A sexist pig of a man gets what’s coming to him, but not from whom we think it might be; instead, from the one we believed was the victim. Julie isn’t repressed. She’s actually in complete control of her sexuality and uses it to her advantage, maybe because she’s evil, but maybe because it’s just her time. I can see her leading a coven of witches or a group of rallying women.
Fun things about Julie include an appearance by James Storm, who played Gerard Stiles on Dark Shadows. He plays Chad’s friend, Eddie Nells. (A cute young Gregory Harrison also appears in the story’s epilogue.) Also, when Chad invites Julie to the drive-in, it’s to see a French vampire movie. I’m pretty sure that the clips shown on screen are from The Night Stalker (1972), another classic TV movie from Dan Curtis.
In Millicent & Therese, Black plays the dual role of the Larimore sisters. When their father dies, Millicent writes in her diary about the evil fermenting in the soul of her sister, Therese. She warns Therese’s boyfriend, Thomas Amman (John Karlen), and calls their doctor, Chester Ramsey to tell him that Therese has “gotten worse.” When the good doctor arrives to check on Millicent the next day, Therese, a blonde sex kitten, throws open the door.
Here, Therese figuratively represents the sexuality of Millicent that is hidden deep inside her tightly wound bun and far behind her round coke bottle glasses. Millicent associates sex with evil, and therefore believes her sister is evil. SPOILER ALERT! Therese also literally represents the sexuality of Millicent because the two are actually “the most advanced case of dual personality” that Dr. Ramsey has ever seen. Yes, Therese Millicent Larimore is one person.
I saw this twist coming a mile away and thought it actually would have been cleverer without it; however, I’ve seen too many other movies with similar plot points since 1975. It may have been more surprising when it first aired. Of course, John Karlen, like James Storm, was on Dark Shadows, so his brief appearance was fun. (The blonde temptress and voodoo doll were other reminders of my beloved Dark Shadows.)
Finally, in Amelia, Black plays a woman whose sexual identity might be made from parts of the characters in the other stories. She’s not necessarily repressed. She acknowledges it, but is embarrassed by it (or guilty of it.) Yes, she’s talking to her mother on the phone when she says she’s going to “spend the night… uh, evening” with the man she’s seeing, but she doesn’t seem to be treating the subject particularly gingerly just for the sake of her mom.
In fact, it seems like her sexuality lies just below the skin, waiting to burst out, perhaps manifested by the Zuni fetish doll that violently comes to life and attacks her. Amelia is a master class in building suspense and unleashing thrills. From the slow burn beginning as the camera slowly zooms in on the nervous woman talking on the phone, to the relentless climax as the point of view shots show the crazed doll running toward the wounded Amelia.
Then there’s that ending, an image so terrifying that it makes the Zuni fetish doll look like Barbie on a bad hair day. The simple yet effective score by Curtis regular Bob Cobert, who also wrote music for, you guessed it, Dark Shadows, really intensifies the segment. We shouldn’t lessen the impact of the first two chapters of Trilogy of Terror. They may not have as much “punch” as the third chapter, but their more deliberate pace contributes to the cumulative result of the entire movie.
Written by William F. Nolan, Richard Matheson
Directed by Dan Curtis
Starring Karen Black, Robert Burton, John Karlen, George Gaynes, Jim Storm, Gregory Harrison
Released March 4, 1975
RT 72 min.
Home Video Shout! Factory (Blu-ray)