Many people remember the classic made-for-TV horror film Trilogy of Terror, but more often than not they only remember a third of it. Ask anybody what they recall from the film, and if they recollect it at all, they’ll immediately mention that weird screaming African doll with the knife.
Yes, the Zuni fetish doll is the best remembered aspect of this film, even more-so than Karen Black, the star of all three chapters. This often leads to devastating disappointment from new viewers, who start the film with the expectation of an hour and a half of African doll carnage and only get it for thirty minutes at the end.
Trilogy of Terror (Dark Sky Films)
An anthology horror film, Trilogy of Terror was designed as both a vehicle for Karen Black’s career as well as a showcase for Richard Matheson, one of the literary greats of the 20th Century (fight me). Broken into three segments, the first one, “Julie”, focuses on a bookish and uptight college lit professor (Karen Black) who is unwillingly blackmailed into sexual service by one of her more unscrupulous students.
The story is very… how shall I word this… “boring”. The twist ending is especially random and incredibly weak. “Julie” is by far the worst of the three stories, which is a major detractor, considering the beginning of a movie should be designed to hook the audience, not send them to the kitchen for a sandwich.
“Millicent and Theresa” is the second chapter, though it is only marginally more entertaining than its predecessor. This one focuses on two sisters (both played by Black) who live together in a big, empty mansion. Millicent is the quiet and reserved type while Therese is a drunken and violent whore. The pair gradually become paranoid of one another, contemplating foul play.
Like “Julie”, “Millicent and Therese” is terribly slow, almost excruciatingly so. However, unlike “Julie”, the twist ending for this story is reasonably more satisfying. You may see it coming, you may not, but it still works quite well. If I had any other complaint about this middle segment, it would have to be that Karen Black just isn’t very attractive. I’m sorry; maybe the definition of “sexy” was different back in the ‘70s and it doesn’t gel with my ‘90s sensibilities, but she just doesn’t do a thing for me. This is particularly troublesome, considering these first two stories are decidedly raunchy and go to great lengths to try and morph Black into some sort of sex icon.
“Amelia”, based on Matheson’s short story “Prey”, is well worth the long, nap-inducing wait. An apartment-dwelling woman named Amelia (Karen Black again) purchases a creepy African Zuni fetish doll from a curio store. As the tag on the box describes, the doll apparently has the soul of a blood-thirsty Zuni warrior trapped inside it, with the gold chain wrapped around its waist being the only thing keeping the doll from coming to life. Amelia isn’t about to believe such poppycock… until the chain falls off and the doll wakes up.
“Amelia” begins as modestly as the rest of the stories, opening with the title character engaging in a lengthy telephone argument with her mother, followed by her preparing dinner, drawing a bath and doing other mundane things in order to build tension. However, unlike the preceding installments, this one is followed by some serious pay off. When the Zuni doll comes to life, it doesn’t reveal itself all at once. The lights go out, knives start to disappear and itty bitty footsteps can be heard pattering about the apartment, all of which heighten the sense of dread to great success. When the diminutive screeching maniac finally steps out of the shadows, the reveal is especially surprising and well done.
While the Zuni doll itself boasts an incredibly creepy sculpt, the puppetry used to bring it to life is somewhat unsatisfactory. Whenever the doll is in motion the camera shakes frantically to keep you from getting a solid look at the fiend. This works to the film’s advantage, as the doll would be remarkably less frightening if you saw all of it all of the time, but all the shaking can still become rather annoying. Regardless, the Zuni fetish doll has a ton of personality, zipping around and screeching gibberish like a tiny psychotic Tasmanian Devil. As far as killer dolls go, I actually prefer him over Chucky.
While one third of the film is spectacular, Trilogy of Terror does not average out to a good movie. The first two thirds are achingly slow, predictable and I can almost guarantee you’ll be fast-forwarding to the last chapter on any repeat viewings. I hate to give this film such a low score considering how much I like “Amelia”, but I can’t just disregard how bad the beginning is. The sequel, Trilogy of Terror II, is far more exciting, however.