Review Date: June 28, 2006
Released by: Dark Sky Films
Release date: 8/29/2006
Region 1, NTSC
Full Frame 1.33:1
If there is one thing that seems to endure in the lore of horror, it is the murderous little munchkin. Two of the most everlasting and acclaimed made for television horror films are both remembered wholeheartedly for their pint sized prowlers. The first film was the obscure, but fondly remembered by any child of the seventies, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
, where a hoard of little creatures wreaks havoc on a couple new house owners. Two years later, in 1975, television mined the killer creature once again, this time in the anthology picture, Trilogy of Terror
. Although intended as a tour de force for Karen Black (she plays four vastly different characters), it is remembered today almost solely for the trilogy’s final episode, where a small Zuni doll terrorizes a woman in her apartment. Although seemingly always referenced by horror fans, the film has long been out of print and tough to obtain on DVD. Dark Sky, whose slate of beloved horror films just seems to be getting better and better, has listened to tons of nostalgic fans in producing this new special edition. How does the iconic final story hold up, and what of the other two?
The first tale, Julie
, is about a bookish school teacher of the title (Karen Black
), who becomes the target of a cruel college prank. One of her English students, Chad Foster (Black’s husband at the time, Robert Burton
), suddenly gets the notion he’d like to see his professor unclothed. He pursues her, drugs her, and then takes some incriminating photos of her in the nude. Chad then uses the photos as blackmail, and forces Julie to become his slave. Julie, ever shy and conscious, obliges, but eventually takes things into her own hands.
Trilogy of Terror
starts off with a bang with this little episode, with a knockout ending that overturns the regular conventions of the horror genre. The women in peril is probably the most established archetype in the genre, and here writer William F. Nolan inverts the character for a memorable finale. Black sells the character throughout, which makes the twist more believable, projecting such innocence with her closed off form and distancing glasses. The whole story is imbued in Dracula subtext, with Chad checking into the motel as Jonathan Harker, or the movie on the drive-in screen being Dan Curtis’s own The Night Stalker. The allusion, probably, is the notion that Dracula is not at first what he seems, and it is only later, when he finally seduces his prey, that his fangs show. Nolan thinks himself a bit too clever by drawing out the ending longer than it need be, but this is still an episode with surprising bite.
Millicent and Therese
is the second story, and it follows Black again in a dual role as the two titular characters. Millicent is a suppressed religious zealot, and she is constantly having to deal with her sultry sister’s careless actions. Therese seduces her doctor, breaks a little girl’s doll, and drugs her own mother, and Millicent must constantly pick up the pieces. Millicent is sick of it though, and in a telling diary entry, tells how she plots to get revenge on Therese using her sister’s own methods. Millicent pin pricks a voodoo doll, but the victim is not quite who she thinks.
A fair episode, at the very least an interesting piece for Black to showcase her acting chops, it is marred more by the success of the first episode. Since Black so skillfully pulls the wool over our eyes in Julie, it is impossible to not approach the following episode with a baited skepticism towards her two characters here. Thus, when the twist finally comes, it seems terribly obvious and overstated. Not only that, but the obvious is then spoon fed in a way that is completely condescending to the audience. If this was positioned first in the trilogy, perhaps it would be more effective, but as it stands here in the film, it is by far the least memorable.
And now, of course, for the oft remembered final episode, Amelia
. Black’s Amelia is a woman who exudes confidence on the outside, but within is scarred by a disrespectful mother. In a lengthy monologue, Amelia tells her mother on the phone how she still cares about her but needs to branch out on her own. Her mother’s mistreatment leads her to cancel her plans with her boyfriend, an anthropologist whom she bought a scary little Zuni doll. She decides to have a bath, but when putting away her doll, she accidentally unhooks his necklace, which apparently holds back the spirit of an ancient tribesman. The doll comes to frightening life, and Amelia must do all she can to deaden the doll.
Initially, this episode begins surprisingly flat. Black’s monologue on the phone seems endless, and considering the episode is about a killer little creature, completely superfluous to the plot. It is directed with little energy and a bare number of shots. The dialogue is on the nose and weak. The cards seem entirely stacked against the episode right from the start, but then something happens. The doll comes to life with such an unprovoked intensity that hits like a ton of bricks. Like a similar tactic Bob Clark used in Black Christmas, the incredibly intensity of the moaning, feral murderer is heightened by the initially slow and quiet direction.
Another initial setback to the final episode is the poor animatronic work done with the doll. Basically, the doll is held by a hand under the frame, and either shook like a kid playing Barbie, or thrown towards the camera. It’s motions are amateur and really borderline competent, but yet it has a certain charm over the more polished creature work in stuff like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
and Cat’s Eye
. The Zuni doll’s motions may not be fluid or realistic, but they are fast and feral, and the speed of the attack lends an entire unpredictability to the proceedings. Although by no means a masterpiece, the last episode is an effective little creature feature with a truly haunting final image.
It is tough to leave an anthology film with the love one would lavish upon the most celebrated standalone horror films. A team is only as strong as its weakest link, and so often in the anthology picture, the bad and the good average out somewhere in the middle. Trilogy of Terror
is short and watchable, despite a kind of clunky direction and overwrought stories. Yet, it succumbs to the usual anthology pratfalls by leveling off the good of the opening episode and the creature design of the finale with a lackluster middle and all around slow pacing. The Trilogy will surely live on, regardless of its merit, because of the nostalgia of all those impressionable youngsters affected by the final segment when it was aired on television. I’d rather see it live on for Black’s performances and for the underrated opener, but yeah, the creature is pretty cool.
The telefilm is presented in its original 1.33:1 ratio, and the results are only really average. Colors are for the most part muted, resulting in an unappealing blend of midtones. Blacks are lighter than they should be, and the darker scenes exude a muddy quality at times. The picture is cleaned up fairly well though, aside from the occasional nick and scratch. This was not a huge theatrical feature, so the quality is naturally not that of a regular 35mm film, so with lowered expectations this is an acceptable, if not extraordinary, transfer.
Presented in mono, this sounds it. No hissing or distortion that is overly noticeable, but at times it sounds a little distant and airy like many other made for television faire. Still, certainly acceptable.
Here’s where the disc shines, with Karen Black at the helm. She kicks off the extras with a commentary with writer William F. Nolan, who himself hangs around only for the first two segments (since Richard Matheson penned the final). Although it seems initially to be separate commentaries mixed together, it becomes obvious that the two are sharing the room together, and the result is quite entertaining. Karen Black, always the interesting character actor, is herself an interesting character, she it is funny to see her pick apart the film and often accuse Nolan of false judgement. She is very strong spoken, and goes on and on about her appearance, which although vain, is a telling demonstration of how an actress has to live in Hollywood. Both are well spoken and offer some strong insight, but the most memorable bit will surely be Karen Black randomly blurting out “I’m not a slut.”
Next up is an equally interesting interview with Black called “Three Colors Black”, which has Black recounting her accomplished career and how no matter how many accolades she has received for Five Easy Pieces
or The Day of the Locust
, she will always be remembered for this little TV movie. Again, she talks about her appearance often, but does really get into some interesting observation about the nature of horror. She tries to explain the success of the final episode, and boldly associates it with the female fear of vaginal entry. Not bad for a DVD extra. Her stock goes down a little when she tries to pass the show off as science fiction rather than horror (which she abhors), but it is still a memorable 17 minutes.
Richard Matheson gets his own little 11 minute segment as well, although he is far less interesting. Old and slow to speak, he just sort of recollects the good ole days and tells the audience how bad horror films are today. Reducing the entire genre into examples from slasher sequels (which seems to sadly always be the case) he tells of how he’d much rather be labeled a terror writer than one in the field of horror. The genre will never get the respect it deserves if people keep trying to deny the art behind it. If only more people could be so appreciative to the genre and its fans like Margot Kidder was in those Amityville
supplements last year. If only.
Although Trilogy of Terror
may be remembered for its ravenous little Zuni doll, truth be told this entire disc is the Karen Black show. She elevates the first episode into a clever greatness, and embodies four completely different and challenging characters throughout the runtime. She then embodies an equally interesting character for the supplements – herself, and makes for some really interesting listening. The video and sound are average, but the work on the supplements (by usual Blue Underground mainstay David Gregory) is a notch above. Those with a fondness for the film from their earlier days will want to grab this, and everyone else should probably see it just for historical value.
Movie - C+
Image Quality - B-
Sound - C
Supplements - B+
- Running time - 1 hour 12 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Mono
- English subtitles
- Commentary with Karen Black and writer William F. Nolan
- "Three Colors Black" featurette
- "Richard Matheson: Terror Scribe" featurette