Ask any kid who grew up in the 70s to name a TV thriller they remember and chances are, they'll mention Trilogy of Terror. For that matter, ask any semi-educated, self-respecting horror fan.
Karen Black was already an established screen star before she took on Trilogy. Considered one of the finest and more interesting actresses in the business, she had made her feature film debut in Francis Ford Coppola's You're a Big Boy Now.
Easy Rider in 1969 made her a star and she received an Academy Award nomination for 1970's Five Easy Pieces.
By 1975, she was a respected and successful actress. In this year alone, the multi-ranged Black appeared as the ambitious country singer Connie White in Robert Altman's Nashville and was sensational as the psychotic starlet wannabe in The Day of the Locust. The memorable Trilogy was her Movie of the Week television debut.
Producer and Director Dan Curtis cut his teeth in TV, having been the brains behind both House of Dark Shadows and The Night Stalker movies and subsequent series.
(Teleplay by William F. Nolan, based on a story by Richard Matheson)
Students Chad (Robert Burton) and Eddie (James Storm) are real "ladies' men." One day, while sitting outside their university...they watch a teacher, Julie Eldrich (Karen Black) as she enters one of the academic buildings.
While Ed pronounces her "ugly," Chad says, "I just got the weirdest idea...I wonder what she looks like under ALL those clothes?"
During class, Chad is distracted by Julie's low-cut skirt. He imagines her sprawled on a bed in a motel room. In the hall, he approaches the teacher and helps her with some books that have fallen out of her arms in order to make small talk. He asks her if she goes to the movies much. "Sometimes, not often," she answers.
Chad tells Julie that his hobby is photography but she cuts him off and says she has another class to get to. Ed comes up to his buddy and tells him not to go messing with teachers.
Later that night while doing some research, Julie's roommate Anne (Kathryn Reynolds) tries to get her to go out and be social. Anne mentions a "nice guy" that her boyfriend Steve knows...and she implores her friend to get out of the house more often. But Julie has no interest.
"The problem with you is...you don't give yourself half a chance. If you'd work at it just a little, you'd really be attractive," Anne tells her. This approach is unpersuasive and Anne leaves to meet her boyfriend.
As Julie lets her hair down and undresses, she is unaware that Chad is watching through a window.
The next day after class, Julie continues a discussion with Chad about authors while walking through the campus. "That scene in Sanctuary where Faulkner has his character Popeye rape the girl...I prefer Fitzgerald. He only suggests violence," she tells him.
Oddly enough, Chad uses this to get up the nerve to ask her out. "Faulkner was just telling it like it is. I guess some people enjoy violence...lead perverted lives."
He continues, "And speaking of perversion, there's a wonderful old vampire picture playing down at the village drive-in this Friday..." It's a French film with English subtitles and Chad says they should see it together for "cultural expansion."
At first, she mentions the school policy against faculty dating students. Chad promises to keep his lips sealed. "You have your pick of all these lovely co-eds, Chad. Why would you want to date me?" she wonders.
"Because I prefer maturity in a woman. All those others? They're just a bunch of kids," he tells her. Julie decides to take him up on his offer.
During the movie (an in-joke, it just so happens to be a B&W version of The Night Stalker), Julie is frightened. Chad goes off to the snack bar to buy some sodas.
On the way back, he drops a powdered drug into her drink. She notices it tastes bitter. "Yeah, mine too...I guess they're not putting enough syrup in them," Chad says.
The drug starts to take effect and Julie gets drowsy. She passes out and Chad drives her to a motel. He checks them in as husband and wife, paying the clerk (Orin Cannon) in advance.
After laying the uptight teacher on the bed, Chad begins taking photographs and then undresses to have his way with her. Later, he takes her back home just as she regains consciousness.
"Did I really fall asleep?" she asks. She tells her date she's sorry and Chad apologizes for taking her to "such a boring picture."
Walking her to the door, he asks if he can take her out again. Julie tells him no because she could lose her job and he could be expelled. She tries to be firm but Chad is insistent.
Shortly after, he develops the photos in his darkroom. He then phones Julie in the morning and tells her he wants to see her again. They're going to take a "little drive" he says.
Chad wastes no time in showing her the pictures. Realizing she was drugged, Julie is appalled. "How could do something this sick?" she demands to know. Chad is non-plussed and tells her she can keep the photos because (of course) he has the negatives.
When she threatens to tell the police, Chad says he will inform the authorities that SHE seduced HIM. "I'm sure you don't want the police or anyone else to see these."
The next time he's in her class, Chad unnerves Julie by handing her a note while she's teaching which reads:
After class you are to come directly to my apartment. I've got some friends I want you to meet. C
Shaken, she dismisses the students early.
Over the next month, Julie gives in to the blackmail and sees Chad whenever he pleases. Anne begins to notice the odd hours her formerly reclusive roommate is coming home. Julie will not tell her what is happening.
During a subsequent tryst with Chad in his dorm, Julie says she's bored with the arrangement and when she reaches that point, "the game is over." She implies that everything that has happened between them was her idea.
"Did you really think that dull, little mind of yours could possibly have conceived any of the rather dramatic experiences we've shared?" she asks him.
She continues the taunt and adds, "why do you think you suddenly had the overwhelming desire to see what I looked like under 'all those clothes.' Don't feel bad...I always get bored after a while."
As Chad feels the effects of the drink that Julie fixed for him, she says there was one boy in Denver "who did keep me amused for almost nine weeks."
When Chad starts to cough, Julie tells him that he will first experience dizziness, then mild paralysis...followed by total cardiac arrest. "You've drugged me!" he says. Her response is to the point: "No dear, I've killed you."
He trips and dies...and Julie drags the body into his darkroom where she sets the photographs of herself on fire. "I told you about those chemicals, Chad. How dangerous they can be..." she says to herself.
The death is attributed to the fire - and it makes the newspaper headline. Anne knows that Chad was one of Julie's best students. "Yes, he was a wonderfully bright and spirited boy," a tearful Julie tells her. Anne offers to skip work and stay with her "distraught" friend but Julie says she'll be fine.
After all, she has something to attend to...adding the newspaper clipping to her scrapbook of articles relating to students who have mysteriously died around the country. The Preying Mantis has struck again.
It will not be the last...for there is a knock on her door. It is Arthur (Gregory Harrison), another one of her students. He needs tutoring and Julie invites him in. She has time and they can start right then and there...
(Teleplay by William F. Nolan, based on a story by Richard Matheson)
Millicent is a spinster. Her father has passed away and she watches a film of her childhood. She then writes in her diary:
The funeral is over and I'm alone in the house. Therese is out cavorting with one of her men...on this night when Father is barely cold in his casket.
I ran some old family films to remind myself of when it began. Even then at twelve, she was already using her wiles on him. Poor Mother...so weak, so innocent.
Never suspecting the depth of evil in Therese. My spoiled sister! Her sweet little face never fooled me for an instant. I knew the darkness behind it...I knew the fermenting ugliness in her soul.
Thomas Anmar (John Karolin), Therese's beau...arrives at the house. Millicent tells him "I know what you're thinking. You're wondering how sisters can look so unalike" and says that Therese isn't there because she's at a party. Thomas finds this unusual - since she looked upset at the funeral earlier in the day.
The spinster sister has asked Thomas over so that she can pour out her feelings about Therese. She shows him an old photo and asks him to notice how Therese is "pressing herself" against their father. Thomas is confused. Why is she telling him this?
"My sister is evil, Mr. Anmar. I think you should know that," she says. Then she goes on about how her sibling was cunning as a child and yet their father worshiped her. When she was 16, she seduced him.
Thomas is uncomfortable hearing about this. But Millicent is intent on discussing these dark family secrets. She even implies that Therese killed their mother to get her out of the way...a death that was ruled a suicide via sleeping pills. "It was no accident!"
If this is true, Thomas wonders...how could she stay in the same home with her sister? Millie says she had no money and no place to go...in her words, no escape. She kept to herself as much as possible, ignoring Therese and what was happening in the house.
Her guest doesn't know what to say. Millie then starts pointing out books in her library, which she describes as being about her sister. Titles about demonology, pornography, Satanism, Voodoo, witchcraft...according to her, Therese is guided by Satan and her soul is damned. She says she wants to help Thomas but he feels it is SHE who needs the help.
As he is about to leave, Millie reveals that she knows about an incident involving him and her sister. She says her sister gloated and bragged about how she was able to "corrupt" him. Thomas is shaken and he has been persuaded that Therese is up to no good. "You are saved, Mr. Anmar. I have freed you from evil," he is told.
That evening, there is another diary entry:
This afternoon while I was out shopping, Therese violated my room in an insane act of madness...and upon my return, raged at me, using foul and obscene language...cursing me for having dared to reveal the truth to Mr. Anmar.
Her behavior was crude, that's true. She's becoming more violent by the day. It's as if Father's death has released the demons within her and I actually fear for my life.
Dr. Chester Ramsey (George Gaynes) receives a frantic call from Millie. She says that Therese is becoming much worse. "I thought we'd settled that matter. YOU were gonna see about Therese," he tells her.
Apparently, her sister has begun to make lewd suggestions about Millie's relationship with the doctor. He agrees to stop by the next day when he is in the area.
Upon his arrival, Therese greets him at the door. He seems surprised to see her in place of Millie. Their appearances couldn't be any more different...for the woman that stands before him is dressed suggestively in a mini-skirt, her long platinum hair framing a heavily made-up face.
He is offered a drink but turns it down. Sitting on the sofa, Therese doesn't hide her thoughts. "I know all about what dear little Millicent told you on the phone. I was listening on the extension in my room, you see."
She calls the doctor's visit "wasted" because Millie surely won't talk about her when she's in the house."
And yes, she admits to destroying her sister's room. She deserved it because that "twit" has no business sticking her nose in her affairs.
Dr. Ramsey pleads with her to stop the hatred because it is destructive. But according to Therese, Millie's hatred is all she has...the only passion in her "lonely, pathetic little existence." She then tries to seduce the doctor and he gets up to leave.
"What's the matter, Doc? You still a virgin? Or is it that you just don't like girls?" The doctor has had enough but Therese doesn't take kindly to rejection. "We don't need you anymore, Ramsey!" she yells.
"Why don't you just get the hell out of our lives! Don't phone us and don't call on us. Well...leave and don't ever come back here!"
Therese goes up the staircase and glares at Millie's bedroom door. She knocks on the door and tells Millie that the doctor will not be back.
Millie scribbles furiously into her diary:
I wouldn't answer her nor would I allow her to enter. I remained locked in my room...silent while she raged and swore at me. Finally, she staggered back into her own room and fell into a drunken sleep. How I loathe her! I can no longer bear to live in this house and watch evil prevail. Something must be done. Yes, Therese must die...
While working in the garden, Millie hears a child crying. A neighbor's little girl Tracy (Tracy Curtis) is upset because someone has broken her doll. Tracy claims that Therese did it because she was "making too much noise." Millie consoles the kid by telling her she'll buy her another doll the next time she's in town.
When I returned to the house, I was still thinking of Tracy's broken doll...and it was then that the solution suddenly became quite clear. At last I had found the ideal way. How ironic, I would use Therese's own books to destroy her.
I began to collect the necessary items...parings from Therese's long painted nails, strands from her lovely blonde hair, the rhinestone buttons from her most lewdly seductive dress. And then at last, I had all that was required. Therese's life...held literally in my own hands.
Dr. Ramsey receives a call from Millie. He tells her he has been trying to reach her because he's worried. They must talk, he says. However, Millie no longer needs him - or so she says. She has "found a way to deal with Therese."
Millie hangs up the phone and unlocks a draw in her desk. Inside, there is a Voodoo doll and a long stick pin.
The doctor phones the sisters' house later that day. There is no answer so he hurries over. Entering through a side door, he calls out for Millie. No response.
Upstairs, he finds the body of Therese on the floor next to her bed. Lying beside her is the Voodoo doll, the pin embedded into its chest.
Dr. Ramsey picks ups the doll and phones his hospital to report a death. A female, age 26. Cause of death unknown.
The ambulance arrives and as the body is about to be taken out, the doctor reaches over and wipes her make-up off.
He tells the medics that he was the family physician and he knew the dead woman quite well. Her name was Therese Millicent Larimore. The most advanced case of dual personality he had ever seen...
(Written by Richard Matheson, based on his short story Prey)
Amelia is a single working woman who lives in a high rise in the big city. She has just arrived home for the day with a gift for a man she's been seeing...it's a genuine Zuni hunting fetish doll.
Packaged with the doll is a scroll which reads "he who kills...he is a deadly hunter." He who kills...he is a deadly hunter...
The figure comes complete with a sharpened spear. Its face is so frightening that Amelia tells it, "even your mother wouldn't love you."
Amelia has a rather complicated relationship with her mom. She phones her and the two begin fighting almost immediately. They always spend Friday nights together but Amelia has a date that evening with her new beau Arthur - and it's his birthday.
Mom accuses her daughter of always breaking her promises and questions her love. She tells her daughter she's cruel. Apparently, spending two or three nights a week together is not enough.
It's a guilt trip and Amelia is made to feel bad for living in the sublet apartment by herself. And also for dating a man...a fact that her mother has been unaware of until now.
Amelia describes the doll to her mom. She says she bought it for Arthur because he teachers Anthropology at City College. She was told there's supposed to be some kind of Zuni hunter's spirit inside of it.
Around its body is a golden chain "to keep the spirit from making the doll come to life." It says so in the scroll that came in the box. Mother has heard enough and she hangs up abruptly.
Talking to the doll, Amelia says she's going to take a bath and then meet her fella. And they're gonna have a "lovely time." Upset from the conversation with her mother, she slams the doll on a coffee table...and doesn't notice that the gold chain has fallen off.
She sets her bath and then phones Arthur to break their date. She simply does not want to hurt her mother's feelings. Moving out on her own was hard enough on her. Arthur is not pleased but Amelia promises to celebrate his birthday the next night.
After preparing a steak for her dinner and putting it in the oven, Amelia goes into the living room and notices that the Zuni doll is missing. "What'd you do, fall off the table"? she wonders.
She gets down on the floor and reaches under the sofa - where she soon feels a prick on her finger. Bleeding, Amelia says, "I guess I found you...at least the tip of your spear."
But she cannot fathom how an inanimate object got so far back under the couch. She pulls the spear out from under the sofa - but still no doll.
Suddenly, she hears the patter of tiny feet. An odd sound, to be sure. "Is that you, little man?" she says as she giggles at the ridiculousness of the thought.
From the kitchen, comes the crash of something dropping to the floor. She goes to investigate and does not see the knife she used to cut her steak. She looks in the drawers but comes up empty. Out of the corner of her eye, she catches a small shadow dash towards the living room.
Amelia is now starting to get spooked. She re-enters the living room, where one of the lights in a lamp goes out. As she tries to turn it back on, she feels something on her legs. The Zuni fetish doll is slashing her with the kitchen knife!
Amelia tries to escape but the doll pounces on her, cutting her arms and hands. She manages to make it inside her bedroom...where she slams the door shut and attemps to call the police.
Before she can get them on the line, she sees the door start to open. Somehow, the doll has managed to climb up to the knob and turn it.
With the knife in its mouth...it then makes it up to the top of Amelia's bed as she makes a mad dash for the bathroom. She screams as the doll taunts her by jabbing the knife under the door. "This can't be happening, this can't be happening!" she says.
Her legs badly cut, she barely has time to get her wits back before the doll enters the bathroom. Amelia grabs it with a towel and sticks it under the water, attempting to drown the little demon. It's a valiant yet unsuccessful attempt - for the doll lunges at her once again.
Next, Amelia runs into a closet and tries to hold the door shut. But this doll is strong and he tries to yank it free. Amelia lets go of the door and hold a suitcase open...which the Zuni doll runs into.
She snaps the suitcase shut and finds a screwdriver in the kitchen to pry the latch on the front door.
But the doll is resourceful and starts cutting himself out of the suitcase with the steak knife. Amelia tries to grab it by the sharp end but she gets cut. As she attempts to open a window to call for help, she sees that the doll has nearly freed itself...whereupon she picks up the screwdriver and stabs it repeatedly.
Believing she has killed it, she opens the suitcase and the doll once again attacks her, gripping her arm with its teeth. Amelia throws him off by swinging him against a lamp and she runs into the kitchen. The ordeal continues as the doll sinks its teeth into her neck.
Screaming in pain, she opens the oven where her dinner is burning and throws the doll in with her steak...where it suddenly goes up in flames. An awful black smoke is emitted from the oven as the doll shrieks and Amelia covers her ears.
Believing she is finally safe, she opens the oven door, looks into the fire...and then screams.
The phone is on the floor and off the hook because of the struggle. Amelia picks up the receiver and calls her mother. It appears that the events of the evening have made her want to patch things up. Only her side of the conversation is heard:
"This is Amelia, mom. I'm sorry I acted the way I did. I think we should spend the evening together, just the way we planned. It's kind of late though. Why don't you come by my place and we'll go from here. No, I'm alright. Good. I'll be waiting for you."
With that, Amelia removes the latch from the apartment door and waits. Crouching on the floor. Jabbing a huge butcher knife on the carpet...her teeth now jagged and horrific. Perhaps it will not be the kind of reconciliation her mother would like...
Trilogy of Terror was a sizable hit when it first aired on ABC on March 4, 1975.
Karen Black had made a minor French-Canadian thriller in 1973 called The Pyx. However, it was Trilogy of Terror that would be the first in a string of many forays into the genre for the actress.
Perhaps it was unfortunate that this once A-list actress would be forever typecast as a horror queen. In fact, she has been quoted as saying, "I think this little movie took my life and put it on a path that it didn't even belong in."
Truth is, she did not want to make this movie and only consented when her then-husband Robert Burton was asked to play Chad...the student who blackmails her in the Julie segment. In addition, she relished the chance to play a spinster in the middle story, eschewing glamour for a real character role.
The most famous and celebrated piece is Amelia - and as one would imagine, it was a demanding part...with the star getting her legs bruised and having the Zuni doll constantly tossed in her direction.
Clearly, she revels in the work here and, as with some of the best Made-for-Television horror and suspense pieces, she's able to command entirely this one person show.
Trilogy of Terror is certainly a tour de force for Black's talents and a treat for her fans - a true study in 'fun' horror. She is exceptional in all the roles, particularly as Therese and of course - in Amelia.
While Richard Matheson wrote the segment and based it on his story Prey, Black contributed quite a lot. She rewrote some of the phone dialogue because she "wanted to make it very clear how the mother made Amelia feel." And it was her idea to wear the false teeth at the end, something Director Curtis initially felt would look silly.
Special mention should go to Erik M. Von Buelow, the creative force behind the Zuni fetish puppet used so effectively in the story.
Black and Curtis would work again the following year on Burnt Offerings for the big screen. Oliver Reed and Bette Davis co-starred in the decent "haunted house" flick.
Bob Cobert, who supplied the wonderful score for Trilogy of Terror, continued his association with the director. It was a partnership that began when he wrote the eerie music for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde, which Curtis produced in 1968.
Although it would seem that Black isn't crazy about the genre (she says she's more of a science-fiction fan), she has appeared in many horror entries since Trilogy first aired.
The highlights include the TV movie The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (1977), Cut and Run (1985), Invaders From Mars (1986) and Out of the Dark (1988).
She continued to work steadfastly throughout the 1990s, including Evil Spirits and Haunting Fear (both 1990) and will appear in the long-delayed but soon to be released House of 1,000 Corpses.
Although he made his name in television horror, Dan Curtis would have his biggest success and most high profile project with 1983's smash mini-series The Winds of War and its follow-up in 1988, War and Remembrance. He directed Trilogy of Terror II in 1996 for the USA Network with decidedly less successful results.
Writer Matheson is known for many wonderful horror stories. Among his numerous career highlights are I Am Legend, published in 1954 and which was the basis for the films Last Man On Earth and The Omega Man...and Duel - for which he also wrote the screenplay. In addition, Matheson wrote what is perhaps the most famous story of the classic Twilight Zone series, Nightmare At 20,000 Feet.