“With the sad passing of horror icon Karen Black at age 74, we look back at the role that made her the queen of genre pictures. Karen Black starred in Day of the Locust, The Great Gatsby and Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider along with Jack Nicholson, as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie Family Plot. She is a screen presence that will be missed.” – Tony and Jim.
As a young and obsessive horror fan, I of course was familiar with the likes of Karloff, Lugosi, and Christopher Lee, but didn’t pay much attention to the producers and directors responsible for these films I loved. Not until Dan Curtis, anyway. His name seemed to crop up in the credits of everything I liked on TV, from series like Dark Shadows and Kolchak: The Night Stalker to made for TV movies like The Norliss Tapes and Burnt Offerings. As far as early ‘70s TV horror was concerned, Curtis was king. And when he teamed up (as he so often did) with writer Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, so many classic episodes of The Twilight Zone), he couldn’t be touched.
Horror anthology films were nothing new, Corman had made a few, Hammer had made a few, and they were always popular. So in 1975 Curtis decided to make one of his own based on three Matheson stories. The gimmick here was that all three stories focused on central female characters, each of whom would be played by the same actress. Given the nature of the stories, this meant that a single actress would be playing four roles in one film.
At the time, casting Karen Black as the lead might have seemed an odd choice. She wasn’t yet known as a genre queen, in fact her only brush with horror had been her starring turn in 1973’s The Pyx. She had, however, played memorable roles in Five Easy Pieces, The Great Gatsby, Easy Rider, and earlier that same year co-starred with Charlton Heston in the inspirational and heartwarming disaster film Airport ‘75. She was clearly an actress with the kind of range Curtis needed to pull off the film’s gimmick, and while her over-the-top performances here don’t exactly amount to what you’d call a tour de force, they did make an awfully big impression on an awful lot of viewers, most of them under the age of twelve.
It’s true of most anthology films that at least a handful of the segments are clunkers. It’s just the nature of the beast. You have one, maybe two grabbers in the pile, and the rest are just filler to pad out the run time. That’s certainly the case here, too. In the first segment, “Julie,” Black plays a serious, uptight, and lonely English professor (though it is fun to hear her lecture on Fitzgerald and Faulkner). When she very reluctantly agrees to go on a date with one of her students (Robert Burton), he makes it an evening to remember by drugging her, snapping a few pictures, then blackmailing her. Not being a very bright student, apparently, he has no idea what he’s getting into.
It’s fairly pedestrian material, but the bit does contain one great little in-joke. While pestering her for a date, the student suggests they go to the drive-in. The film, he tells her, is an arty French vampire film with subtitles. The few flashes we get of the screen while the couple watches the film reveals the “French vampire movie” to in fact be the French dub of Curtis and Matheson’s classic 1972 TV movie The Night Stalker. To top off the joke a few minutes later, the student apologizes for bringing her to such a boring movie.
The other interesting note about “Julie” was its use of cheap diversions and red herrings (specifically all the vampire references) to keep your mind off the twist to come. Gotta say, it almost works.
The second segment, “Millicent and Therese,” isn’t quite so interesting, which is why they stuck it in the middle. Black takes on the dual role here as sisters who hate each other, and there’s nothing terribly subtle about it. Millicent is shrill, severe, and moralistic while Therese is wild, promiscuous, out of control and potentially evil (at least in her sister’s eyes). When Millicent decides to kill Therese…well, you can see where this one’s going, and when it’s over you can forget about it.
Now, anyone who has seen Trilogy of Terror remembers the film for one reason and one reason only. It has nothing to do with the music (standard mid-’70s wah-wah), it has nothing to do with the innovative camera work (it’s flatly lit and composed almost entirely of medium shots, same as most every other TV movie), and it sure doesn’t have anything to do with those first two segments. No, it’s that damned doll.
In “Amelia,” Black plays a young woman in New York with a controlling mother and a new boyfriend, though we never see either. The entire segment takes place within the confines of Amelia’s apartment, where she’s spending the evening alone (well, almost alone anyway). It’s the night of her boyfriend’s birthday, and she’s bought him a swell present, an authentic (and authentically hideous) Zuni hunting fetish armed with a razor-sharp spear and a magic chain. Given that the doll came complete with a scroll warning the chain kept the spirit of a deadly Zuni hunter trapped inside the figure, that the removal of the chain would allow the doll to come to life, and that the doll’s name, once translated, was “He Who Kills” you’d think she’d take the hint, right? Put the stupid doll back on the store shelf and start looking for a nice atlas or a shoe stretcher instead. Or maybe at least when she got the thing home she should’ve, y’know, taped the chain on or something. But nope.
Well, after calling her overbearing mother to cancel their usual date and then calling her boyfriend to cancel their date as well (all to insure that she’d be home alone with no one calling or stopping by, see), that ol’ chain slips off the evil doll and we’re off to the races in a scene that owes quite a bit to the original Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and would itself inspire a number of later films like Gremlins.
“Amelia” more than makes up for those first two segments, for several reasons. Although all three segments were based on Matheson stories, only “Amelia” featured a Matheson script (the first two having been written by William F. Nolan). Adding to that, Black herself suggested a number of things, rewriting some dialogue and contributing a few ideas that knocked the story up a notch and helped make the film’s final, shocking image so memorable. The camera work and music both were much livelier as well. And then there were the sound effects. Like the whispers in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, here the hissing and chattering of that damnable little ugly doll as it scampers around the apartment and jabs at Black’s ankles adds a whole new element to the tension level and general atmosphere. It’s kept in the background, buried beneath the music, the screams, the smashing glass, but you can always hear it. The fact that it’s kept so subdued only makes it that much more effective.
Most importantly, while the film as a whole has been occasionally interpreted as “feminist” on account of its focus on female characters, the message of the first two segments doesn’t get much beyond the typically banal “women are crazy and conniving.” It’s only in “Amelia,”—and specifically in that amazing and disturbing final shot—that the film says something interesting about the complexities of mother/daughter relationships. And maybe that explains why, for all the screaming and running about and typical horror film hijinx, “Amelia,” like Carrie, is just as popular among female viewers as male viewers.
In the months that followed Trilogy of Terror, Black went on to give a string of noteworthy performances in films like Day of the Locust and Nashville, but it was this film (and Curtis’ Burnt Offerings a couple years later) that put her high on the casting wish lists of hundreds of low budget filmmakers, and took those first big steps toward cementing her place in the horror pantheon.
Den of Geek Rating: 3 Out of 5 Stars