Trilogy of Terror: Special Edition (US - DVD)
Gabe checks out the Karen Black-erific Special Edition. Zuni Doll not included.
Trilogy of Terror is some kind of freak accident. I'm not sure if there's ever been a made for TV film that has entered the collective zeitgeist of American pop culture as thoroughly as this particular Karen Black vehicle. Though the final story, staring Black and a malevolent wooden Zuni Fetish Doll is the most recognizable, the film itself has been a video favourite since the inception of the format.
Based on three short stories written by one of the finest horror and Sci-Fi writers ever to put his finger to a typewriter key, Richard Matheson, each mini-film plays out like a lost episode of the original Twilight Zone. This shouldn’t be too shocking when one considers that Matheson was responsible for writing 16 original episodes for the original Rod Sterling series, including the wildly famous 'William Shatner VS Something on the wing' episode.
The first horror film I remember ever seeing was John Carl Buechler's Troll. You know, the one where Sonny Bono turns into a giant cocoon? It was at a cousin's Birthday party sleepover, and I was probably seven years old. It scared the crap outta me. This particular late-nite double feature was consummated with the second horror film I ever saw, Dan Curtis' Trilogy of Terror.
I made sure to ask my older cousin what the film was rated as my mother had made it perfectly clear that I was not allowed to watch anything with an 'R' rating (I was a well behaved child). My wiser kindred assured me that the film was not rated 'R'...it was 'unrated', meaning it was so violent that the grownups couldn't even think of a letter high enough in the alphabet to rate it. This wasn't going to be 'X' rated, it was even beyond a 'Z' rating.
I now know that the film was made for '70s television, and was 'unrated' because it had never been submitted to the MPAA. There's nothing in the film that couldn't have easily passed the era's television standards, but that didn't stop little Gabriel Powers from covering his eyes during the final story, which was actually the only one we ended up watching (short attention spans). I feel the need note that we woke up the next morning to a third film, Amityville Horror 3 (not in 3-D). All in all, it was a memorable two days.
Act 1: Julie
Karen Black is Julie Eldridgex, a college professor who has a student with an unhealthy infatuation. When she finally agrees to go on a date with him she is drugged, raped, and photographed in what we’re led to believe are compromising positions. The student uses the photographs to blackmail Julie into a turgid affair where he calls the shots. But all is not as it seems, and it begins to appear that the puppeteer may indeed be the puppet.
Of the three shorts, Julie is the one that could've really benefited from a longer runtime. As it stands, it's a decent little thriller, but the 'twist' is awkward because the situation and characters haven't been given the proper time to develop. There is almost no indication of the presence of the twist until it simply happens, which is a bit too 'left-field'. Had we had more than one hint and a longer run time the ending may have been more elegant.
Technically this is the weakest of Black's four performances, but only when compared to the other three. Had this been it's own feature length film I'm sure some kind of specific congratulations may have been in order. The film style isn't too exciting or innovative (for the time) except a few inspired moments of semi-subliminal editing (the audiences only clue to the true nature of Julie). This is probably the least memorable of the three, but still a fun little thriller in its own right.
Act 2: Millicent and Therese
For the second tale Black pulls double duty as both Millicent and her sister Therese. When the father of the Larimore sisters dies, Millicent, the plainest and most reclusive sister, sets out to warn others of her twin sister's evil ways. Therese, the bombshell with a taste for voodoo, Satanism, and (gasp) pornography, reacts the only way she knows—viciously. Just when it seems Millicent can take any more of her twin's torments a fiendish plan to turn the tables arises.
There are no prizes to those who guess the twist of this short, as it's pretty much set up in neon from the start. Perhaps the most Twilight Zone-like of all three acts, Millicent and Therese would never have worked on the big screen as it now stands, especially considering its release followed that of Brian DePalma's Sisters by two years (not that Sisters was all that original a concept in the first place). The small screen is a much more comfortable place for this episode.
There is however, like the rest of the shorts, something special enough about Millicent and Therese to make it work. Most of the success can be attributed to Black herself, but Curtis' direction is wonderfully understated. There's something particularly British about this episode, from its characters and setting, to its look, which is somehow reminiscing of some of Hammer's later output, specifically those that took place in what was then modern times.
Act 3: Amelia
Who are we kidding? We all know why we're here, and that's to get some vicious Zuni Fetish Doll action. Yeah, the first two thirds of Trilogy of Terror are decent little made for TV shorts, but director Dan Curtis was smart enough to bring the house down with his film's final act.
This time Black is a one woman show as the title character, a sheepish woman with a domineering mother who has just purchased an authentic Zuni fetish doll for her new anthropologist boyfriend. After a phoned fight with her maternal bane (a scene that'll surely show the detractors that Karen really can act), Amelia storms off into the kitchen to make up a steak. While she toils in the kitchen the doll comes to life, and ‘He Who Kills’ begins to hunt Amelia with a steak knife.
When I was seven, the crazed fetish doll was absolutely the most horrifying thing I'd ever seen on screen, but now that I'm nearly 20 years older ‘He Who Kills’ would probably be better named ‘He Who Looks Ridiculous’. How any modern, adult filmgoer could possibly take this short as anything but a joke is pretty suspicious. This is not to say that the short is bad, it's factually the best and most memorable of the bunch, and is so for two reasons – Karen Black and some frenzied camera work.
Though obviously one of the main influences on the Child's Play films (the first three, not the later, entirely self aware later entrees), Gremlins, and the Corbin Bernsen episode of Rusty Cundieff's Tales from the Hood, an attentive viewer can see a lot of early Sam Raimi in the short, specifically in the doll's steady-cam P.O.V.s. Like the original Evil Dead, Amelia runs on its energy, not its logic or realism.
Unfortunately, the only version of Trilogy of Terror I was sent had a big fat 'Property of MPI' watermark across the bottom, and as I'm sure regular readers know such a thing cannot be simply overlooked by the reviews here at DVDActive. I've never seen the picture on DVD before, and couldn't honestly say if this recent release is an improvement in video quality, but I was somewhat impressed with Dark Sky's efforts here. Without robbing the film of its made-for-television charms, the disc's producers have cleaned up the image quite a bit and done an especially nice job on brightening and strengthening the colour pallet. Had it not been for the watermark, this would be a very successful presentation.
Though obviously better than its VHS counterparts, this particular DVD's soundtrack isn't what one would call exemplary. Dialogue is clear, and fidelity balanced for the most part, but there is an issue with distortion on the track's higher volumes, such as music stabs and shouting (the doll himself is a leading culprit here). I'm normally averse to altering an audio track into a surround mix on older films, but this is a case where I might've made an exception. I found myself wishing for an aggressive surround track during the film's final act, especially considering how often the doll is represented by sound over visual. It may've been over-the-top, but I'd have enjoyed it anyway. As is, the track is merely acceptable.
The extras here all come up Black, Karen Black, and why not, right? Black is pleasantly eloquent in the Three Colors of Black featurette, which sees her waxing recollection-like on her early career and the creation of Trilogy of Terror. It's too bad that her post- Trilogy work isn't covered, including her work in Altman's Nashville and Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses, nor was her mainstream breakthrough success with Airport '75.
Black looks back on the film with some affection, and just as much confusion when confronted of its cult appeal. She seems genuinely fond of the experience but is dumbfounded by the fact that so many people remember her for her three roles, rather than any of the other dozens of roles throughout her career. She's also sure to note that she doesn't think of Trilogy of Terror as a series of horror shorts, but a series of science fiction shorts. Her reasoning is cogitative enough, but I'm afraid I still don't buy it.
The audio commentary is more of the same, but more in depth. Black wasn't really 'up' for the experience at any point in the pre-production, and states her only reasons for doing the trilogy were the fact that her then husband could have a leading role in the first story, the fact that she really wanted to wear the eye-ball magnifying eyeglasses in the second episode, and the fact that the producer wouldn't leave her house until she agreed to star. She also contributed quite a bit to the finished film. Scriptwriter William F. Nolan looks back on the experience fondly, and despite his slightly self-effacing nature, he remembers events pretty well. The track is pretty good, and the two participants seem to be enjoying themselves, even if they go way off topic on occasion (Black really likes to talk about her make-up and costumes, which is actually downright adorable). Nolan leaves the track when the third chapter starts, as it was written by Matheson alone.
A shorter featurette and interview with master writer Richard Matheson follows Black's, and the elder statesman of terror looks to be in pretty good shape. Matheson too refuses to refer to the film (and the majority of his work for that matter) as horror, and instead prefers to use the ambiguous term 'terror'. Like apparently all aging horror, excuse me, terror scribes he's quick to dismiss modern horror as all gore without content, referring specifically to the early '80s slasher cycle (perhaps revealing how detached from the genre he really is these days). As someone who’s read quite a bit of Matheson's work, I can tell you that the man has never shied away from graphic descriptions. I'm not saying the man is conceited, because he definitely isn't, just a little more antiquated than he'd like to admit.
Well, it's up to the consumer now. This is the best version of the film available, but I'm sure that all the fans out there in TV land already have this one pre-ordered. It's nice to take a stroll down memory lane from time to time, but I don't think Trilogy of Terror is the kind of film that wins too many converts. I think you kind of had to be in the right place at the right time to really appreciate everything here. The film looks pretty great (minus the water mark, of course), and the special features do right by the slightly cross-eyed thespian and both the film's writers.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 29th August 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Aspect: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono English
Extras: Commentary with Karen Black and writer William F. Nolan, Richard Matheson: Terror Scribe, Three Colors of Black
Easter Egg: No
Director: Dan Curtis
Cast: Karen Black, Robert Burton, John Karlen, George Gaynes, Jim Storm, Gregory Harrison
Length: 79 minutes