Trilogy of Terror (USA, 1975)
When I was around ten years old, I remember a couple of my cousins in Dundee discussing a film they had seen on television that had terrified them. It involved a small wooden doll coming to life and stalking a woman in her flat. Both of them complained that they couldn’t sleep after seeing it.
As the years went by, I read and heard more about this movie, which by now I knew was named Trilogy of Terror, a portmanteau film based on stories by Richard Matheson. Matheson had become one of my favourite writers, especially for his classic novel I Am Legend (which must surely be turned into a decent film one day). No one seemed to remember much about the first two stories, but they were all frightened by the doll segment, based on Matheson’s story, Prey.
Now, almost 40 years on, I have finally caught up with Trilogy of Terror. While I had not exactly mythologised it in my mind, I probably did set my expectations too high, considering it was a TV movie of the 1970s. What I was not prepared for was for Prey to be so poorly executed that I spent almost the entire segment in helpless laughter.
Each section of Trilogy of Terror features Karen Black in a different role, and is adapted from a Richard Matheson story by William F Nolan or Matheson himself. The first is about the power struggle in an illicit affair between a reclusive university lecturer and one of her students, and is by far the most successful of the segments. While not wholly unpredictable, it does at least offer some darkness and twists.
The second story is the weakest, covering the increasingly vitriolic rivalry between two very different sisters, finally leading to black magic. Anyone who doesn’t work out what is going on from the first scene probably needs corrective surgery.
This brings us to Prey, the longest of the three segments at almost 30 minutes. In it, Amelia, a young woman with an overbearing mother and a struggling romance buys an unusual birthday gift for her anthropologist beau — a Zuni fetish doll, supposedly with the spirit of a tribal hunter bound within. From the moment Amelia reads the manufacturer’s warning scroll that states the doll will come to life if its gold chain is removed, everyone knows what will happen.
The only surprise is that the implementation of the animated doll is so unfortunately comical. The sounds it makes appear to have been dubbed from an episode of The Muppet Show, a comparison that is not helped by its movements resembling those of Animal, the drummer from the show. Other times, the movement is just a dark blur across the screen accompanied by wibbling noises. Worst of all are the scenes in which the fetish engages in hand-to-doll combat with Amelia; poor Karen Black is left waving a wooden doll around like a smaller version of Bela Lugosi fighting the stuffed octopus in Bride of the Monster.
While it is undoubtedly a terrible film, I was unable to dislike Trilogy of Terror simply because it made me laugh so much. Given that it was directed by Dan Curtis, who made the far superior The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler TV movies, also written by Richard Matheson, and starred an actress of the calibre of Karen Black, Trilogy of Terror should have been something special. Maybe if I had seen it thirty-eight years ago I may still have been haunted by the image of a pint-sized doll stabbing Karen Black in the leg with a pointed stick, but watching it now all I can to is laugh to the point of near incontinence.