Trilogy of Terror
Before Meryl Streep was Meryl Streep, Karen Black was the Meryl Streep of Karen Blacks in a whirlwind, spellbinding made for television production called “Trilogy of Terror”.
One of my kids found it on YouTube so we watched it last night. It was either that or Ken Burn’s 48 part series, “The Birth of the Cul-de-sac” but I want to save Mr. Burns latest, let’s leave no stone unturned opus for when I take my vacation this summer on Carnival Cruise and the ship loses power and drifts around the Atlantic for a couple of weeks. I find multi-part documentaries are a great way to pass the time, particularly on cruise ships that frequently run aground or run out of power and guests begin to get testy or bored and then set their sights on hunting, stalking and devouring one another because all the food has either run out or spoiled due to lack of refrigeration.
As implied this film is a trilogy and each part (there are three) stars Karen Black as a lady with something always going on in her life. Sometimes she’s the evil one, sometimes someone else is the evil one and sometimes it’s the director who’s the evil one if only for hiring a cameraman who simply doesn’t believe shooting someone head on is the right move. Trilogy of Terror is shot at so many unnatural angles, I started to believe it was originally produced for chihuahuas and bats who were mature enough to watch material that might possibly be disturbing to chihuahuas and bats under the age of 13.
So here’s the rundown of the three stories that make up the trilogy.
Part 1: “Julie”
The first one is called “Julie” and Karen Black plays Julie, a schoolmarm-like timid milquetoast college professor who has to deal with a lot of cheeky privileged college boys wearing polyester print shirts with collars so wide, all through the movie planes were making emergency landings on them, which I found somewhat distracting.
Anyway, one of the smarmy college boys tries to blackmail Julie (Karen Black) but at the end it’s Karen Black (Julie) who turns the tables on the egotistical undergrad and boy, does he regret every getting involved with a professor and not just because a lot of them are in love with the sound of their own voice!
Spoiler alert! I’m not going to tell you how this story ends!
But Karen Black does live at the end and she meets another college boy and says something cryptic to him and kind of to us by the way the cameraman framed the shot and I’m pretty sure in 1975, when this made for television film was made, you probably were supposed to shiver and grab the hand of whoever you were sitting next to on the couch or beanbag chair unless you were single and in that case, you just took another ladle full of your Swanson TV Dinner and a big gulp of that Chianti with the straw around the bottle that people always ended up stuffing candles into even though deep down they knew it was really cheesy but they couldn’t help it because the bottle was better than the swill they filled it with, and then thanked God that “Julie” was just entertainment and going to college wasn’t really that scary unless you factored in how much it costs to attend one.
The highlight for me was when Ms. Black transformed herself from a mousy academic to a full bodied “in charge” woman with extraordinarily long hair considering the size of the tiny bun she went around in in most of the story. I could not believe she was the same person but I checked the credits at the end and yes, you guessed it, Karen Black played both versions of herself. The one word to capture her performance is “notnunanced” if that’s a word. It’s underlined with red dots as I wrote it indicating the spelling is off, but so what, I’m a critic, and should not be held accountable for spelling since there are so many interpretations of how things are spelled with letters and such. Think of the Eskimos and their “snow” which is spelled with numbers sometimes, I heard.
Part 2: “Millicent and Therese”
This one blew me away and the main reason was that the guy who played the doctor in this story, was the same guy who played the doctor in the soap opera in “Tootsie” and I could not congratulate myself enough for catching that since this TV thing and “Tootsie” are the only two things I have ever seen that guy in! His name is George Gaynes. He did a pretty decent job considering he didn’t have a whole hell of a lot to work with. Mostly talking on the phone or ringing Millicent’s doorbell when she didn’t pick up the phone when he called her up and he decided to leave his thriving practice and just take a drive over on the hunch she might be home but not into picking up the phone when it rang more than two or three dozen time in a row.
The plot of Milicent and Therese is about family dynamics and Karen Black plays Milicent, a schoolmarmish timid milquetoast college professor type who isn’t a professor but could have easily been one, say even the one in the first story, “Julie”. Both characters wore buns and clothes that were not meant to be flattering unless you’re a 52 year old single Amish guy, maybe, I don’t know.
I like to think I know a lot about the Amish and often cite their simple ways as a means to convince my family that we don’t need to buy something they want that’s expensive but between us, I don’t know anything about them except one thing. Your emotions will take a 180 degree turn from spirit lifting joy and wonder to sheer, unadulterated murderous rage the moment you realize that the bucolic Amish buggy you’ve been following at 4 miles an hour in a 55 mile an hour road in Pennsylvania might be in front of you for the next 15 miles.
It’s safe to say that Milicent and her sister Therese don’t get along. They live in a big house, a mansion really, and I don’t think either of them has to work or anything, so it’s a bit farfetched that they would hate each other since they could both just stay in different wings of the house and never run into each other which maybe they do, because the sisters never do run into each other. The audience never even finds out how they handle the dishes.
Karen Black plays both sisters and both performances are in a word, dazzling. Yes, a good part of her acting prowess should be attributed to distinctly different hairstyle choices which quickly illustrate that these girls march to the beat of different drummers. But that is not to diminish Ms. Black’s acting because she probably had to OK the blonde wig for the wild, evil sister and the bun for the dull, repressed sister and that’s very much a part of the creative process.
I remember a story about James Cagney who was originally cast in “Ben Hur” but was fired when he insisted on wearing a tuxedo during the chariot race. In this case, his creative choice would have possibly diminished his performance as Ben Hur but probably not as bad as casting Charlton Heston because his acting was awfully stiff and I can’t recall him in anything that had any range unless you count “Planet of the Apes” when he had to forcefully admonish two thirds of the Statue of Liberty.
So without giving anything away, it turns out that Milicent believes her sister Therese is truly, clinically evil because she has books from the occult that have dog ears on a lot of pages and decides to use one of the books to learn how to make a voodoo doll so she can turn the tables on her evil sister and kill her. Of course if this movie was made today, she probably could have got someone to make a voodoo doll for her on Etsy in half the time and for half the cost, but this is 1975 and strictly DIY, baby!
So Milicent gets the recipe from the book which requires two sequined buttons from Therese’s silky, seductive blouse or if a sexy blouse isn’t available, then substitute the sequined buttons for a zipper from a pair of really tight Jordache Jeans and some other stuff like hair, finger nail clippings and an ounce or two of Palmolive Dish Detergent because Therese was known to soak in it as was the practice of the time.
Millicent finishes up the doll which looked so much like the actor, Harpo Marx, I was afraid she might accidentally kill him when she stuck the pin in but we, the audience don’t know what’s happening yet and neither does the doctor. But he feels something’s not right because just that morning Milicent fired him and he needs all the patients he can get his stethoscope on considering the gas guzzling Caddy he makes house calls in and because his wife probably spends like there’s no tomorrow, because I read in Cosmopolitan Magazine that lots of women marry doctors so they can buy stuff or after they make love, turn to their husbands and say, “I’d like to get a second opinion”.
The doctor from “Tootsie” can’t get Milicent on the phone, so he drives over, rings the bell, doesn’t get an answer and runs around to the side and slides a door open, finds Therese dead, calls the ambulance and when the guys show up, he pulls off Therese’s wig, wipes off her garish lipstick and guess what? I’m not going to tell you because I would spoil the ending. But I will tell you this much, The doctor tells the ambulance guys that this was the most pronounced case of split personality disorder he ever treated. Unsuccessfully of course, which makes you wonder, why they would cast him as a doctor in Tootsie with a record like that.
Part 3: “Amelia”
This was one of the most scary segments of “Trilogy of Terror”! The third, and final one. “Amelia”.
Oh, my God. What a tour de force for Ms. Karen Black! All alone, no other actors to work with, only her own wits and acting skills to rely upon along with some props including a telephone, some couches, several lamps, a foot stool or hassock, a set of steak knives, an oven, a sheet or roasting pan, a bathtub with water in it, a suitcase, a window that appears to be stuck or possibly manufactured to never open in the first place, several door knobs attached to doors, and a black doll with very sharp teeth, a spear, a straw loincloth and a certificate of authenticity from a curio shop on Third Avenue.
First let me talk about the setup. Ms. Black gets home with her doll which is a Zuni fetish doll. Even if you haven’t seen this film, you may be familiar with Zuni Fetish dolls as one of them appeared on an episode of “Antiques Roadshow” in 2007 (broadcast from Montpelier, VT) that left three people dead and six people horribly disfigured including both of those twin, blonde haired appraisers who always get so excited when they see bureaus that have hidden doors, which is where this particular Zuni Fetish doll emerged after being on ice for 96 years or so. While off topic, it bears mentioning that the repeat episode of this particular broadcast which aired on Sunday, December 23th, 2007, beat out the New York Giants/Dallas Cowboys NFC Playoff telecast by more than 37 million viewers.
Back to the story. Amelia purchased the doll as a gift for her boyfriend, an Anthropology professor, who appreciates the finer things in life and will welcome the doll’s arrival but will also be a little disappointed because he thought he made it pretty clear the other night over dinner at the Automat that a bottle of 30 year old Maccallums is always a perfect birthday gift.
Amelia who has her own gift for entertaining herself by speaking aloud for inordinate amounts of time, explains to her mother over the telephone that she can’t make their standing Friday night date this evening because she purchased a doll for her boyfriend that can come to life should the little chain around its neck fall off and if the doll’s necklace should fall off on her boyfriend’s birthday of all days and return to life and enter into a Satanically induced homicidal rampage, she would hate to miss out because she was sitting with her mother watching “The Match Game”.
Her mother, who is never seen nor heard from and so could possibly be one of the sisters from “Millicent and Therese” who wasn’t dead but a parent or caregiver now, is a bit of a curmudgeon and lays the guilt trip on her daughter to the point that her daughter opts to take a bath which is usually the act of someone under severe emotional duress as showers are so much more practical.
While Ameila is in the kitchen preparing a steak to eat in the bathtub, the Zuni doll, still on the coffee table in the living room, somehow loses its necklace (maybe from the vibrations of a bus or subway train, since Karen Black’s character lives in NYC, or perhaps a shaky plot device) and immediately comes to life. Unfortunately, since this is a male doll, its first act is not to desperately attempt to retrieve and then reattach the necklace as a woman doll might have but instead it forgets all about the jewelry, which could have even been a gift from the warrior’s spouse, the movie never addresses its origin, and enters into a full rage, stalking and ultimately attacking Amelia, who based upon her extremely questionable attempts to repel and secure the creature, lead me to wonder how she could possibly be dating anyone let alone a guy who teaches Anthropology at the Learning Annex.
Spoiler alert! Amelia never really finds the time to take her bath.
While most people who have seen and appreciate “Amelia” always focus on the precociously persistent and homicidal Zuni fetish doll, I felt Amelia’s relationship with her mother was really the backbone of the story and the finest example of Ms. Black’s superb talent and timing.
When you see Ms. Black talking on the phone to her mother, you will swear there just might be someone on the other end! Often, when I watch movies and actors are speaking on the phone, I can tell they just pause as if the person on the other end was speaking but somehow you just know someone isn’t really on the phone with them. With Ms. Black, I could feel that her mother was talking to her on the phone because of how upset Ms. Black looked. You can’t fake that if you’re speaking to your mother on the phone, particularly if you have a mother who is overly possessive or just plain nuts.
The ending of “Amelia” is indeed sad but seeing Ms. Black transform herself into a female, albeit life size Zuni Fetish doll after opening the oven –even though the timer had not gone off — to check and see if the crispy, still flaming, almost destroyed Zuni Fetish doll was indeed “done” and then finding out it wasn’t quite ready — not by sticking a toothpick in and seeing if it came out clean but by accidentally releasing and inhaling the smoke filled essence of the resilient little fella and thus becoming possessed of its spirit was quite simply, an acting triumph.
All in all, I recommend “Trilogy of Terror” to anyone who has access to YouTube or 90 minutes to spare without someone breathing down their neck to start of finish some sort or project. You really need to watch the film closely to see how well Ms. Black does with so little to work with. She’s the kind of versatile, innovative, creative actress that could start a fire even if you only gave her one stick or in this case, 90 pages of awful dialogue.
One final footnote to “Amelia” and the “Trilogy of Terror” is that the little Zuni fetish doll was not an animatronic creation as most people assume but was played from the first moment Karen Black lifted it from the package to the final moment when the creature’s smoke exited the oven in a dazzling display of menace and sheer evil by a 27 year old, first time actress from Summit, New Jersey. Her name appeared in the credits as Evelyn Blecchstone but we all know her best as Meryl Streep!
©2014 The Monkey Bellhop and John Hartnett