Karen Black’s Horrifying Fetish: The Story of Trilogy of Terror
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By John C. Alsedek:
As a horror and science fiction fan since childhood, I'd have been hard-pressed to pick a better time to grow up than the early 1970's, and one of the biggest reasons for that is the resurgence of horror/supernatural programming on network television during that time. The early Sixties were the golden age of anthology shows, with The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and others in prime time. They'd all gone off the air by 1965, but the success of Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, Rod Serling's Night Gallery, and the TV movie The Night Stalker showed there was an audience for programming with a darker bent.
And so, on March 4th, 1975, we got Trilogy of Terror as the ABC Movie of the Week. Based on the talent involved alone, it looked like a can't-miss: the director was Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis, the three segments were adaptations of stories by the great Richard Matheson (one adaptation by Matheson, the other two by William F. Nolan of Logan’s Run fame), and the star of all three segments was recent Golden Globe winner/Oscar nominee Karen Black. And Trilogy of Terror more than lived up to expectations, though it was the final segment that really stuck with people. Black originally wasn’t going to do the project, but then decided in favor of it when her then-husband, Robert Burton, was cast in the first segment. It’s lucky for us that she changed her mind, because now it’s hard to imagine another actress of the time period so thoroughly knocking it out of the park in the third segment.
Segment #1 is entitled "Julie" and stars Black as a college English teacher who attracts the attention of one of her students, handsome Chad (Robert Burton). You see, Chad has recurring fantasies about Julie that lead him to first play peeping-tom outside her bedroom window and then to ask her out on a date. Thinking it inappropriate, Julie at first turns him down; however, Chad’s persistence wears her down and they end up going to a drive-in movie. What happens next is date rape, as he drugs Julie, takes her to a motel, and takes a series of compromising photos of her. When Julie finally comes to, Chad tells her that she simply fell asleep; his tune changes the next day, however, as he uses the photos to blackmail Julie into a sexual relationship. She at first angrily refuses but is finally coerced into it out of fear of losing her job. But things aren’t quite as they seem in this relationship. Of the three, I think this is my least favorite for a simple reason: the ending. I don’t want to give anything away for those who haven’t seen it, but if you’re going to do a twist ending, it’s a bit of a cheat if there’s nothing in the story that gives the viewer at least a hint of the twist. Still, it’s a creepy enough episode, though not as creepy as the next one.
Segment #2 is titled "Millicent and Therese," in reference to the twin sisters who are the lead characters (Black plays both). They couldn’t be more different: Millicent is a mousy prude of a brunette, Therese a seductive free-spirited blonde. But there’s one other difference: Millicent, whether because she actually believes or simply wants to believe it because she’s jealous of Therese, is convinced that Therese is evil. Her solution? Not exactly one you’d expect a rational, non-evil person to think—she plans to use voodoo to do away with her sister. But things don’t work out as planned—or perhaps they work out too well. It’s tough to write a lot about "Millicent and Therese" without giving away the ending—an ending that may or may not come as a surprise but is pretty disturbing either way.
Which brings us to the crown jewel of Trilogy of Terror, the one that is instantly familiar even to people who haven’t actually seen it. . . .
Segment #3 is titled "Amelia" and is truly a tour de force for Black, who is the only actor in the segment, but not the only character. . . . Amelia returns to her high-rise apartment one evening, tired from a day spent shopping. One of her finds is very much out of the ordinary: a wooden Zuni fetish doll that supposedly houses the spirit of a hunter named "He Who Kills." According to the legend, the spirit is restrained by a gold chain around the doll. However, if the chain should fall off . . . I don’t think I’m giving much away by saying that the chain does in fact fall off, and poor Amelia finds herself in a life-or-death struggle with the tiny terror. What follows is ten minutes or so of spine-tingling horror as she tries one method after another to dispose of her seemingly indestructible tormentor, only to have it come back even more determined to do her harm. And the ending . . . yikes! As chill-inducing as the actual battle is, the ending is even worse. If you don’t want to watch the entire Trilogy of Terror, just watch "Amelia"—well worth it!
The success of Trilogy of Terror actually worked against Black somewhat, as she became somewhat typecast as a horror actress, even though horror movies only made up a small portion of her filmography. But it also made her an icon of the genre, a role that she embraced in her later years.
Anyway . . . remember how I mentioned Dan Curtis and Dark Shadows at the beginning of this column? Well, that’s our subject for next time . . . until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado, John C. Alsedek, shares the history of radio and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.