This Distracted Globe random header image

This Can’t Be Happening

January 13th, 2011 · 3 Comments

“Portmanteau” is French for “coat rack”. Lewis Carroll appropriated the word in 1871 for Through The Looking Glass to explain two words merged into one; “chortle” is a portmanteau Carroll invented, while “Internet”, “blog” and “sexploitation” are three he did not. In the month of January, I’ll take a look at portmanteau films, where we find different coats hanging in the same closet, whether tailored by one filmmaker or the collaborative effort of several.

Trilogy of Terror (1975)
Directed by Dan Curtis
Teleplay by William F. Nolan (segments: Julie, Millicent and Therese) and Richard Matheson (segment: Amelia), based on the short stories The Likeness of Julia, Needle in the Heart and Prey by Richard Matheson
Produced by Dan Curtis
81 minutes

Like the Zuni fetish doll that appears in one of its segments and sent American kids diving behind furniture during prime time, Trilogy of Terror is a relic best left in a box. Producer/ director Dan Curtis and screenwriter Richard Matheson scored the highest Nielsen rating of all time with a made-for-TV movie titled The Night Stalker for ABC in 1972. Matheson notified Curtis that he had three stories he was willing to package for the boob tube. Matheson’s 1962 short story The Likeness of Julia had appeared in the author’s anthology Alone By Night; Needle in the Heart was published in the October 1969 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; Prey in the April 1969 issue of Playboy. At Matheson’s request, his friend William F. Nolan was hired to adapt the first two stories. Knowing he had an ace in his sleeve, Matheson held onto the third story to adapt himself.

Despite lobbying by her manager, Oscar nominated actress Karen Black had no interest in doing what was going by the title Trilogy in Terror. Black gave in on the condition that her then husband, an aspiring actor named Robert Burton, was thrown a part. Premiering March 4, 1975 as an ABC Movie of the Week, Trilogy of Terror was another ratings smash for Matheson, who’d written the teleplay for Duel (1971), the feature length debut from a promising director named Steven Spielberg. Trilogy of Terror is not engineered with much precision, a pedestrian effort by one of the more prolific genre writers of the 20th century and reminder of a time when TV was mostly junk. Segments 1 and 2 are as thin and disposable as Kleenex, while the beloved Segment 3 is some impressive snot, at least. The kooky Karen Black is no better than the material, sadly, all leftovers.

Mild-mannered literature professor Julie Eldridge (Karen Black) finds herself pursued by Chad Foster (Robert Burton), a photography enthusiast who suddenly develops the hots for teacher. Following the advice of her roommate Anne (Kathryn Reynolds), Julie agrees to a date with Chad at the local drive-in, unaware he’s been prowling around her home. A drugged beverage and a set of amateur photos put the professor in a compromising position with her pupil, until one of them realizes they’re way over their head. In the second story, a spinster named Millicent Larimore (Karen Black) laments the wild ways of her twin sister Therese (Karen Black), who she blames for her father’s death.Millicent succeeds in warning away of one Therese’s suitors, but the evil one retaliates by ripping up the doll of a neighbohood girl.

Millicent’s therapist Dr. Chester Ramsey (George Gaynes) pays his patient a house call, fighting off the advances of her blonde twin. At the end of her rope, Millicent elects to use Therese’s own black magic against her. In the third and final story, Amelia (Karen Black) returns to her apartment with a present she picked up at a curio shop: a Zuni fetish doll. According to the instructions, spirit and doll will become one if the gold chain around its waist is removed. Distraught after a phone conversation with her mother, Amelia is tormented by noises in her apartment. Finding the doll has disappeared, her calf is slashed with a carving knife wielded by the malevolent doll, possessed in a bloodthirsty rage. Amelia barricades herself in her bedroom, until the little Zuni bastard demonstrates a troubling ability to open doors.

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 1,293 users: 57% for Trilogy of Terror

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

What do you say?

Tags: Based on short story · Beasts and monsters · Cult favorite · Femme fatale · Supernatural · Woman in jeopardy

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 christian // Jan 15, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    I remember the tv debut, me huddled behind the chair during the last segment. Still terrifies.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jan 15, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    Christian: I had that experience with Kingdom of the Spiders, in which the only thing standing between lethal tarantulas and world domination was William Shatner. Amazing how impressionable we are as kids. Thanks for commenting!

  • 3 Catht // Aug 9, 2013 at 8:36 am

    When I heard Karen Black died, I instantly thought of Trilogy of Terror. At the time it was terrifying. Karen Black was great in this role. This is a great post. Thanks!

Leave a Comment