When I remember TV movies, I remember the epic mini-series of the 80s. They were trumpeted as a Big Deal in TV Guide and they usually had all-star casts, not that I would’ve heard of most of the names, but the point was they got my attention and I watched them, even if I was too young to completely understand what was going on.
As for the shorter, considerably less-than-epic ones, I think I understood even then that they were inferior to theatrical movies. I definitely remember The Day After and how that film stoked our nuclear apocalypse fears. When the Amy Fisher trial became popular, all three networks made TV movies about her! (I forget which one I watched.)
As kids, we also had the ABC Afterschool Specials: young adult melodramas about the issue of the week, usually starring some popular teen actor from television. Here’s a MeTV top ten list. I don’t remember any of these; I think I only watched them sporadically—why would I, when GI Joe and He-Man were on instead?
TV movies get a bad rep, it’s true, but back in the 70s, they aimed a little higher, had greater aspirations, and were more memorable overall. I’ve already discussed some of them, like The House That Would Not Die with Barbara Stanwyck, and Duel, the first feature film directed by Steven Spielberg. This month I’m gonna look at some more, and today we’ll begin with one that developed a huge cult following to become a pretty big hit thanks to a certain terrifying-looking doll.
The Queens World Film Festival did a tribute to Karen Black months before she died, in 2013. At the time, I wasn’t very familiar with her; I think I knew she was in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces but that was it. She actually had a very long career, much of it spent in horror and suspense films off the beaten path. Here’s a typical obituary for her.
In 1975, she starred in the anthology Trilogy of Terror, which aired on ABC in March. She was the star of all three stories: “Julie,” about a mousy college teacher blackmailed by a date rapist student until she turns the tables on him; “Millicent and Therese,” about two sisters—a spinster and a sex kitten, both played by Black—who totally hate each other but there’s more to their relationship than meets the eye; and “Amelia,” in which... well, we’ll talk about that one in a minute.
|Robert Burton was Black’s husband at the time.|
The entire anthology was directed by Dan Curtis, creator of the Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows and The Night Stalker, the movie that introduced the paranormal investigator character Kolchak. Trilogy looks like a TV movie; a small cast and few sets, but Curtis makes the most of what he has. “Amelia” is the flashiest of the three stories, and while black & white might’ve made the boogeyman in this story scarier, Curtis did well at making him feel realistic and a genuine threat, even if the overall effect looks dated today.
So if you’ve heard of Trilogy, it’s probably because of “Amelia” and its aforementioned boogeyman: a Zuni warrior fetish doll that Black buys as a birthday gift for her boyfriend. It comes to life and stalks her throughout her apartment because of some ancient curse. There’s a Native American tribe by that name, from the New Mexico/Arizona area, but I’m not entirely certain they’re meant to be the same Zuni as the one this doll is supposed to be from. The doll looks more African than Indian, like something from those old Tarzan movies.
All three stories originated from the typewriter of Richard Matheson, though he only did the teleplay for “Amelia;” William F. Nolan adapted the other two. “Amelia” was based on a Matheson short story called “Prey,” which was the basis for the Twilight Zone episode “The Invaders,” the awesome one with Agnes Moorehead being stalked in her house by alien invaders. That version is almost completely silent, but Black gets to talk in her version.
The twist in “Julie” is too sudden and out-of-the-blue; I didn’t believe it when Julie’s true nature was revealed because there was no suggestion it was possible. “Millicent” is kinda predictable, but it’s worth watching to see Black play two opposite characters in one story. “Amelia” really is the best of the trilogy by a mile. It’s Black all by herself, like Moorehead in the TZ ep, though I thought the Moorehead version was better.
I wouldn’t call Trilogy a masterpiece, but it’s an entertaining combination of psychological suspense and slasher horror.
(Speaking of Matheson: Debbie from Moon in Gemini informed me yesterday that Matheson’s daughter Ali saw the blogathon Debbie and I arranged in tribute to him and thanked us. How about that?)