Trilogy Of Terror (1975)

MAY 24, 2012


As with Lemora, Trilogy Of Terror is among the few movies featured on a documentary I’m editing that I hadn’t already seen, so I was eager to check it out. But I was puzzled after watching the interviews pertaining to the film, as no one had anything to say about the first two parts of this three story film – they only wanted to talk about one with the Zuni doll. I then realized that over the past 20 years or so (whenever I started paying attention to horror that existed before I was born), NO ONE had ever talked about the other two tales – in fact I still didn’t even know what their basic premises were.

Well, now that I’ve seen the film, I can understand why – they suck. Even the Zuni one isn’t that great, but it’s got a good villain, some surprising violence, and a terrific closing shot, giving people with vague memories something to latch onto. And those things make it easy to forget that it starts off just as bad as the other two stories, focusing on Karen Black talking on the phone to her mother, offering up more exposition than you’d find in an entire season of 24, including the directions for the Zuni doll. As if a woman old enough to be Karen Black’s mother would have the slightest bit of interest in the method of unleashing the power of a murderous fetish toy? That we don’t hear the mother utter a word doesn’t help, but at least it fits in with the next few minutes, where Black just walks around talking to herself. She seems shocked when the doll comes to life, but I don’t understand why – she was asking it questions and seemingly carrying on a full conversation with the damn thing just moments before.

But then the doll attacks, and it’s pretty awesome. Full body shots of the thing in motion are scarce, but the closeups are great, and I loved its voice – sort of a Gremlin meets Donald Duck. And he’s no pushover – he bites and stabs the hell out of Black (and her furniture), and doesn’t go down easy, either. She drowns him, traps him in a suitcase, smashes him into a lamp, and finally immolates him, yet he still keeps coming. That’s the benefit of a “genuine” Zuni fetish doll (she stresses “genuine” when explaining her purchase to her mother, as if there were a bunch of cheap knockoff Zuni fetish dolls in the market), I guess.

As for the others, I’m already forgetting chunks of them. In the first, a douchey college student suddenly becomes obsessed with his teacher (Black again – she’s in every story), and convinces her to go on a date to the movies, where he drugs her. He then takes photos of her in lewd poses and uses them to blackmail her to… uh, hang out and listen to music with him. Seriously, I have no idea what his end-game was here; if he just wanted to bang her, why not do it while she was drugged? Or does he cross the line there despite not having a single positive trait to his name? Well, joke’s on him – she put a spell on him, which is why he became so obsessed with her (no shit!), and now she’s bored with him so she drugs/kills him. Then we learn he’s just the latest in a long line of students she’s “seduced” and then killed, something I guess the authorities never noticed.

The next story is even more obnoxiously obvious from the start. Black plays twins (as if the promise of her in every story wasn’t enough, now they’re doubling down?), one who is meek and spiritual, the other a loud mouthed broad. The two hate each other, and explain as much to their doctor (George Gaynes!), and finally the meek one decides to kill the other. But it’s not the primitive FX that keeps the two from ever sharing a scene together, it’s (SPOILER!) the fact that they are in fact the same person! Wow, I bet you didn’t see that one coming… is something I might say to a person who was inexplicably making Trilogy Of Terror the first movie they ever saw. For a while I wondered if we were SUPPOSED to be aware that they were the same and make it a “twist” of sorts that there were indeed two of them, but then I remembered that this was a TV movie from 1975 and thus they probably didn’t think it would be necessary to be that clever.

But that’s the problem with both of these first two entries – they’re entirely built on twists that are kind of obvious to begin with. The guy in the first story literally says “All of a sudden I just want to see her naked!” (or something equally awkward), so the fact that he’s being manipulated is obvious before he even acts on it. Likewise, in the second story, Gaynes is clearly just humoring her when he asks about her “sister”, and the story takes place entirely in their house, which makes the fact that they don’t share a scene blatantly apparent. The third works because it’s a straightforward tale – a doll comes to life and tries to kill its owner. Done. Then they spring the little epilogue (with Black now possessed with the Zuni spirit) on us, and it totally works – it wasn’t the story’s sole reason for existing.

And it’s a bummer, because while the movie was produced/directed by Dan Curtis (who I have yet to see anything I really like from, though I’m sure Night Stalker would be up my alley if I ever get around to it), the stories were all written by Richard Matheson, a writer I like quite a bit. I think the 2nd one would work better on the page, because any number of narrative structures could obscure the fact that the two sisters never converse (first person diary accounts, for example). I have no theories as to how the first one could ever work though, it’s just a completely stupid premise.

Curtis made a sequel in 1996; the Zuni doll returned for the final story, with the first being about giant rats, and the middle story being a remake of “Bobby” from Dead Of Night (which was the best story in that one). So the movie is essentially 2/3s rehashed - clearly there were only creative motivations behind this endeavor. Somehow I doubt I’ll get around to seeing it before I wrap things up.

What say you?

P.S. Oddly enough when I went to search for the ToT trailer I found a spot that the director of the documentary put together a while back (before I was on board as editor, but I had shot a segment as one of the subjects - look for me!), so here's that instead.


  1. Tot is memorable to most of the people I know hwo saw it back in '75 because we were all kids and that last segment was the scariest thing we'd see on network TV. I recall it was the big lunchroom thing most kids were talking about at school, and if you didn't have a TV or didn't see the show, you were pretty much not cool.

    Also, you SHOULD check out the Night Stalker - the pilot and some of the early episodes. It actually work extremely well (I think it was Curtis' best work) thanks to Darren McGavin's GREAT portrayal of Kolchak. I loved the idea that he was a reporter and a big skeptic out to prove a vampire story is a big fake... only to run into a real vampire. Definitely check it out, I say...

  2. Trilogy of Terror WAS the first movie I ever say, back when I was four years old or so! Of course the Zuni segment haunted my dreams for a very long time, and the movie is pretty much single-handedly responsible for my love of horror, so I owe it, and I guess Dan Curtis, a lot!

    If you want a Dan Curtis joint you might like, try Curse of the Black Widow! Ha ha!

  3. Ha ha! I mean it was the first movie I ever SAW!

  4. The Zuni doll segment (and I assume they somewhere got Zuni mixed up with Zulu or something) played in line at a haunted house I went to a few years ago. I thought it was just fantastically bad in a good way. The other two seem awful in a nowhere near good way, so I'm not too sad I never got to see those.

  5. 1. Karen Black was NOT in Trilogy of Terror II. 2. I've never liked Karen Black and never understood why everyone loved her. So, as you can imagine, I hated this movie. I've always thought she was a terrible actress and this film really sealed it for me. 3. I haven't seen it since it first aired on tv, but I thought the sequel was way better. The Zuni doll segment was better, and Lysette Anthony, who's in all 3 segments, is much prettier/easier to watch than Karen Black any day.

  6. Oh my bad, I read the wiki page wrong. And yeah, don't get how any sane person could find her attractive (which made the first story almost kind of funny, that she'd have to put a spell on someone to want her).

  7. I remember seeing this when I was a kid. The Zuni doll is the only one I can vividly remember because it was terrifying at the time, especially that last seen where Black becomes possessed by the doll. The other two I don't remember at all.

  8. CBS in the seventies. This and Salem's Lot, damn, my friends and I did not sleep for a week.

  9. I actually read Matheson short story about the Zuni doll (and if it got mixed up with Zulu then Matheson did the mix-up himself) in a collection called "The year's best horror stories", published in 1974... And I thought that story was the best/scariest in the collection... I'd love to see this movie just for that segment...


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