In the mid-1970s, Karen Black was at the height of her career. She had worked with those directors and actors–Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper–who were changing American film during that era, as well as established film-makers like Alfred Hitchcock. She’d won two Golden Globe awards, and would be nominated for another. She had also received one Oscar nomination and was even up for a shared Grammy for her song work in Robert Altman’s Nashville.
But when her name comes up among people of my generation, the words that we automatically associate with it are “Zuni fetish doll.”
No one who saw this 1975 made-for-TV movie, directed by Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis, when they were a child has ever forgotten the final segment.
While I can’t call the first two segments of this trilogy terrifying, I do think they’ve been unjustly disregarded. Along with the third segment, they provide Black with a rare opportunity for a young actress to showcase her talent by playing 4-to-6 different characters (depending on how you want to count them), from meek to menacing. One might assume that she chose this TV movie as a vanity project, but she always said that, when it was first offered to her, she didn’t want to do it.
All three of the stories used for this trilogy were based on short stories written by Richard Matheson. Two were adapted for television by William Nolan; Matheson himself adapted the third, with a couple of important contributions by Black. They run about 20-25 minutes each.
We start out on a college campus, with two young men sitting on a picnic table, watching women walk by. The main character, Chad, remarks that he’s never seen so many dogs, immediately establishing him as a creep and jerk.
Chad is played by a former child actor named Skip Burton, here credited under the more grown-up name of Robert Burton. He was married to Karen Black at this time, and in the commentary and interview on this BluRay, she states that she only agreed to do this movie under the condition that her husband be given the lead in this first segment.
Chad’s friend is played by Jim Storm, who was the dastardly and sometimes possessed Gerard Styles on Dark Shadows, and was smacked in the head with a 2×4 by Kate Jackson in Night of Dark Shadows. The worst you can say about his character in this is that he keeps questionable company.
A rather prim-looking woman with her hair in a bun and cats-eye glasses (Black, of course) walks past them. Chad stares after her and wonders “what she looks like under all those clothes.”
His friend is surprised and amazed that Chad has had such a thought about their dowdy Modern American Lit professor. Chad’s surprised himself; it’s as if the idea suddenly popped into his head.
When they go into class, he gets more explicit sexual thoughts about her and asks her out. She refuses, since it’s unethical for faculty to date students, but he persists and eventually gets her to accompany him to a supposedly artsy French vampire film at the drive-in (The fragments of film shown are actually de-colorized scenes from another Curtis-Matheson collaboration, The Night Stalker.)
Going to the concession stand to get a couple of rootbeers, Chad pauses to drug Julie’s drink. When she passes out in the car, he drives her to a sleazy motel where he undresses and rapes her, photographing the whole thing so he can blackmail her into seeing him regularly.
One significant change Nolan made from the short story is that the original Chad was an ordinary guy, horrified at the things he was doing and unable to stop himself. TV Chad’s initial comments about women, plus his arrogant “no one’s going to stop me from getting what I want” attitude suggest to me that, while blackmailing a teacher into sex may be new to him, drugging drinks and date-rape probably aren’t.
This goes on for a month or so, until one evening when Chad’s mousy victim announces that she’s bored with him and his lack of imagination. Her body language and expression have completely changed, and Chad realizes that he’s not the one in charge of this game… and he never was from the moment that first sexual thought about Julie popped into his head. She wants to put an end to their relationship.
Drugging drinks isn’t a new experience for her either.
The only other thing I have to say about this segment is that, at the very end, after Julie has updated her scrapbook, she receives a new student who’s come to her for a tutorial. He’s played by a very young and cute Gregory Harrison. While jerky Chad’s fate has something of the feel of an EC Comics comeuppance to it, I feel sorry for what’s going to happen poor Greg.
Millicent and Therese
The second segment is the story of two sisters (Black, both of them) who despise each other.
Millicent is repressed and spinsterish, looking middle-aged when we’ll later learn that she’s only 26. Basically, the same type of character as professor Julie, but more uptight with primly pursed lips and thicker eyeglasses (actually, magnifying lenses; Black wore no eye makeup for the role and wanted her eyes to show up).
While Therese digs the rock-and-roll; the hotdog makes her lose control. What a crazy pair!
The two share the same big house, which they grew up in. As the story begins, their father has just died. After the funeral, Millicent sits watching home movies of Daddy and Therese before greeting a guest.
The second Dark Shadows‘ alumnus makes his appearance here. It’s John Karlen, as Therese’s latest lover, Mr Anmar. Millicent tells him what kind of dangerous woman he’s involved with, and provides some exposition about her sister before we even see Therese.
According to Millicent, Therese is involved in Satanism, Voodoo, and other flavors of the occult. There are plenty of books on the subject on the shelves. Therese picks up men like him to entrap their souls, but Millicent hopes to warn him and save him. Millicent also says that her sister seduced their father when she was 16, and was responsible for their mother’s “accidental overdose” of sleeping pills.
In an interesting but spot-on little piece of characterization, Mr Anmar disregards all of this and gently suggests that Millicent is mentally unbalanced. It’s only when Millicent says that Therese told her all about the kinky activities the two of them get up to, and how Therese laughed about him afterwards, that the man believes her and breaks off with Therese.
Millicent writes in her diary later that Therese trashed her room in revenge. She also calls her doctor-friend to come and help her–but when the doctor arrives, it’s Therese who answers the door. This is the first time we see her.
Though the fakey blonde wig and troweled-on makeup are a bit much, what impresses me here is the different body language Black uses to distinguish the two women. Millicent sits hunched with her knees pressed together while she writes in her diary. Therese sprawls across the sofa and invitingly pats the cushion beside her when she attempts to flirt with the doctor. She accuses him of being a virgin or gay when he turns her down, then tells him to get out and (revealingly) that they don’t need him.
It’s none of these events that push Millicent to act. The last straw seems to be when the little girl next door (played by Tracy Curtis, one of Dan’s daughters) tells her that Therese deliberately broke her doll. Millicent promises she’ll buy a new doll, and decides that her sister must die.
To that end, she consults Therese’s voodoo books and makes a little doll of her own to stab through the heart.
The results should surprise no one except Millicent.
I think that most people could see the twist ending of this story well in advance–not just because Karen Black is playing both roles, but because the entire set-up has a Robert Bloch-ish feel to it. He excelled at this kind of thing.
The final segment is a one-woman show, with one very active and bloodthirsty little prop.
Amelia (Black, one more time) is a meek young woman who is attempting to escape from her domineering and emotionally manipulative mother by moving out to her own apartment. She has a boyfriend, whom she hasn’t told Mom about yet. It’s hinted that this night, his birthday, she has hopes of spending the night with him.
As part of the birthday celebration, she’s bought him an unusual gift which she thinks he’ll enjoy as an anthropologist: A genuine Zuni hunting fetish. (Note: There is no such thing, really. In his interview on the BluRay, Matheson doesn’t even know which continent the Zunis live on.) The scroll of paper in the box with the little doll says that its name is He Who Kills and that the gold chain around the doll traps the warrior’s spirit within it.
Then Amelia makes her big mistake: She phones Mom.
Black redid the dialog in this scene. In Matheson’s original story and script, Amelia’s mother is an innocuous figure.
We never see Mom or hear her side of the conversation over the phone (only the dial tone when she hangs up on Amelia), but Amelia’s increasingly defensive and apologetic responses and her emotional reactions show us how quickly her self-confidence is destroyed by the things her mother says.
After her mother hangs up, Amelia talks to the ugly little doll, which has been in her hand or lap during the conversation. She insists that she isn’t going to have a headache–although it’s clear that she’s getting one–and that she’s not going to let Mom spoil her evening with her boyfriend–although she calls him soon afterward and cancels their birthday plans.
She emphatically sets the doll on the coffee table (she doesn’t slam it down), and the gold chain falls off.
Amelia changes into a bathrobe, fills the tub for a soak, and cuts up a piece of meat in the kitchen to put into the oven for her dinner. Passing back through the living room, she notices that the Zuni fetish doll is no longer on the coffee table. Assuming that it’s been knocked over, she checks under the couch and finds its rather flimsy, but pointy, spear, but no sign of the doll.
The next few minutes build up suspense as she hears the patter of tiny feet, glimpses a moving shadow, then can’t find the knife she left on the kitchen countertop. Amelia tells herself several times that what she thinks is happening can’t really be happening. Except that, yeah, it is–as the tiny Zuni guy will demonstrate when he starts by stabbing her in the leg.
I have a confession to make: I did not see most of Trilogy of Terror when it first aired. I was 10 at the time (just a couple of weeks short of 11), and was in another room of the house when my little brother and sister came running in, screaming.
Curious as to what could frighten them both so much, I ventured out into the living room, and this is what I saw:
We all watched the show to the end from the well-lit hallway (much as my sister and I would watch the second half of Jaws from the theater lobby later that summer).
Watching the attack on Amelia as a grown-up, I can see how flimsy the doll-puppet is. There are moments when it’s obviously being manipulated by someone just out of shot, or by Karen Black herself. Occasional, mis-matched insert shots show the doll alone against a black background, when no wall or surface in Amelia’s apartment is black. But none of this matters: the scene is unrelenting, brutal, and intense. It’s like the original Evil Dead, where you can clearly see that the zombie woman’s makeup ends right at the neckline of her sweatshirt, but her performance is so creepy and the assault on Ash so relentless that it doesn’t spoil things. There’s even a nice effect here that prefigures Evil Dead, where a low-moving camera, a dolls-eye view, scoots across the floor toward Amelia whenever she falls.
Amelia does her best to defend herself, to get out of the apartment or get into a safe room, to drown the vicious little guy in the bathtub, trap him in a suitcase, or stab him in the head. In the end, after he sinks his jagged teeth into her neck in the kitchen, she pries him off and throws him into the oven, where her dinner is burning. The doll goes up in flames.
Then Amelia makes her second big mistake: she opens the oven door…
In his BluRay commentary, film historian Richard Harlan Smith associates the attack of the Zuni fetish doll with racist attitudes about dark-skinned men coming after white women. In her interview, Karen Black connects it with women’s fear of small animals like mice and snakes–in particular, she says, that they might climb up your leg and get into places where you wouldn’t want a small animal to go.
But watching this again in the last few days, I can see what happens in this final segment as a wish fulfillment of Amelia’s that’s gone wrong. I think that the moment where she confides in the doll about her resentment against her mother is as important for what follows as the breaking of the gold chain. After the spirit in the doll is set free, it takes her through an extremely rough course of assertiveness training. It’s frightening and painful, but in the end Amelia is able to unleash her own inner Zuni warrior.
Mother will never trouble her again.
One last thing I learned from the commentary: the teeth in this final image, that has haunted many a young viewer, were Karen Black’s idea.