It’s the Karen Black show! This triple-threat horror anthology is obviously modeled after the ghoulish EC Horror Comics morality tales, where freakishly supernatural things happen to ordinary people, but what makes them endure in the audience’s memory is the striking lead performance. Black plays the female protagonist in each story, and she’s the kind of extreme actress who not only acts with her eyes and face, but with her neck, her fingertips, her elbows, wrists, and torso. Gusto is not the word. Of the three tales, the third is the one everyone remembers, where she plays an ordinary gal who has moved into a sublet after finally escaping the clutches of her domineering mother, only to be terrorized by a possessed Zuni fetish doll. The creepy-looking doll is a wiry little thing with a tuft of shocking black hair and its predominant feature is razor sharp teeth, and when it comes after Black with its spear and a miniature steak knife, it shrieks, “Ayayayayaya!” Bordering on the comical, and way behind the times in the special effects department, it’s still an effective adversary for Karen Black, with both of them topping one another in physical acrobatics (it sprints across the room waving its tiny knife as she trips over the couch, the chairs, and the bumps in the rug). The script by Richard Matheson is a mini-masterpiece of slow-building tension escalating into full throttle maniacal action (he handled this on a larger scale in his script for Steven Spielberg’s similarly minimalist suspense classic Duel), and the visuals by director Dan Curtis are appropriately whirlwind. Most of the time, these battles with mini-monsters are laughable, but Black is such a volcano of emotion she keeps you with her character at every moment, her face charged with victory when she locks the little bastard in a suitcase only to fall into defeat when it starts slicing through the fabric with its razor sharp knife. The other two episodes are fun also, with Black in the first playing a schoolteacher who turns the tables on a horny college student eager to get in her pants, and in the other embodying two sisters, the sexy blonde one and the frumpy spinster, who utterly despise one another. But those who saw the original Trilogy of Terror on TV, and those like myself who caught it on video years later, usually discuss this third episode exclusively, as well as the shock ending with Black’s nefarious ear-to-ear grin. Who loves you, baby?
For a TV movie, the picture and audio quality are surprisingly good, with only the occasional flatness of sound common to television programs of that era.
As expected, Karen Black is a real trip in her feature-length commentary, which she shares with screenwriter William F. Nolen (who adapted the first two tales from Richard Matheson's memorable short stories; Matheson knew the third was going to be the prize and kept it to himself). She speaks fawningly of her hair and the way her "beautiful porcelain skin" is lit. When Nolen tries to get a few words in edgewise, she teases him, then reclaims her place at center stage, and even tries to inject some diva pathos into her monologue, wondering aloud, "Was I a nicer person back then? Probably." And during her seduction scene with actor George Gaynes, she coos, "I wonder if I was turning him on.George, I mean! I wonder what he was thinking!" There is also a featurette that covers the Black's career, mostly dealing with Trilogy of Terror where she takes credit for some of the dialogue and says some of the best scenes in the film were her idea in the first place. After all that, the accompanying interview with talented screenwriter Richard Matheson is a trifle dull, as he rather indifferently walks through his resume.
Karen Black versus an obviously fake wooden doll is surprisingly credible, scary, and balls to the wall exciting.