And so, in 1975, Dan Curtis, the writer/director of Dark Shadows and Night Stalker (my favorite Darrin McGavin vehicle, A Christmas Story notwithstanding) joined forces with writers William F. Nolan (Logan’s Run) and Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone, Duel) and star Karen Black, one of the quirkiest and sexiest actresses of the 70s, on Trilogy of Terror (Dark Sky Films), a triptych of made-for-TV horror tales. If you decide to give this one a look, I can save you a bit of time—about 50 minutes of the 76 minute running time, to be exact. Just ignore chapters one and two and skip to the third and final story. You’ll thank me later.
For argument’s sake, let’s say you decide to watch ’em all. What do you have in store? Well, the first tale is titled “Julie.” Black stars opposite her husband at the time, Robert “Skip” Burton (apparently, there was a time when grown men allowed themselves to be called Skip), who plays a randy college student scheming to bed his homely English professor. The whole thing put me in mind of Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher”—not in a good way, but in that it had me pining for the subtle wit and stylish delivery of David Lee Roth; which is another way of saying that while “Julie” might have played back in 1975, in the post-date-rape-drug/Mary Kay Letourneau world, the whole thing comes off as some sorta grim and banal postmodernist joke.
Where it takes at least 10 minutes to guess the impending twist in “Julie,” the second episode, “Millicent and Theresa,” tips its hand so clumsily that even Mr. Magoo would be able to read these cards. Black plays both of the titular characters, two feuding sisters of polar opposite personalities. Theresa is an Oedipal nightmare, a red-lipsticked harlot who may have killed her own mother to have sole claim on her father’s affections, while Millicent is a prude who is puckered up tighter than Pat Robertson’s orifices at a GLAAD fundraiser. There’s little to recommend Julie beyond the gimmicky appeal of watching Black throw herself into these two parts, and even that’s not enough. The story’s ability to engage us rests entirely upon Black’s faculty to sell us on these characterizations, and while she charismatic, her technical skills are far from staggering, and in this segment, that lack is on full display. These first two segments are the sort of tales that might have been popular in the era of Poe and Hawthorne, and only for those who found those masters’ works too challenging. They seem oddly hamstrung; they’re unwilling or unable to tap into established, efficient horror conventions, and absent such effort, both stories seem bland and forgettable.
But just when you’re ready to surrender all hope, along comes the third and final chapter, in which Black and her collaborators finally put it all together. “Amelia” is the story of a fragile and repressed woman, the victim of an overbearing mother trying to cut the figurative cord. To Black’s credit, she is able to establish this struggle immediately, in a brief phone call to her mother in which all the pertinent information is conveyed through Black’s reactions to her mother’s unseen, unheard yet palpable browbeating. As Amelia tries to break a date with her mother so she can spend the night with her new boyfriend on his birthday, her mother ladles on the guilt, reducing her apparently happy and confident daughter to a puddle of insecurities and doubts.