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Living Doll: Karen Black and Trilogy of Terror

For argument’s sake, let’s say you decide to watch ‘em all. What do you have in store?

Living Doll: Karen Black and Trilogy of Terror
Photo: ABC

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.

During this conversation, Curtis displays Amelia’s gift to her beau in the foreground: a Zuni hunting fetish doll, a particularly nasty-looking wood-carved devil with a jagged set of teeth and a vicious snarl on his face. My understanding is that these fetishes are intended to guarantee a successful hunt, but the way Curtis shoots the stalking sequences—setting his camera at crotch level throughout the second half of the episode—the fetish seems more clearly sexual in nature. The sexual myths of large African men imposing themselves on harmless or hapless (but secretly excited) white women is given an interesting twist here; the pygmy-esque doll, with his razor sharp teeth and maniacal war cry, proves, in an inverted Mandingo sort of way, a formidable foe for the reticent Amelia. Though Amelia is theoretically our surrogate, when the doll goes on the hunt, the camera takes its point-of-view, and when the bathrobed Amelia falls to the floor, the camera swoops in on her with gynecological precision. The threat of sexual invasion is explicit, incessant and pretty bloody terrifying. Throughout this segment, Curtis does an admirable job of building suspense. Once he establishes the doll’s potential for menace, he literally drops it out of sight, creating tremendous unease and discomfort as we await his inevitable attack. And when the warrior does attack, its weird guttural scream—so eerily anticipatory of the Tracy Flick battle cry in Election—is an undeniably effective bit of audio trickery. This is one fetish that you are not going to be able to ignore.

In the end, Amelia’s attempt to separate from her mother and start a new life that includes a career and a boyfriend unleashes an Electral rage and long-suppressed sexuality. In fact, all three stories have a vaguely Victorian and distinctly Freudian aura about them, particularly in their treatment of female repression. As a result, Black is a logical choice to pull a Peter Sellers (though such a comparison certainly flatters Black, who is at best a b-minus level actress to Sellers’ a-plus) and play four different roles in three tales. She has a simmering sexuality lurking just beneath the surface, and a B-movie actress’s willingness to risk looking ridiculous; and while it’s true that Black will never be mistaken for Meryl Streep, such acting chops are rarely required here. While the first two parts of this “thrillergy” do not stand the test of time particularly well, and “Amelia” alone proves worthy of our attention, it’s fun to see an appealing and dynamic actress give herself over to a project with such enthusiasm and lack of self-consciousness.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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