One night thirty-nine years ago we were watching TV, my siblings and I. There was a program on called “Trilogy of Terror.” It was a Dan Curtis production. We knew that name from his daytime success, “Dark Shadows.”
The first two stories had their merit, but didn’t catch our attention. We had watched it for the title, and so far, figured we got gypped. It was just something that was on.
Until the last story, “Amelia,” at the appearance of the “genuine Zuni fetish doll.”
The doll is about a foot and half tall, holds a spear, has wild hair, and a big wide mouth filled with lots of pointy teeth.
Based on the Richard Matheson short story, “Prey,” the film version requires the actor hold three phone conversations and speak to herself aloud occasionally over the course of twenty-six minutes, with no other actors, just herself. A demanding task, and Karen Black rises to the challenge.
We hadn’t seen “Easy Rider” or “Five Easy Pieces”—both with Jack Nicholson. We just saw a lady who was easy on the eyes, in an Elizabeth Montgomery sort of way for me—Montgomery was in “The Legend of Lizzie Borden,” also on ABC, a couple of months prior that year, 1975—and were interested to quickly learn that, according to the scroll that comes with the doll (purchased at a 3rd Avenue curio shop) the little golden chain mustn’t fall off of the doll: “Should this chain be removed, spirit and doll will become one living.”
As soon as she put down the doll, failing to notice that the chain fell off right away, that’s when we were hooked.
It didn’t impress us in the slightest that the same woman starred in several roles that night. In fact, I seem to remember finding it sort of unaccountable why one woman starred in various roles in the stories.
The young pretty brunette living in the apartment building calls her mom to let her know she wants to spend the night—er, evening—with her new anthropology teaching boyfriend on his birthday.
Realizing that she has disappointed and upset her mother, she calls the boyfriend. She tries to explain that her mother needs to see her, too. Black’s reaction to the phone—from which we hear nothing—lets us know that now the boyfriend is upset.
After hanging up—upset—she happens to notice that the doll isn’t on the table where she left it in the living room. That’s odd…
We hear the pitter-patter of little feet.
She fishes around under the sofa, and goes around behind the sofa, camera down close, with her face right in reach of anything hiding…
A noise comes from the kitchen.
“What’s going on?” she says. And goes into the kitchen.
A shadow flits past. She’s definitely not alone. Can it be? Did the hideous Zuni doll actually come to life? Will this story pay off, or will it be like all the others? Will its Gothic esthetic be of the Ann Radliffe type, or School of Scooby-Doo, wherein the highly atmospheric seemingly supernatural events prove to remain in the realm of the mundane, or will its esthetic fall into the “Monk” Lewis mold of the supernatural being exactly that?
Chalk one up for “Monk” Lewis! Turns out, a Zuni warrior doll with a kitchen knife is as real as it gets!
Fifteen years after “Psycho,” on TV, in color.
An ETA Hoffmann story in miniature. Most people are probably familiar with the beloved holiday classic “The Nutcracker,” but few know it comes from a creepy German Romantic reviewer of music—first-run Beethoven stuff, even—with a penchant for weird dolls in fiction that very much influenced young Edgar A. Poe.
There’s just something about the Doll Gone Wrong. From Talky Tina in a classic episode of “The Twilight Zone”—“I’m Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you”—to Corky the ventriloquist dummy in “Magic,” to the climactic conclusion of “Toy Story” when Woody scares Sid, the Doll Gone Wrong hits a nerve. It speaks to the manikin, little spirit-self, found worldwide that Fraser discusses in “The Golden Bough.”
The Zuni hunter doll, with its Indian connection—it doesn’t look remotely Zuni—nonetheless calls to mind as the source of the conflict the theft of the American land. Two years before Stephen King’s novel “The Shining,” there’s a scene in (thank you, Bates Motel) a bathroom with a knife.
Ultimately though, it’s Black’s performance that carries the show. What could have gone really badly doesn’t because of her. Acting is reacting. Here, Black has to react to a wooden doll. Which by itself is rather silly-looking. But she makes it come alive.
Personally, I very much dislike that Dan Curtis apparently requires Amelia try to—grab? stop?—the kitchen knife jabbing out of the suitcase in which she traps the doll. What does she think she’s doing? Of course she’s going to get cut! But on the other hand—the one less cut—hey, we were an emotionally engaged audience.
I’ll refrain from revealing the ending. Suffice to say, an indelible image. Makes me wonder if Stanley Kubrick wasn’t influenced by it, actually. I wonder if he got any input from Jack Nicholson.
From an interview I watched on YouTube (“VICE Meets: Horror Film Star Karen Black”), I learned that Karen Black did not like the idea of her name being primarily associated with horror movies. She had been in nearly two hundred films, only a small percentage of which falling into the genre category. A playwright and singer as well as an actor, for her the association was limiting. Marlon Brando was as dismissive of acting in general as Karen Black was of horror in particular.
Stewart Kirby books:
Much obliged, REDWOOD TIMES!