Abominable Anthologies: Trilogy of Terror (1975) Review

And now for something a smidge different. This is the first of series of posts I am going to write about the myriad of horror anthologies that are out there. These bite sized tales of terror, often stand alone fables bookended by a framing narrative structure, have been scaring audiences since far back as 1919 (Eerie Tales, directed by Richard Oswald is often credited with being the first). They enjoyed a brief burst of popularity in the 1960s, with the release of Black Sabbath (1963), Dr Terrors Night of Horrors (1965) and Torture Garden (1967), among others. In 1982 George A Romero and Stephen King bought us the incredibly fun Creepshow, which has become the touchstone of the sub-genre for all modern releases of such films. The first film I am going to look at falls in the middle, having been made in 1975. Let’s dive in then, to the Trilogy of Terror (Spoilers To Follow)

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Trilogy of Terror is an anthology of three unconnected tales of terror all starring the sadly recently departed Karen Black, with the also sadly departed Richard Matheson on screenwriting duty. It is slightly unusual in that is a TV movie, as opposed to a cinematic release. Not many of these achieve any sort of fame or have people even remembering them the week after they were aired, but Trilogy of Terror is different. As decent as the other two stories are, its place in the cinematic world is all thanks to one tiny, but horrifically memorable, little fellow (anyone who has seen the film will have no doubt who I am referring to). But his story comes later. First, there’s a woman I’d like you to meet by the name of Julie.

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Julie Eldrich is a shy, bookish teacher. She prefers to stay in and work and has no interest in dating. ‘You could be attractive’ her lovely supportive friend tells her. I’ll point out now that Karen Black is stunningly pretty and has merely been given the classic uglyfication objects of glasses, an up do, and long skirts to showcase her apparent lack of attractiveness. These holy affects of hideousness do not put off student Chad (Robert Burton) however. He thinks he’s glimpsed something there, and makes it his mission to bed the teacher, despite the misgivings of his friend Eddie (James Storm). Chad pursues Julie in a way that can only be described as ‘enthusiastically rapey’, and eventually she agrees to go to see a movie with him, for which he wears possibly the world’s nattiest outfit. Things get a lot more rapey very quickly when Chad spikes Julie’s drink, takes her to a motel (checking them in under Mr and Mrs Jonathan Harker, in a not so subtle Dracula reference), and photographs the unconscious Julie in a variety of provocative poses. Then Chad removes his jacket and it is inferred that he gets actually rapey and I want a rabid dog to take a massive chunk out of his balls.

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Chad continues down this path of me wanting all the plagues to rain down upon him, and his testicles, by blackmailing Julie with the photographs he took, claiming he would say that she seduced him and therefore ruin her reputation and life. She agrees to go along with his twisted desires. Which seems to include turning her into his personal sex slave and pimping her out to his friends. Did I mention I really don’t like this crotchfruit? His comeuppance cannot come soon enough.

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My blood lust does not have long to wait, as Julie reveals her true colours. It was her who masterminded the whole thing. She planted the idea of sexually pursuing her in his mind, and manipulated him into it. “Did you really think that dull little mind of yours could possibly have conceived any of the rather dramatic experiences we’ve shared? Why do you think you suddenly had the overwhelming desire to see what I looked like under ‘all those clothes?’ Don’t feel bad… I always get bored after a while.” she coldly states, as she dispassionately watches Chad in his death throes, having poisoned his drink. She drags his dead body into the darkroom and sets fire to incriminating photographs. Later, she is back in Demure Julie mode and mourning Chad’s death. Once alone, however, she cuts out the article regarding the death in the newspaper  and adds it to a scrapbook containing clippings of reports of young men who also suffered at her hands. As she does so there is a knock at the door. Behind it a young male student in need of tutoring. “I’m sure we’re going to be great friends”, says Julie pleasantly, inviting him in.

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I actually didn’t see the twist coming, and I thought it was well played. The transformation of Demure Julie to Murderer Julie is ably portrayed by Karen Black, although she almost comes close to scenery chewing when Murderer Julie fully comes to the fore. The method with which she manipulated Chad is a bit vague. There doesn’t seem to be any supernatural element to it, although Julie’s surname is Eldrich, which is close to ‘Eldritch’ (an old word for ‘strange’ or ‘uncanny’), a word associated with witchcraft. While some think that Julie merely used high levels of manipulation, and had the talent to subconsciously  implant thoughts in the boy’s mind, while others have theorised that Julie was a witch, and that was how she invaded her victims minds. Speaking of victims. How much of a victim was Julie in her dealings with Chad? It is implied he committed some terrible acts on her, but was she colluding on it the whole time? What about when he possibly raped her when she was unconscious? She apparently just implanted the idea of seducing her with her mind. Could she possibly of foreseen what he was going to do? Chad being the victim at the end flips the situation on head somewhat, but I couldn’t feel much sympathy for him, unless Julie totally brainwashed him and made him do all the things he did, he was still a reprehensible person. Well directed and tightly written, it is an engaging first story in the trilogy.

Millicent and Therese

On the day of her fathers funeral, Millicent writes in her diary about her sister Therese. Therese is involved in Satanism, drugs and sexual deviancy and drove their father to his death. A friend visits the house and Millicent pours out her heart to him. Therese is evil. She seduced their father when she was 16 and had an incestuous relationship with him for years, before killing their mother. The friend is unconvinced, until Millicent tells him that she knows about the unsavoury things that he and Therese did together. When he leaves Millicent phones her doctor and begs him to help her, saying that Therese is out of control. While Millicent is brunette, prudish and up tight, Therese is a seductive and confident blonde. When Dr Ramsey (George Gaynes) comes to the house Therese is there alone. She laughs off the doctor’s concerns and makes him leave.

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Millicent, driven to despair, resolves to take care of Therese permanently, by using a voodoo doll that her sister used in her devil worship. She gathers all the things she needs to complete the ritual; hair, nail clippings and the like. She rings Dr Ramsey and tells him that Therese won’t be a problem any more, despite the Doctor’s frantic protestations. When the Doctor gets to the house he finds Therese’s dead body, with the voodoo doll lying next to her. When the ambulance arrives he asks to see the body before it is taken away. He rubs off the red lipstick and removes the blonde wig to reveal Millicent. Millicent Therese Larimore suffered from the most advanced form of multiple personality disorder he had ever encountered. Millicent created Therese in order to cope with the fact that she had slept with her father. So the ‘murder’ of her sister was actually a suicide.

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Or was it? Dr Ramsey states that the cause of death is ‘unknown’. So there is the chance there was some sort of supernatural element involved, and the wee voodoo doll does look pretty menacing. This story was weaker than the first, with the twist being glaringly obvious in the first couple of minutes. Karen Black tries her best with the dual roles but over sells the Therese role, doing better in the part of Millicent, making her brittleness seem both believable and unnerving, albeit in a Whatever Happened To Baby Jane type way. The dialogue is pure fromage in places, and the whole segment is very soapy and chock full of camp, but is none the less entertaining for it. The lazy twist just ruins it somewhat.

Amelia

Amelia is a young woman who has recently moved out of her overbearing mother’s house and into her own apartment (well, subletting it anyway) in an attempt to be more independent. Its Friday night and she has a date with her new boyfriend for his birthday. She’s bought him a gift, which is lovely and thoughtful isn’t it folks? It’s in a box, so she opens it up and takes the gift out to admire it, I bet she got him something really nice, and…HOLY FUCK WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?? It’s only what is probably the scariest doll ever conceived from a human brain. Well, technically it’s a Zuni warrior fetish, all sharp teeth, evil little eyes and grotesque face, he is a mean looking bastard. He’s clutching a spear and has a good chain wrapped around him that keeps the Zuni hunter’s spirit trapped inside the fetish. Should the chain break…well, he’s called ‘He Who Kills’, so what do you think would happen? Amelia seems to think the thing’s adorable. She rings her mother to cancel their regular Friday night plans so she can go on her date. He mother proceeds to give Amelia what can only be described as a contender for the biggest guilt trip of all time. From what we can hear from Amelia’s side of the conversation, she sounds like an utter, controlling nightmare. Disheartened, Amelia  goes to get ready for her date. As she leaves the room the gold chain falls off the fetish.

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After preparing her dinner and putting it in the oven she returns to the living room to find the doll gone (cue the entire audience looking fearfully under their chairs). Odd noises sound throughout the apartment as Amelia searches for the doll, but she finds only it’s spear, on which she cuts her finger. When she returns to the kitchen to clean up she notices the knife she used to cut her steak is missing. She is starting to get more and more disturbed and returns to the living room nervously. Suddenly the doll attacks her, viciously stabbing at her ankles in a bloody frenzy of violence and high-pitched tribal screams. Terrified, she tries to get away but it’s incredibly persistent and chases her around the apartment, attempting to stab her all the while. She manages to get to the bedroom and ring the police and in a massive clunker of a line of dialogue claims she doesn’t know where she lives. I suppose she could have been out of her mind with pure terror but when she was on her phone to her mother earlier she stated she’d been living in the apartment for 6 months so I’m just going to put that down to a badly written line. The fetish manages to get to the doorknob and gets into the room. Amelia flees to the bathroom, where she manages to trap the doll in a towel and then proceeds to try and drown it, to no avail (here’s a tip. It’s made of wood. Get something very heavy and smash the little fucker to pieces).

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The doll gives chase again. Amelia tries to leave the apartment but finds the doll has somehow bent the dead lock back, trapping her in the flat. She seeks refuge in a cupboard, where she manages to catch the thing in a suitcase. The creature still has it’s knife though, and is still very tenacious. It starts cutting into the suitcase to try to escape. Amelia retaliates with a bigger knife, but when she opens to suitcase to check it is dead, it leaps out at her, eventually cornering her in the kitchen. When it launches itself at her and bites into her neck she manages to grab it and hurl it into the oven, and keeps the door shut as the fetish goes up in flames. When it’s tortured little screams have faded, she slowly opens the oven door, only to be engulfed in black smoke… Amelia phones her mother again. She apologises for the earlier phone call and invites her to come over to the apartment for dinner. She then rips the lock off the door and crouches down in corner, clutching a knife. As she starts to stab the floor with the knife in a steady rhythm she smiles, revealing the terrible, jagged teeth of the Zuni fetish, whose spirit has taken over her body. It’s a chilling final shot.

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And thus a generation of childhood nightmares was born. What a nasty little sod that doll was. When I’ve read reviews of this film it is always this tale which a) people remember and enjoy the most, and b) shit up a load of folk who first saw this film when they were children, scaring them stupid. I actually wish I had seen this when I was little, as I can see how terrifying this doll would be to young eyes, as I was when I first saw Gremlins when I was about 7. If I’d seen this film when I was that age I would have been paralysed with fear, as nature intended. Having seen it for the first time as an adult, as long as finding it creepy and grotesque, I also kind of want one as a pet (what that says about me I don’t know!) In some ways the doll was more disturbing when it wasn’t moving. As when it’s animated, with it’s frenzied, relentless attacking, and high-pitched little battle screams, it has to walk the fine line between being scary and being silly. And for the most part it succeeds in being scary. Karen Black is at her best in this performance, throwing everything into it (and apparently she added her own ideas to the story, such as her character having the Zuni’s teeth at the end). The direction is tight and well done, and so much credit to the effects guys and cinematographer for making the fetish come to life and go mental without it looking like an obvious puppet. It is very well written by Richard Matheson (except for maybe the line about Amelia not knowing where she lives), and was adapted from one of his own short stories, called Prey. It is wholly down to this segment that the film is remembered as fondly as it is (or at all), for as well made as the first two are, they have nothing in them as memorable as the Zuni fetish, and it’s nasty little ways.

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Amelia is definitely the best segment in the film, with Julie being the second best and Millicent and Therese being the weakest of the three for me. Karen Black is impressive in all four of her roles, and the direction by Daniel Curtis is consistently good, keeping the stories zipping along at a rattling speed, whilst still finding time for some slow build up, such as the scene in Amelia as she tentatively moves around the apartment before she sees the fetish alive for the first time. The musical score veers slightly into over the top territory at times, and put me in mind of the music used in the Hammer films. Overall it is a very entertaining anthology, and the fact that it is was originally a failed TV pilot turned into a TV movie of the week makes it durability throughout the years an impressive feat, even if most of that is down to what must be the worst birthday present ever.

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(Apparently you can buy models of the Zuni fetish. I’m seriously considering adding one to my Christmas list!)

The Town That Dreaded Sundown Review

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At first glance 1976′s The Town That Dreaded Sundown neatly fills the ‘mysterious masked killer’ gap in between 1974′s Black Christmas and 1978′s Halloween in the slasher genre. However there is some debate to be had whether The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a slasher film or not. I’ve seen folks refer to it more of crime drama, or a mystery. Maybe these people don’t like the slasher label, and feel it demeans the film in some way? It certainly has many of the hallmarks; the aforementioned masked killer, pretty young victims, bumbling cops, inventive deaths, a tension filled chase through the woods, spiky musical score and so on. It also has the genuinely unsettling fact that it is based on a true crime that was never solved. And not in the sense that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was very loosely based on the crimes of Ed Gein. In 1946 the town of Texarkana was terrified by a series of five murders, of mostly young lovers, who were killed by a hooded man who became known as the Phantom Killer. He was never caught. That isn’t to say that the film changed nothing of the original case, and the fact that at the beginning the film states that ‘only names have been changed’ is clearly untrue (death by trombone is far too ridiculous to have actually happened for a start. Yeah, there’s a death by actual trombone in the film). But the fact that the base story here was reality for the residents of Texarkana, and not really that long ago either, is fairly chilling, with a veneer of exploitation on behalf of the film makers – Although seeing as Texarkana townsfolk appeared in the film as extras, they didn’t see it as malicious intent on behalf on the film makers to exploit their suffering. The cops who investigated the real case however, have more cause to be annoyed by their portrayal in the film. We’ll get to that later, let’s look at the film itself first.

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The film is presented in a semi documentary format, with Vern Stierman as the narrator, which I found slightly jarring at first, until I got used to it, it put me in mind of one of those Disney live action documentaries from the 1960s. But with more death. A young couple, parked in a local ‘lovers lane’, have their make-out session interrupted by a man wearing a hood over his face (I would be quite frankly, staggered, if the makers of Friday 13th Part 2 didn’t take inspiration from the Phantom Killer for Jason’s look in that film). He pulls the boy out the car and then attacks the girl, although the both survive the attack, and the police are on immediate alert, warning the town to stay away from lover’s lanes and other secluded spots. The next couple to be attacked are not so lucky and are both shot to death by the killer. Deputy Ramsey (Andrew Prine) saw the Phantom Killer make his escape by car (no magical serial killer powers of instant transportation for him), but couldn’t catch up to the killer. Frustrated by their lack of progress in the case, the police call in Captain Morales (Ben Johnson), a renown criminal investigator. The town is curfewed and the residents don’t feel safe in their own homes. After a local high school dance, Morales sets up cross dressing policeman as decoys, hoping to draw the killer out (are we sure he’s a famous crime buster? It’s a ploy worthy of Chief Wiggum). His plan doesn’t work and two more people are killed; one shot and the girl tied to a tree and stabbed to death when the killer attaches a knife to a trombone and ‘plays’ it, in a scene just a little to silly to be scary, which is a shame, as it is preceded by a great chase sequence as the girl runs through the woods trying to escape the killer. Morales is disheartened by the latest killings, and the police are kept busy dealing with the idiocy inside their own station (‘comedy’ cops – just say no, slasher films) and the town’s locals, who are lining up to either dob their neighbours in as the Phantom Killer, or to demand greater protection from the cops. One red herring and slightly stupid chase sequence later, Helen Reed (Dawn Wells) makes her way home, followed by the killer. At her house, the killer shoots her husband and then Helen, although she manages to get away to the safety of a neighbour’s house, and his gun, which the killer flees upon seeing (he had abandoned his gun in favour of a pick axe at this point). When Ramsey and Morales receive a phone call about an abandoned car that matches the description of the car that Ramsey saw on the night of the first murders they race to the scene. They find the car and venture into the woods to search for him, eventually tracking him down and the final chase ensues. At a railway track the Phantom Killer manges to jump over the track just before the world’s longest goods train hurtles past. The cops shoot at the killer from under the train, wounding him in the leg in a totally out-of-place Peckinpah style slow motion shot which I found a little bit hilarious, not going to lie. The Phantom Killer limps off (after taking a shot-gun shot to the knee I might add), and is never seen again. The killings stop, but the murderer was never caught, and the film ends as the narrator intones; “Texarkana today still looks pretty much the same. And if you should ask people on the street what they believe happened to the Phantom Killer, most would say that he is still living here… and is walking free”.

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Written down like that the film seems to be the typical paper-thin plot of a slasher film. And the actual plot, once you take away the ‘real life’ aspect of it, is fairly transparent. And like other slasher films, it has some impressive set pieces, with the chase of the girl through the woods being particularly tense, amped up by the fact there was no music score playing so all you could hear were her frantic breathing and the sounds of the Phantom Killer closing in on her. It was a shame it cumulated in her death by musical instrument, which drained the suspense out of the scene for me, I thought it was a bit silly. Further silliness abounded in the police station, where the police, with the exception of Ramsey and Morales were basically portrayed as bumbling oafs. The most irritating of which was Patrolman Benson, played by Charles Pierce, also the film’s director, who was painfully unfunny, highlighted (lowlighted?) in the scene where the character couldn’t find his car keys, which I estimated that lasted about 2 days. He should have stayed behind the camera, where he does do a decent job. The cross dressing ‘hilarity’ (Some Like It Not?) was greeted with a stony faced weariness from me, it was very Benny Hill and just jarred too much with the scenes featuring the Phantom Killer. I didn’t find bumbling comedy cops funny in Last House On The Left, and I don’t find them funny here. It’s like the film wanted these two aspects (horror and comedy) featured equally but they didn’t gel well together. And then they try to add in a third aspect, Dukes of Hazzard Good Ol’ Boy style – Wacky car chases (including one car plunging into a lake, more side-splitting humour there) and the like. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy or recommend the film, I liked it a lot, just not all of the sums that added up to its parts. If this film was played straight, or toned down the comedy, or at least made it actually funny, it could have been a genuinely scary reconstruction of a shocking event.

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So it is a slasher film? Despite it’s best attempts not to be (I enjoyed the documentary style, and thought the narration was well done), I would say it is closer to being a slasher than it is a crime drama, and very definitely closer to being a slasher than a comedy. It may not be a slasher as the term is now defined thanks to the Halloween and Friday 13th films, but it has enough elements (and originated a few) to qualify in my opinion. The Town That Dreaded Sundown, slasher or no, has certainly influenced enough of the films that followed in the 1970s and 1980s to have its legacy assured in the slasher cannon, whether it wants to or not.

R.I.P Anthony Hinds (1922-2013)

Anthony Hinds, 'Hammer Films' producer and screenwriter. Circa 1955.

Yesterday the world of horror cinema lost Anthony Hinds, producer of some of Hammer Horrors greatest films, including The Quatermass Xperiment, Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and Hound of the Baskervilles. Basically in some way we have him to thank for bringing both the pure, unadulterated joy that is Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, (whether together or apart) to the public consciousness, an act of greatness that for which we should be eternally grateful. And yet… When I first saw news of his death on (where else?) Twitter, I popped off to the BBC News website to confirm it. No mention there. Next stop, The Guardian. Nothing. Eventually Twitter confirmed it for me, via the Hammer Horror account. Today, when I checked those same websites again, plus The Telegraph website (The Times is behind a pay wall and there’s no way on earth I’m giving The fucking Daily Mail any clicks) there was still no reference to it (the print editions may have done, but I haven’t seen them). I thought this was sad.

I’m not even entirely sure why. Maybe because I think someone who had a hand in many films I love deserved more notice on his passing. Maybe because the old Hammer Films are now though of as so old and passe they don’t merit much spotlight in the media, let alone the people who were involved in making them. Most likely I’m being weirdly overly sensitive about it (to be honest I don’t even know *that* much about Anthony Hinds, and at 91 years, he had a bloody good innings), but for some reason it struck a chord with me (I had no such feelings when Jimmy Sangster died in 2011, although of course I found it sad news). After I had given myself a metaphorical kick in the head I realised that feeling vaguely upset about something like the lack of media attention was silly and that if I wanted to see a list of Anthony Hind’s achievements I could write about them myself. And even if no one reads this (likely), I will have done my own (unimportant but possibly cathartic in some bizarre way) remembrance for the man.

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Anthony Hinds (who was the son of William Hinds, the founder of Hammer Films) essentially kick started Hammer’s direction into focusing mainly on horror in 1953 when the company bought the rights to The Quartermass Experiment from the BBC, after they had produced a television version. In 1955 The Quartermass Xperiment was released and was a huge success (it also didn’t shy away from the new ‘X’ film certificate that other studios were wary of, beginning the Hammer trend of occasional, but always entertaining, lurid advertising). With the Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, the Hammer trademark of gothic horror was well and truly stamped. Hinds had enough faith in Jimmy Sangster’s script to give it a bigger budget and to stand up to the BBFC when they expressed dismay with it’s “horror and gruesome detail”, refusing to comprise the script’s content. Hinds can also be credited with Hammer’s use of country houses for filming, saving on set building costs. Curse of Frankenstein (directed by Terrence Fisher) was filmed at the famous Bray Studios House, in full colour. The result is a terrific film and the beginning of the aforementioned Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing Duo of Awesomeness. The dream team of Sangster, Hinds, Fisher, Cushing and Lee reunited just a year later for Dracula; which like Curse of Frankenstein before it, was vastly changed from the original source material. Anthony Hinds continued to show his flair for capturing public interest by requesting press that while in costume Christopher Lee should only be photographed from the back, in order to preserve the surprise for cinema goers when he was revealed. “We feel it might spoil the fun for millions of film goers if they see what Dracula looks like before they take their seats in a cinema”, he stated. Such tactics paid off and the film was a huge success, and still considered a classic today, often being shown in independent cinemas at Halloween. Once these films had thrashed out the classic Hammer formula between them, the studio for a while became wildly prolific, putting out films at a rapid rate and redefining the horror genre (there really is nothing like the classic Hammer blood, thick and vivid as poster paint and fully marvellous).

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Under the name John Elder, Anthony Hinds also displayed a talent for screen writing; penning Phantom of the Opera, The Reptile and Taste The Blood Of Dracula among others. Taking on these dual roles of producing and writing gave Hinds a unique insight into the world of film production, for which he had an unfailing passion. While most producers worry about spending as little as possible even if it meant releasing an inferior product, Hinds was all about making the very most of what you’ve got. Having to keep an ever watchful eye on the budget did not mean corners could be cut and that folk could slack off because it was “just a horror film”. Every Hammer film looked polished and loved, and some of this must to due to the care and attention Hinds gave these films, an attitude one imagines he passed to all that he worked with.

Hammer Films have been tentatively dipping it’s toes back into the horror waters, since it rose from the dead in 2007, having made Let Me In in 2010, Wake Wood and The Resident in 2011 and The Women In Black in 2012. The Women In Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe as the world’s least convincing widower, was a massive hit, it also returned Hammer to it’s classic roots; period costumes, isolated locations, pitch fork wielding locals, and a running sense of dread. (Although I admit the stage show was much scarier, having seen it earlier in the year. First time ever in the theatre where people screamed in fear. And I’ve seen the musical Cats five times). One can only hope that the new show runners at Hammer have the passion, insight and joie de vivre that Anthony Hinds had for the company and they will continue his legacy, scaring audiences for many more years to come.

Anthony Hinds. 1922-2013. Thank you for the chills and thrills good sir. R.I.P

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