Friday, October 8, 2010
The Goosebump Moment -- Trilogy of Terror (1975)
Take a close look at this TV Guide page. On the night of Tuesday, March 5, 1975, (a school night, mind you)...kids had a choice at 8:00 of watching Good Times or Happy Days (or whatever was on NBC). The likely choice was Happy Days, which was in its 2nd season and had started to prominently feature Fonzie. In tonight's episode you'll see that he manipulates Richie and Potsie into letting him join the band (to meet chicks, of course!) This episode is notable not only because Potsie sings "Splish Splash!" -- Really, again?! but also because much of it is filmed on the recently abandoned Brady Bunch sets!)
But I digress....
So as the Happy Days closing credits ended, America's children were treated to the ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week -- Trilogy of Terror (remember, no cable, and no remotes -- everyone was too lazy to get up and change the channel).
If these kids hung around for another hour, they ended up seeing a 70's pop cultural milestone.
The trilogy in question amounted to three short vignettes all starring ubiquitous cross-eyed 70s actress Karen Black. Karen played a different character in each one (swapping out wigs for good measure) -- the first two were fairly pedestrian twilight-zoney mysteries that had a little twist at the end....nothing particularly notable.
But then Part 3, innocuously titled "Amelia", came on. This is a solo tour de force for Black over the next 25 minutes, as she discovers that the little present she bought for her boyfriend wasn't what she bargained for.
Here's the setup: Karen/Amelia gets home from work with a vaguely coffin-shaped package and has a very loooonng phone conversation with her mother, explaining that she has bought her boyfriend this ugly Zuni warrior doll as a gift (imagine what a weirdo Arthur must be!)
Then after arguing with mom (we only ever hear her part of the conversation), she wanders around and starts a bath, calls mom back to apologize, and then has a very looooonng phone conversation with the boyfriend. All of this is done is extremely slow medium shot single takes where the camera barely moves. This, coupled with the flat 70s soap-opera lighting, lulls the viewer into a state of boredom. Unlike some of the previous clips, there's no suspense build-up AT ALL. (yawn, right?) And half the running time is over....
But that's where the Director (Dan Curtis, a veteran of Dark Shadows) is being clever....he brings the horrible into the mundane, and then quickly (very quickly) ratchets things up with music, quick cuts, close-ups, tilted camera work, and a seriously crazy little doll.
Laugh if you will....now.....but this movie became a rite of passage for freaked out little 70s preteens, primarily male. In those days, remember there were no VCRs, so a movie's reputation was built solely on word-of-mouth. In fact, that's why I know that this little 5th grader wasn't watching that March evening (is it possible I was watching Good Times and the CBS lineup instead?!?)
The reason I know is that I distinctly remember hearing about this movie several times over the next few years but never managing to see it. I felt so left out, burgeoning little movie buff that I was. Most memorable was a virtual shot-by-shot description during an 8th grade Latin class from my friend Kevin Mayo, who truly painted a picture of "you-won't-believe-this" horror.
Thanks to Kevin sparing no detail, when I finally saw it (on Money Movie 7 no less!), I wasn't scared so much as excited that I was finally in the Club.
So....join the club....and witness what passed for Family Hour entertainment in 1975. And marvel how Karen Black managed to pull this off without cracking up or winking at the audience -- she plays it completely straight and over the top. I particularly love how she keeps talking to herself, like when she starts to creep herself out and shouts "What's going on?" into the other room (which is exactly the kind of thing people do when they're alone and scared). And check out the look on her face when she's cowering on the bed and the little thing is climbing up the bedspread. Awesome. But nothing -- Nothing! -- beats the final shot of the episode -- which is not shown here, you'll have to go see it for yourself.... (or ask Kevin to describe it to you....)