The Scariest 25 Minutes on U.S. Television
On March 4, 1975, ABC affiliate Channel 10 in Miami announced to viewers that the network’s debut of a made-for-TV suspense film titled Trilogy of Terror would not be airing as scheduled. The reason, according to the station, was that the movie was too unsettling for the 8:30 p.m. hour. They would show another movie instead, and push Trilogy of Terror into the 11:30 p.m. time slot.
In West Palm Beach, Channel 12 aired it in primetime, but made sure to offer a disclaimer that it might be disturbing for younger viewers.
In a culture that had recently been shaken by the 1973 release of The Exorcist and a resulting glut of occult fiction, it seemed unlikely that a modestly-budgeted network Movie of the Week could rattle station managers to the point that they were concerned for their viewers' welfare. And for two-thirds of its modest 90-minute slot, Trilogy of Terror bordered on the forgettable. Actress Karen Black, who had earned an Oscar nomination for Five Easy Pieces, played multiple roles in the anthology, with the first two—about a seductive teacher and vengeful twin sister—little more than stock fare.
The third, “Amelia,” was very different. In essentially a one-woman play, Black portrays a character hoping to impress her anthropologist boyfriend by gifting him with an African “Zuni fetish doll,” a fearsome-looking warrior cast in wood and grasping a spear. Alone in her apartment, Black finds that the doll is more spirited than your typical toy. As he hacks and slashes at her feet and hides behind furniture, it’s not quite clear whether Black will conquer her tiny terror, go mad, or both.
In the more than 40 years since its original airing, “Amelia” has seared itself into the public consciousness, with viewers genuinely riveted by Black’s plight against the fanged terror. Prior to her death in 2013, Black said she was approached by fans to talk about her fight with a killer doll more than all of her other roles combined; when writer Richard Matheson went in for meetings, he was often approached by executives who admitted to wetting themselves watching the film as a child. Channels 10 and 12 may have been on to something.
The concept for “Amelia” had been hatched over a decade earlier, when Matheson was working on The Twilight Zone. Pitching a script titled “Devil Doll” to series creator Rod Serling, the draft was deemed too grim for 1960s broadcast standards. Matheson tweaked the idea slightly for “The Invaders,” about an isolated, mute woman (Agnes Moorehead) who is terrorized by a tiny fleet of miniature alien explorers. (Another classic episode, “Talky Tina,” about a doll who threatens her owner’s abusive stepfather, had no overt connection with Matheson.)
Years later, Matheson found himself in frequent collaboration with director Dan Curtis (The Night Stalker, Dark Shadows). The two came up with the idea for Trilogy of Terror and pitched it to ABC. Writer William F. Nolan scripted two Matheson stories; Matheson himself scripted the third installment based on “Prey,” a short story he had written based on his abandoned Twilight Zone idea, which first appeared in a 1969 issue of Playboy.
Matheson figured “Amelia” would be the standout, and admitted he was selfish to keep it for himself to script. But the network and Curtis felt the stunt of casting Black in all three stories—for a total of four roles, including the second installment’s twins—would be the hook. Black was not initially interested in the material, agreeing to star only when her manager was able to secure a role for her then-husband, Robert Burton.
Shooting “Amelia” necessitated three puppets, which proved problematic to operate. In interviews, Black said that the crew sometimes resorted to simply throwing the doll at her in order to simulate movement; its head or arm tended to fall off during simulated running.
Deprived of the production’s gaffes, viewers didn’t find a lot to laugh about. The final third of Trilogy of Terror is largely silent, with Black being browbeaten by her overbearing mother (appearing offscreen via telephone) and hoping to calm herself with a shower. With the doll springing to life, she uses everything within reach—a suitcase, an ice pick, an oven—to combat whatever evil force she has awakened in the creature. In the closing moments, it becomes clear that the seemingly-vanquished doll isn’t done claiming victims.
Trilogy of Terror was repeated on ABC over the years and came to the home videocassette market in the early 1980s under the title Terror of the Doll. A combination of its being difficult to screen and people's fleeting recollections of the violent little savage led the movie to develop a cult following.
Don Mancini, who wrote the Child’s Play series—a seventh entry, Cult of Chucky, is due in October—and Child’s Play director Tom Holland have spoken about the influence Trilogy of Terror had on their iconic killer doll; a 1996 Trilogy of Terror sequel brought the Zuni doll back for an encore, although it didn't generate nearly as much interest as the original.
When it finally received wide distribution with a 1999 home video re-release, Black bemoaned that people seemed to have remembered Trilogy of Terror at the expense of the rest of her career. “I wish they said, ‘That wonderful movie you did for Robert Altman,’ but they don’t,” she said. “They say, ‘That little doll.’”