Friday, March 26, 2010

Trilogy of Terror, and Station Error

As these March days dwindle down to a precious few, I can't let this month slip away without marking it as the 35th anniversary of a seminal moment in 70s Horror, as March 4th, 1975 was the original broadcast date of Trilogy of Terror, the Dan Curtis-directed made-for-television movie that struck a fearsome chord in the hearts of those who saw it. While its first two tales - "Julie" and "Millicent and Therese" - were standard issue chillers, it was the third offering - "Amelia" - that catapulted the film into instant classic status. Adapted from the Richard Matheson story "Prey," it told the tale of a young woman trapped within the confines of an apartment and fending off the murderous advances of He Who Kills, an African Zuni fetish doll brought to ferocious, shrieking life when the chain around the not-quite knee-high doll breaks, allowing the warrior spirit within to animate it with hellish intensity. Certainly no one reading this blog needs me to detail that 25 minutes of television at any greater length; I am assuming you have all seen it - many, many times, right? (Nod heads in agreement, gentle Jarheads.) And you would be safe in assuming that, at the age of twelve, and consuming everything Horror-related that I could gobble up with my near-pubescent eyeballs, Yours Truly had seen it back then as well, right?

Wrong. What began on March 4th was an elaborate game of keep-away that was instigated by the ABC affiliate in central Wisconsin, WAOW-TV Channel 9, and lasted for a number of years. Truth be told, I cannot remember exactly when I saw Trilogy of Terror for the first time, but I guesstimate that it was sometime in the late 70s, and on CBS, not ABC. Herein lies the tale...

I have to begin by telling you what a ritual watching ABC's
Movie of the Week was in my household. From the very first offerings in 1969 (including the deliciously eerie Daughter of the Mind, the shockingly bloody House on Green Apple Road, and How Awful About Allan, with a post-Psycho Anthony Perkins), my family and I watched them all, no matter the genre. They helped ABC become a true ratings competitor against CBS and NBC, the movies were frequently at the top of the weekly Nielsens, and the Senski household did their part in making them successful. That memorable intro with the multi-colored logos flying through a black void, set to the strains of Burt Bacharach's "Nikki," was the cue to sit back and prepare yourself for entertainment - sometimes exploitative (or as exploitative as early 70s TV could get), sometimes a tad hackneyed or threadbare in budget, but always something new, and never less than interesting. When the offerings expanded to two nights a week - Tuesday and Wednesday - those were the nights I was certain to get my homework done early, take a relaxing shower, and curl up on the sofa with a bottle of Coke and a bowl of Doritos. I would go so far as to say that my exposure to various genres through the MOTW helped me to appreciate all styles, all genres, all storylines in cinema. If you grew up during this period, the MOTW was a cornerstone of your pop culture experience.

But let's be honest - it was the Horror offerings that got my blood pumping, and easily one-quarter of the films fell into that category. When Duel and The Night Stalker became two of the highest-rated TV movies to date, the floodgates opened, and the MOTW felt like a super-sized Horror anthology, with titles like Crowhaven Farm, Dr. Cook's Garden, The Screaming Woman, Sweet, Sweet Rachel, Home for the Holidays, Bad Ronald, When Michael Calls, Scream, Pretty Peggy, The Devil's Daughter, Satan's School for Girls, The Cat Creature and many, many more. If you loved Horror, this was your Playhouse 90.

When the TV Guide for that first week of March 1975 arrived at my house, it all but screamed for my attention, with a full-page ad for Trilogy of Terror, touting star Karen Black's participation in all three tales (for my money, she will always be as she was promoted in the advertising - "Karen Black is ELECTRIFYING in Trilogy of Terror!"),
as well as a brief article in the color section (this didn't happen often) showing off He Who Kills, and detailing his involvement in the movie. I though, hey, a creepy doll, sure to be shown in close-ups, maybe some hints that it was alive and capable of movement. As much as the figurine was highlighted, it was also being soft-sold, as nothing in the ramp-up to the premiere hinted that the doll was as ferocious, as unrelenting as it turned out to be. Hats off to Curtis and ABC, as they were preparing to sucker-punch the country with this little beastie.

So on Tuesday night, March 4th, 1975, primed for some prime evil, homework done, showered and scrubbed, I settled into our old green davenport, with obligatory Coke and Doritos (ok, it might have been 7-Up and Fritos - my memory's not that good), and was ready for Trilogy of Terror to make its World Premiere at 7:30 CST.

At 7:30 CST, WAOW-TV's weatherman Nick Ryan (thank you, thank you, Gary, for the memory prod, because I could not remember his last name; we watched CBS for local news!) appeared onscreen, speaking directly to the camera. My first thought - A severe weather bulletin? On March 4th? I don't recall precisely what he said, but I think it was very close to this...

Good evening. WAOW-TV station management has had the opportunity to preview tonight's Tuesday Movie of the Week, Trilogy of Terror, and has determined that it is too intense to air during regular evening programming. We have decided to air it later tonight, at midnight, and we apologize for any inconvenience or disappointment. Instead, please enjoy Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat. Thank you, and thank you for watching WAOW Channel 9.

...what?...


WHAT?!?

Jarheads, I had never witnessed anything like that before. At the very last minute, to pull a Horror movie from programming, and a made-for-TV one at that, because of intensity? And to add insult to injury, Station Management got to see Trilogy of Terror, and I couldn't? Now, normally the opportunity to watch a Hitchcock film - and one I had not seen at that point - would have just tickled me pink, but I was furious! I bolted out of the sofa, ran to the phone book, looked up the number for Channel 9, and dialed. It rang and rang and rang...no answer. I have no idea how many may have complained about the station's decision, and in the tiny town of Mosinee, no one got copies of Variety to learn about any post-broadcast fall-out. I sulked, and soon just went to bed. And no, gentle Jarhead, there was no question of my being able to stay up until 1:30 AM to watch it. Not on a school night. Not with only one TV in the house. (However, my often-insomniac mom did stay up to see the first installment, about an obsessed student blackmailing his teacher with compromising - and staged - photos. She said it was "dirty," could understand why the station didn't show it. Scary and smutty? Mom, I love you, but did you think that made me feel any better?) The next morning my classmates and I discussed it briefly, but since there were no other horrorheads among my circle, no one else was as dejected as I was. Within days, I had moved on to other concerns. After all, what was one more MOTW, right? And it was sure to be repeated, right?

Now, jump ahead a couple of months, when I picked up the Marvel B&W magazine Masters of Terror, a two-issue experiment that reprinted a number of comic adaptations of classic Horror fiction, by authors like Robert Bloch, H.P. Lovecraft, Theodore Sturgeon, August Derleth, among others. (These come highly recommended; since Marvel's rights to this material have long since elapsed, these stories will almost certainly never be reprinted, and the two issues can be had for a song on eBay.) Marvel asked Don and Maggie Thompson, then-editors of The Comics Buyer's Guide, to write a column - "Time Out for Terror" - talking about stories, movies, television that scared them. They spent the bulk of one of those articles rhapsodizing about Trilogy of Terror, the third story in particular. Not only had they admired its execution, but they confessed that the doll I had seen in the TV Guide article had given them weeks of nightmares. Actual, honest-to-God night terrors!

Sonuvabitch!

WAOW was consistent, by golly. They did not allow
Trilogy of Terror to air as a repeat, either. It wasn't until years later, as part of the CBS Late Night Movie, that I saw it on some Friday night, with "Amelia" airing, appropriately, after midnight. The effect on me was total, almost transformative. It instantly became one of MY movies, and I wasted no time in sharing my reaction with others, with all the zeal of the newly-converted. In college, if you knew me, you soon learned my feelings about Zuni fetish dolls, and when the vhs revolution took hold, Trilogy of Terror was one of those movies that you had to sit through if you wanted to remain my friend - I've easily shown it 50 or 60 times to others. When I taught college theater, I'd show it to my classes as a reward on Final Exam day, and I've shared Black's masterful telephone monologue with her mother as a concise acting lesson in how to handle these most tricky of soliloquies. (Without actually hearing her voice, you know everything Black's mother is saying through the gifted actress' reactions and physicalizations. Electrifying indeed.)

I've been scouring the Interweb, trying to find evidence of any other network affiliates that refused to show Trilogy of Terror, either during prime time hours, or possibly not at all. I haven't found anything yet, but that doesn't mean it may not have happened. Jarheads, anyone have any knowledge on this front?

Today, I'm looking at my own He Who Kills, perched on a bookshelf across the room from me, his spear poised to take on all comers. I purchased him as a gift to myself, to ameliorate the years of painful patience I had to endure to experience one of the great moments in 70s Horror. It's funny, but...when I moved into this apartment, his chain mysteriously broke, and it's resisted all attempts to be repaired. I leave it off, coiled up at his feet.

I have absolutely no worries about break-ins. But I keep my knives tucked well away.

I'm a fan, but I'm not stupid.


5 comments:

Pax Romano said...

The only time our local affiliate wimped out (that I can recall) was when they ran The Lizzie Borden movie with Elisabeth Montgomery. Same thing; it would be run after midnight.

Wasn't television back in the 70's a quaint affair?

senski said...

That was WAOW too, and that they aired, probably because it was that nice, pretty lady from Bewitched. Although that had buckets more blood than ToT...which reminds me that I just got a DVD copy of that and need to sit down and see it again for the first time in over 30 years!

Jeff Allard said...

Great rememberance, Senski!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for a wonderful article! Right now I'm watching trilogy of terror part 2. I sure do miss Karen Black!

David S said...

Great blog post. I remember that TV Guide issue, and though it odd that they were disclosing how the doll was operated. I guess ABC thought no one would watch UNLESS they told you they were going to have some boffo special effects involved. Well, Dan Curtis did indeed sucker punch us, as much of the fetish doll's frights came from sound, not onscreen action. The first few pitter-pitter-pat running footsteps were terrifying, even on a small b/w Sony portable TV!

Now I wish I could find a PDF of that TV Guide article....