Welcome to Scared in Segments a monthly column devoted to horror anthologies big and small. If you don’t know what an anthology is, it’s a film that includes a collection of short stories or segments (self-contained or connected). As for anthology television, series can be episodic or seasonal, but the former will take precedence here. Now, in each edition of this column, you’ll get background info as well as insight on the monthly pick. If you’re ready for some short-form horror, pull up a seat as I’ve got a story for you…
Throughout history, the number three has appeared frequently in storytelling. The experts will say the numeral is as significant as it is crucial. One reason why is because of our need to establish order when there appears to be none. For example, following the rule of three allows for failure at least twice before success is possible. This is apparent in fairy tales like “The Three Little Pigs” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. In addition, the power of three also provides balance when the two other options are polarizing in effect or personality. A sort of middle ground, if you wish.
“[Trilogy of Terror II] was the sequel we never knew we wanted.”
When it comes to horror anthologies, there is no standard number of stories. So long as there is more than one, the movie has technically met its goal. But if you had to take a survey on what number of stories is the most desirable, a common response would be three. Not counting the optional wraparound, three seems to be magic number in many anthologies. While having more pads both time and quality, a trio of tales invites individuality and maintains interest.
Television producer, director, and writer Dan Curtis is no stranger to horror. His Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows remains a cult favorite to this day. And among his macabre multitude of made-for-television horrors is the beloved Trilogy of Terror. This trio of frightful fables first aired as part of ABC’s Movie of the Week series. Now, it’s regarded as one of the best TV-movies in horror history.
Two decades later in 1996, the USA Network aired a curio on the night before Halloween. Telefilms are not known for their continuations, but lo and behold, Dan Curtis did the unusual and produced Trilogy of Terror II. It was the sequel we never knew we wanted.
Story 1 — “The Graveyard Rats“
Like the original Trilogy of Terror, the sequel goes straight into the first story without a framing device. In another parallel, director Dan Curtis cast one actress to play the lead in every episode. “The Graveyard Rats” begins with Lysette Anthony assuming the role of a displeased wife named Laura. Her curmudgeonly husband Ansford (Matt Clark) has finally caught her cheating on him with her cousin Ben (Geraint Wyn Davies).
Given how unhappy she is with Ansford, Laura finally agrees to kill her husband with Ben‘s help. All goes according to plan except for the fact that the old man moved his entire fortune to an offshore account. And the only way to get the access codes it to dig up Ansford‘s grave. Which will be no easy feat seeing as the cemetery he was buried in has a “sizable” rat problem.
“The Graveyard Rats” is a parable that illustrates the extreme consequences of deceit and greed.”
The opening story here is based on a short of the same name by Henry Kuttner, a correspondent of H. P. Lovecraft. For the adaptation, however, Curtis and co-writer William F. Nolan added a soapy prologue that likely exists only to fill time. Once we do reach the cemetery, the tone changes for the better. The melodrama is diminished and replaced with a gnawing sense of dread.
According to the second unit director, Eric Allred, the macabre encounter with the eponymous villains was achieved through the use of eight puppets. Allred manipulated one so vigorously with his hand that he bruised a nerve, temporarily suspending sensation in his arm. Nevertheless, his and his crew’s efforts were not in vain. The rats might be crude in delineation, but their execution adds a tactile threat.
“The Graveyard Rats” is a parable that illustrates the extreme consequences of deceit and greed. It contains no heroes much less anyone who benefits from the lesson at hand. Having rats deliver that message is, quite possibly, the closest Trilogy of Terror II will ever come to cosmic horror.
Story 2 — “Bobby“
Next up: Anthony portrays Alma, a grieving mother who gets more than she bargained for when she dabbles in the dark arts. All she wants is for her son Bobby (Blake Heron) to return to her. And that he does on a stormy night. While Alma is happy to see her boy again, she can’t help but feel as if Bobby is now different…
The second story will feel familiar to anyone who has seen Dan Curtis’ other anthology Dead of Night. That is because Richard Matheson wrote “Bobby” exclusively for that film; this is a remake with a new cast and only minute alterations to the script. A sizable difference is how Alma is reinterpreted. Her lines are more or less unchanged, but Anthony’s delivery is impatient. Exasperated. It’s a subtle way to reinforce the reveal at the end.
“Horror has always been open to showing people at their very worst, and mothers are no exception […] The conclusion is a certifiable kick in the teeth”
As much as they sound the same, the two versions of “Bobby” look nothing alike. The one in Dead of Night benefits from that fuzziness that was so common in television back then. This, coupled with a yellowy overcast, gives the original a Gothic, dreamlike appearance. Meanwhile, the 1996 update boasts a more overt style. The altogether aesthetic is so bold it leaves one feeling crawly. The atmosphere never reaches the simple spookiness of the original, but the diversity in camera angles shows Curtis’ growth as a director.
“Bobby” is in the vein of other stories where a dead person or thing comes back “wrong.” Yet in this case, any preconceived notion you have about the situation early on is irrevocably dismissed. The revelation in those last few seconds is startling. A nasty fall from grace, if you must. After all, we are talking about a mother who risked her soul to bring her flesh and blood back from the other side. Horror has always been open to showing people at their very worst, and mothers are no exception to the status quo. On the other hand, “Bobby” literally demonizes one mother’s own misdeed. The conclusion is a certifiable kick in the teeth. So it’s really no wonder Curtis wanted to redo this insidious short.
Story 3 — “He Who Kills”
Lastly, the iconic Zuni fetish doll from the first film’s short “Amelia” returns to wreak havoc at a museum. In “He Who Kills“, the now-dormant, charred doll is found at a crime scene. It is then rushed to Dr. Simpson (Anthony Lysette), a scientist at a local museum. They press her to identify the object as they believe it’s tied to a potential series of ritual killings. In that case, Dr. Simpson stays late at work. As Dr. Simpson tries to crack the doll’s origin, she makes the unfortunate mistake that dear Amelia did. By removing the gold chain from the Zuni‘s neck, Dr. Simpson unleashes an unspeakable evil in her lab.
One would be hard-pressed to find a horror fan who hasn’t at least heard of the dreadful Zuni doll. Other than Karen Black, it is the most signal thing about Trilogy of Terror. Ignoring trivial inconsistencies like setting and time, the sequel picks up right where “Amelia” left off. Although there is a tad more setup in “He Who Kills“, the remainder of the story plays out just like the original. Lysette’s character is under attack by the pint-sized demon before succumbing to the same fate as the Zuni‘s last victim. In truth, it’s not the most ambitiously conceived story here.
“Lastly, the iconic Zuni fetish doll from the first film’s short “Amelia” returns to wreak havoc at a museum.”
There were two basic methods when it came to enlivening the original Zuni doll. The first involved cutting a slot in the stage floor so that someone underneath could manually move the prop. The other was more simple: they threw the Zuni at Karen Black. In Trilogy of Terror II, though, Eric Allred went more high-tech. Aside from a rubber replica and a remote-controlled doll, a few action scenes relied on a motorized Zuni. They pulled this off by suspending the doll on two lines of electrically charged music wire. As a result, the flailing Zuni appeared to run as it zipped along the wire.
The diminutive villain was more visible than ever before thanks to hands-on ingenuity. At the same time, seeing the Zuni more often almost desensitizes the viewers to its innate shock value. Conversely, “He Who Kills” might be the best-looking episode of the bunch. The divisive, poppy-looking and almost plasticky colors of 1990s horror enhance a drab setting. And Curtis’ love of extremely low angles makes the audience feel like they’re part of the story. “He Who Kills” doesn’t upstage its predecessor, but it is a worthy extension.
“There is an innate novelty to Trilogy of Terror II. Its sheer existence is unprecedented […] intrepid creativity is hard to come by these days.”
Trilogy of Terror helped change horror fans’ perception of made-for-television movies. They looked past the medium and saw something brilliant. As for its follow-up, audiences have slowly come around. There is an innate novelty to Trilogy of Terror II; Its sheer existence is unprecedented. People ultimately find this sequel to be unnecessary, but this kind of movie just doesn’t get made anymore. Dan Curtis acted upon his vision without worrying if he was making something warranted. And without a doubt, that intrepid creativity is hard to come by these days.
The Trilogy of Terror II Blu-ray is now available through Kino Lober. After reading and watching, share your thoughts on Trilogy of Terror II with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group!