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31 Days of Halloween: Trilogy of Terror II

Published Friday, October 01, 2021

There are 21 years separating Trilogy of Terror II from its precedent work, but you could hardly tell from the quality of the storytelling. I blame the writers, who were clearly grasping at nostalgia.

I reviewed the original Trilogy of Terror on September 14, 2011, which was the first year I did 31 Days of Halloween. If I'd planned this better I could have made this a 10th anniversary post, but the fact is that I picked Trilogy of Terror II outta my slush pile of unwatched movies, and didn't realize until afterward that I'm almost at an anniversary. I just don't have enough time to watch something else and write it up tonight.

Trilogy of Terror II features Lysette Anthony in three unrelated vignettes of varying quality. The best of the bunch is "The Graveyard Rats" which also comes first. It's based on a story of the same name by Henry Kuttner, who happens to be a favorite writer of mine. Kuttner published the story in Weird Tales in 1936 when he was 21 years old. Ray Bradbury described him as unwilling to settle for being the next H.P. Lovecraft, and that comparison makes a lot of sense; "The Graveyard Rats" feels a lot like the kind of thing Lovecraft might have written early in his career, before he found his narrative voice.

In "The Graveyard Rats", Lysette Anthony plays a young trophy wife whose wealthy, elderly husband (60-year-old Matt Clark looking about 80) is murdered by her lover, The Guy Who Wanted To Play Macbeth in Season 2 of Slings and Arrows (oh, all right, his name is Geraint Wyn Davies). The two plan to collect the old man's money, but he's transferred all his assets into Swiss accounts and been buried with the access codes. An evening of graverobbing is complicated by the aggressive, eponymous rats.

It's not a great adaptation, but I can understand the changes. The original protagonist—a thieving gravedigger—is relegated to secondary character status, and the subterranean zombie which doesn't quite fit into the narrative has been cut. It's entertaining and pulpy, though, in the way these stories are; unscrupulous rich people screwing each other over and getting their just deserts.

In the second chapter, "Bobby", Anthony plays a grieving mother whose son has drowned. The story wastes no time on exposition and opens immediately with Anthony standing in a chalk pentagram calling on the Forces of Darkness to return her boy. I can't remember whose name she invokes, but I do remember that she mispronounces Tetragrammaton as "tetragrammation", and that seems like the kind of error a producer should have caught and corrected.

The kid does, in fact, come back, and he's not quite the sweet boy his mother remembers. His initial bad attitude progresses to a breathless game of cat and mouse during which he stalks her while swinging a sledgehammer. It's the old I Should've Let Him Stay Dead trope, and there's nothing remarkable about its execution here. Wikipedia says this one was written by Richard Matheson (whose stories were adapted in all three chapters of the first movie), and that this one appeared first an another TV production, Dead of Night.

The final episode is, of course, the return of the Zuni Fetish Doll from the final episode of the first movie, because that's the only thing anybody really remembers from the first movie. It's a striking image, all hair and teeth and sharp points, and it would've given me nightmares if I'd seen it as a pre-teen.

This time, the police bring the doll to a doctor for study (Lysette Anthony) after finding it at the the scene of a double murder. What kind of doctor is she? The kind who might be an anthropologist but has to pass through a lab full of bubbling flasks in order to get to her office. She gets to work on examining the doll, allows herself to be interrupted by the security guards who invite her to share a pizza, and returns to find the doll gone.

The doll, of course, is imbued with the spirit of a murderous Zuni warrior whose name translates to "he who kills", and that's the only thing it does: an 8-in tall figurine sprints around the building in the darkness, stabbing security guards and cutting phone lines. How does a long-dead African tribesman know about phone lines? Who knows? Who cares?

The doll is a nicely executed practical effect marred only slightly by the fact that (as I mentioned in 2011) its voice sounds like the tomatoes from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. The casual racism surrounding the doll is an interesting artifact of the mid-'90s when the average American was so convinced that they were On the Right Side of Things that they had never even considered examining their biases. Well, maybe some thing never change.

Both Trilogy of Terror films were made for TV, and both follow the same formula of casting the same actress as different characters in three separate stories. The original earned a significant cult following by being a cut above other contemporary TV horror films, and for its memorable third act. Karen Black starred in it and it more or less turned her into a scream queen, somewhat to her well-documented annoyance. It's not the kind of serious classic that transcends its genre, but it's an efficient, fun, little anthology movie from a time when TV networks were honestly trying to compete with the cinema on Sunday nights. Thousands of more expensive horror movies from the '70s are almost entirely forgotten, but Trilogy of Terror still has a following because a huge number of older Gen Xers and younger baby-boomers watched it premier on network TV.

The sequel, well... Barring, say, kids who watched it at an impressionable age, I think the only people who get excited about Trilogy of Terror II are people who care about the first one. Lysette Anthony carries the movie, I guess, but it just doesn't feel to me like there's much there to carry. The original film was kind of racy for primetime in the '70s, but this is schlocky '90s cable stuff and feels like three episodes of any anthology series sandwiched together. The blame for that, I think, rests on the shoulders of writer and director Dan Curtis, and co-writer William F. Nolan, both of whom filled the same roles in the original Trilogy of Terror. It has all the hallmarks of a 1996 production, except that the writing is stuck in the '70s. At the time it was seen as an unnecessary retread and a cash-grab.

It's really too bad; the first chapter is promising, in its cheesy way, but the rest is a bit of a letdown. I didn't recognize Lysette Anthony, and was surprised to see that she's actually been in a lot of things I've seen, and has gotten consistent work since the '80s. It's probably just as well that Trilogy of Terror II didn't do for her what the original did for Karen Black.
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