Sunday, July 25, 2010

August 20, 2009: Things That Scare Me: Case Study #8

In spite of (or, perhaps, because of) my adult infatuation with all things horrifying and horrific, I was scared of absolutely everything when I was a kid. A television commercial for a horror movie was enough to send me racing from the den in a sweaty-palm panic. In this ongoing series here on Psychobabble, I've been reviewing some of the things that most traumatized me as a child and evaluating whether or not I was rightfully frightened or just a wiener.

Case Study #8: The climax of Trilogy of Terror

Unlike most of the things I’ve dealt with in the Things That Scare Me series, the one I’ll be discussing today is not something that I first encountered at an exceptionally young, impressionable age. I’m pretty positive I was fifteen when I first caught Trilogy of Terror on TV, and I remember this because that was the age I discovered Led Zeppelin. Late one night, when my parents were out and I had the house to myself, I was flicking between The Song Remains the Same and Trilogy of Terror (and if you don’t understand why a budding Zeppelin fan might be compelled to switch channels while watching The Song Remains the Same for the first time, you’ve never endured John Bonham’s 65-minute drum solo). While The Song Remains the Same needs no introduction, Trilogy of Terror might. It’s a 1975 made-for-TV movie anthologizing adaptations of three short stories by horror maestro Richard Matheson (the cat behind the books that inspired The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Omega Man, as well as classic stories like “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “Long Distance Call”). B-movie queen Karen Black stars in all three segments. The first two are pretty lame; there’s “Julie”, the story of a murderous tutor, and “Millicent and Therese”, which is about voodoo and doppelgangers or something. The final segment, however, is a classic. “Amelia” (based on Matheson’s story “Prey”) is a tension-packed piece about a woman who picks up a “Zuni hunting fetish” at the local mall and must fend for her life when the nasty-looking doll comes to life and pursues her with a teensie-weensie spear. The segment is the kind of thing hacks might describe as a “nail-biter,” but I’m not a hack, so I’m going to call it a “toe-biter.” Still the piece wasn’t really terrifying enough to terrify fifteen-year-old me… at least not until the ending (suck on these spoilers!).

So, Amelia has punted the Zuni hunting fetish thingy into her oven, set it to broil, and all seems well. But it ain’t. Following up on her game-winning kick, Amelia opens the oven door to check on the smoldering dolly. Bad move. The oven belches forth a huge plume of smoke, pumping zillions of pyrolysis-ized Zuni particles into the atmosphere and up Amelia’s schnoz. She passes out. The screen goes black.

When we next see Amelia, this happens… the scene that worked its way into quite a number of my teenage nightmares:

The Verdict: OK, here’s why this scene is so horrifying: she breaks the fourth wall. If the now-Zuni-possessed Amelia had merely called her mom, invited her to her doom, squatted on the floor, and started stabbing the boards, it wouldn’t be so bad. But she looks directly into the camera, creating an intimate connection with the viewer. So, you’re watching this movie that’s two parts crappy and one part terrific, and people are killing each other, and dolls are hunting people, and people are hunting dolls, and you— the viewer— are sitting on your sofa with one hand down your pants and another in a bowl of popcorn, and it’s all fine and good because, hey, it’s not like anyone’s bothering you. But, wait a minute, now they are. Shit, that possessed chick is staring right at you! And she’s got a knife! And she’s smiling at you with a mouth full of plastic, joke-shop fangs! You didn’t sign up for this. Movie characters are supposed to snarl at other movie characters, not at you, innocent viewer! Breaking the fourth wall is perhaps the most personally engaging thing a filmmaker can do, and it doesn’t just work in horror movies. When Eddie Murphy stares into the camera in Trading Places, a joke about how patronizing the two old white guys are becomes a thousand times funnier. When Giulietta Masina takes a quick peek into the lens at the end of Nights of Cabiria, a poignant scene becomes a tear-flooder. So when director Dan Curtis gets Karen Black to look directly into the camera during the final frames of Trilogy of Terror, it becomes much, much, much scarier than any scene in any made-for-TV horror movie deserves to be. In other words, I was absolutely justified in my terror... fifteen-years old or not.
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