Karen Black is too frightening for mainstream cinema. You couldn't watch her in a romantic comedy without wondering whether she's going to kill and devour the male lead. But those freaky crossed eyes and that off-kilter sexuality make her a magnetic screen presence and we're all lucky that she found a handful of directors who were able to use her well without rendering her ridiculous ("Five Easy Pieces" by Rafelson) or shrewish ("Nashville" by Altman). Of all Karen Black's worthy star vehicles (an extremely short list), "Trilogy of Terror" is far and away the standout.
The first two pieces are mildly diverting -- the first, "Julie," has an entirely untelegraphed twist that feels like a cheap trick, so it's the weakest link. Still, it coasts along nicely on its creepy camera angles and Karen's dark-star power, and the last couple of scenes are just unsettling enough to whet your appetite for the delights to come. The second segment, "Millicent/Therese," is some standard mid-70s horror fare, laced with madness and hints of sexual perversity, that would be a "Flowers in the Attic"-style yawn if it weren't for the lovely Karen, who plays warring sisters: prim, evangelical Millicent and slutty, predatory Therese. As Therese, she wears a ridiculous blonde wig and sashays around the set like a drag queen, a fully intended foray into pure camp made even more bizarre by Karen's much more nuanced performance as repressed, mousy little Millie. Slowly you wonder if all of Therese's evil is a figment of . . . well, I don't want to spoil it for you.
Ol' Karen saves the best for last: "Amelia." As played by Karen Black, Amelia is a complex, very modern, very normal woman confronted with an utterly conventional dilemma: does she spend Friday night with her boyfriend or her mother? But this isn't a sitcom starring Valerie Harper, it's a horror movie starring Karen Black and something intensely weird happens -- the Zulu doll she has bought as a present for her boyfriend comes to life and starts chasing her around the apartment! (Sound familiar, "Chuckie" fans?) It sounds ridiculous, and it would be if it weren't for the magnificent Ms. Black. She believes. There is no ironic distance between actress and character, no winking acknowledgment of the absurdity of the situation, no excess of histrionics. Dammit, Karen is being menaced by a vicious, spear-wielding figurine and you are terrified for her! Maybe you could make the argument that the vignette is an attempt to juxtapose the civilized and the savage and to expose our true uncivilized nature. But no. It's an ugly doll attacking a cross-eyed actress. It's silly. It's stupid. It's pure entertainment. If you haven't seen it yet, go get it now.