Once upon a time, a pint-size psychotic wooden doll scared the bejesus out of TV viewers.
It’s the gift that keeps on giving 48 years later — so thanks, ABC, for the nightmares inspired by “Trilogy of Terror,” a Movie of the Week starring offbeat actress Karen Black (in all three episodes) that aired in 1975 and still elicits gasps and shivers.
“[The wooden doll episode] was incredibly creepy, and it was great that it aired third in the trilogy because it really was a showstopper,” “Trilogy of Terror” co-producer Robert Singer told The Post in an exclusive interview.
“[Producer-director] Dan Curtis was great,” Singer said. “He knew how to get scares.”
“He Who Kills” has a giant, skull-type head with wild hair, a set of white, razor-sharp choppers, holds a long spear and wears a golden chain that, according to its accompanying scroll, is there to keep it from coming to life. “Boy, are you ugly,” Amelia says to the inanimate doll. “That face. Even your mother wouldn’t love you.”
Amelia’s mother hangs up on her in disgust and, as Amelia slams the doll down on a table, the golden chain falls off — unleashing He Who Kills in all his pure evil.
Later that night, Amelia notices the doll is missing and, before you can say “Look out!,” she’s attacked by the now-living Zuni warrior doll, who stabs her with his spear, bites her and chases her around her apartment screaming with guttural cries.
“This was long before visual effects are what they are today,” Singer said. “We had to build a set about 8 feet above the stage floor to get the doll moving and chasing after [Amelia], then construction would cut out a path the doll could move in.
“There was a puppet master underneath the stage running with the doll as he moved its arms and legs and all that,” he said. “When [He Who Kills] was moving, it was all the puppet master … and as we were watching it, we said, ‘This really works.’
“I think everyone going into it thought it would be silly,” Singer said. “There were a couple of iterations of the doll and Dan [Curtis] gave notes on what he wanted it to look like. For a TV movie of its time, so much work went into that to make it somewhat realistic. Today, you can do it with CGI [computer-generated imagery], but it was an undertaking back then.”
As He Who Kills continues to terrorize Amelia, she tries to kill it by drowning it in the bathtub, suffocating it in a suitcase (it cuts its way out) and, finally, throwing it into the lit oven, where it burns to death … or so it seems.
“She put the doll in the oven, and it had that awful screaming and thrashing around and burning, and when we sent the [episode cut] to the network, they thought it was too violent,” Singer recalled. “I mean, it’s a wooden doll . . . but they were put off by it. Standards and Practices said it couldn’t be that graphic and Dan, of course, said, ‘It’s a f – – king doll, for Chrissakes!’
“I always thought it odd that Standards and Practices would worry about the death of an inanimate object.”
But that’s not the end of the saga. Cut to Amelia, who calls her mother, apologizes and invites her over for dinner — then crouches in wait, holding a knife and, as she smiles . . . reveals she has He Who Kills’ razor-sharp teeth. Yikes.
“Karen was pretty well-known by then; she’d done ‘Easy Rider’ and ‘Five Easy Pieces,’ so that was a pretty good name for a TV movie, I thought,” Singer said of Black, who died in 2013 at age 74.
“I liked her a lot, and she was really interesting. It’s amazing how many people don’t remember the first two episodes (‘Julie,’ ‘Millicent and Therese’) as well, but they remember that episode, which is really iconic.
“Karen was really committed — it was not an easy part, and she was terrific.”