The Christmas season is a special time for many. A chance for friends to gather and spread cheer, or clans to gather in the warm glow of familial love. Sometimes, however, the warm glow cools down, love turns to hate, and the carving knife is put to more insidious uses. Welcome to ABC’s Home for the Holidays (1972), a fun murder mystery filled with proto-slasher goodness.
Originally broadcast November 28th as part of the ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week, Home for the Holidays was up against CBS’s Hawaii Five-O and NBC’s The Bold Ones: The New Doctors (whatever that was) and had a solid showing, as ABC often did with this particular brand. However, you won’t find any Snoopies or undernourished trees in this Holiday special.
Let’s open our eggnog soaked TV GUIDE and see what’s going on around the tree:
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (Tuesday, 8:30pm, ABC)
The Morgan sisters are summoned home for Christmas by their father, who has reason to believe his second wife is slowly poisoning him to death. Sally Field, Julie Harris star.
Welcome home Morgans! Alex (Eleanor Parker –The Sound of Music), Christine (Sally Field – Smokey and the Bandit), Joanna (Jill Haworth – Tower of Evil), and Frederica (Jessica Walter – Play Misty for Me) head back home to visit rich and dying daddy (Walter Brennan – Rio Bravo) who’s convinced his wife Elizabeth (Julie Harris – The Dark Half) is trying to kill him, albeit a dollop at a time. Each of the daughters, however, have their own daddy issues, including Alex’s assertion that he killed their mother as opposed to her apparent suicide, his domineering grasp on their futures and his fortune, and their own obvious suspicions about his current spouse.
So a thinning of the herd is perhaps in order, as one by one the daughters are scratched off the will by a yellow-slickered killer who’s handy with a pitchfork and knows how to draw a bath. Could it be high strung Alex, who still thinks ill of her dad, or maybe it’s too-cute-to-poop Christine, who walks around skipping rope with a rainbow? Perhaps it is Elizabeth who has no use for any Morgan whatsoever? All will be revealed within the network allotted final 15 minutes, I promise…
Home for the Holidays has a very strong pedigree on both sides of the screen; Joseph Stephano of course wrote the screen adaptation of Psycho (1960) and director John Lewellyn Moxey helmed the small screen classic The Night Stalker (1972) earlier in the year. In front of the camera, the Morgan sisters all perform admirably; a special nod must be given to Jessica Walter, whose bug eyed histrionics are perfectly in tune with the Old Dark House meets Ten Little Indians vibe the filmmakers are striving for.
It is fitting that one of the men responsible for the birth of the slasher would carry on the tradition; and like many of my favorites, Stephano wants you to help solve the case. Which is always fun to do, and I almost always fail (as I did here). This time it’s not my fault; the only way this little thriller could be improved is by playing fair, and Home for the Holidays really doesn’t. There’s no way you can deduce who the killer is with the information that’s doled out (if I missed something, drop me a line, because Encyclopedia Brown I ain’t), but you’ll still be entertained guessing.
It doesn’t matter who did it anyway; movies like this are built on atmosphere and innuendo, and there’s plenty of both to go around. Taking place over two days, the rain and subsequent thunder and lightning never cease adding a comical layer to the Christie-esque proceedings, reminding one of a high school production with a blasé effects nerd who can’t be bothered to shut off the effects. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work, as does the emphasis on characterization over cheap shocks. (Not that it couldn’t use a couple more killings; it’s a small cast however, and you need at least a few suspects left to make it interesting.) Having said that, the pitchfork scene is very effective, and the bathtub even more so, both displaying a nascent giallo influence that immediately made me think of the later Alice Sweet Alice (’76). And while Home for the Holidays isn’t nearly as effective, aesthetics are very important in the horror realm not only as signifiers for clues, but as historic signposts of the ever evolving sub-genre.
So. We have a killer who’s hard to identify, a couple of very effective deaths, and several solid performances by an almost entirely female cast. Does that make Home for the Holidays worth the trip? Definitely, because you’re also treated to Stephano’s ripe bon mots and Moxey’s knowing and taut direction. At the very least, I promise it’s more entertaining than Christmas at Aunt Louise’s house. Although her poisoning is probably accidental.Next: It Came From The Tube: A TASTE OF EVIL (1971)