Written by: Joseph Stefano
Directed by: John Llewellyn Moxey
Starring: Jessica Walter, Sally Field and Jill Haworth
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Just what exactly do you want us to do?"
"Get rid of her."
"Get rid of her."
Perry Como once crooned that there’s “no place like home for the holidays,” which means he couldn’t have anticipated this made-for-TV 70s flick that puts the “fun” in dysfunctional family. Well, sort of. It’s actually a bit of a slog and feels a bit long even at 73 minutes, but it’s got the same quaint charm these sort of things have. It’s almost amusing to think that stuff like this was airing so often on prime-time TV back then, and it's kind of neat that some network executive thought Christmas '72 wouldn't be complete without some familial bloodshed. At any rate, this one boasts some considerable talent; a young Sally Field leads an all-star cast in front of the camera, while John Llewellyn Moxey (City of the Dead, The Night Stalker) directs a script by Joseph Stefano (Psycho), though their presence mostly just leads you to wonder how this one ended up being so disappointing.
Field is Christine Morgan, the youngest of four sisters who have been summoned to the family home by their ill father (Walter Brennan). The old man is convinced he’s being poisoned to death by his wife (Julie Harris), a woman the girls never took to after their mother died. They share their father’s suspicions, especially since the entire town is convinced that she actually murdered her first husband years ago; as the night wears on, the Morgans may be proven right because someone is stalking the grounds with murderous intentions.
Essentially a lo-fi update of the “old dark house” movies, Home for the Holidays is a standard murder mystery with a little bit of Christmas trimming. I suppose it’s interesting in that respect, as it manages to predate the likes of Black Christmas and Silent Night, Bloody Night, with it mostly resembling the latter film there (which I thought felt like a made for television film itself for some reason). And if you think your own family is bad around the holidays, you should check out these nuts. The film’s best (and funniest) moment comes at an early bedside visitation by the sisters, where their father (before flatly delivering the order to kill his wife) crankily scolds them for their whoring, boozing, and pill-popping. Well, except for Christine, whose biggest sin is still being in school, so you immediately know she’s supposed to be “the good one.” The rest are a fine assortment of malcontents, and some serve as the film’s body count.
As you’ll probably expect, the film is light on that front, though there is an effectively directed sequence that finds one of the girls being stalked by the pitchfork-wielding maniac. Scenes like this are mostly just peppered in among watching the girls quibble and argue over things, which is about the extent of their characters. There’s an interesting wrinkle in that they all have names that can be shortened to male form, a quirk that stems from their father’s desire to have just one boy. Sadly, not much is done with this, as it seemingly only exists to be some kind of red herring or something. Moxey at least does a fine job with the atmospherics, even if the happenings inside the house are about as exciting as watching your relatives squabble over turkey preparation (the father is definitely the most interesting character, at least in the same way your one drunken uncle is always most interesting). Since this is an old dark house movie, a storm rages outside, so lightning and thunder accompanies all of the histrionics inside.
And so it follows that this one climaxes as most of these things do: with a girl (in this case, Field) running around screaming her head off in the middle of the rain (though it really should be snow in this case). Once the screaming stops (and Field screams a lifetime’s worth--it’s kind of a shame she didn’t become a “scream queen”), the identity of the killer is revealed, and the twist here is a long way from the one Stefano adapted for Psycho. Maybe I’ve just seen too many movies like this, but Home for the Holidays speaks to the difficulty of crafting a nice twist; in this case, the main suspect is so obvious that you don’t really expect it to be her; on the other hand, if it is her, well, it’s like they didn’t even try. I won’t say which direction it goes, but I will say the motivation is a little thin and watery, serving only to come out of left field to provide a shock (that falls flat).
Unfolding like a film adaptation of an Agatha Christie play, Home For the Holidays often feels stagebound and hemmed up; if not for beating the “Christmas horrors” out of the gate, I suspect it may be even more obscure than it already is, despite all of the talent involved. As it stands, it’s a movie you’ll probably hear about this time every year when horror fans begin to discuss the holiday-tinged offerings, and this is one of the last courses you’ll ever need to digest. It’s yet to receive an official DVD release, which is maybe a little surprising; apparently, Lions Gate has the rights to it, but who knows if they’ll ever get around to it. They’d be better off dumping it on Netflix anyway. Rent it!
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