Thursday, May 04, 2017

Cult-TV Movie Review: Home for the Holidays (1972)

At Christmas time, four sisters -- Christine (Sally Field), Jo (Jill Hawarth), Freddie (Jessica Walter) and Alex (Eleanor Parker) -- return home for the first time in nine years to visit their dying father, Benjamin Morgan (Walter Brennan).

All the Morgan daughters suffer psychological scars from their uneasy upbringing, and have responded in different ways to it Alex is closed off, cold and emotionally-distant. Freddie is self-destructive, alcoholic pill-popper, and promiscuous Jo has married and divorced three times.

Only young, quiet Christine seems stable at all.  Upon her return, Christine is visited by the young town doctor, Ted Lindsay (John Fink), who has a romantic interest in her.

But the Morgan girls have returned to their home for the first time in nearly a decade because their elderly father insists he is being murdered -- slow-poisoned -- by his second wife, Elizabeth (Julie Harris).

The sisters are suspicious because Elizabeth’s first husband was murdered via poisoning, and she was jailed, for a time, for the crime. She maintains her innocence, but is not believed.

Soon, however, a killer armed with a pitchfork and wearing a yellow slicker begins murdering the Morgan sisters, one-at-a-time…

Penned by Joseph Stefano, the 1972 TV-movie Home for the Holidays is a fascinating proto-slasher film that features many of the elements of the sub-genre that were popularized (and became over-familiar) in the 1980’s.

Consider, we have the motivating “crime in the past,” which may have precipitated all the violence in the present. In this case, that “crime in the past” might be the death of Morgan’s first wife (was Elizabeth responsible?), or even the death of Elizabeth’s first husband.  But some event in the (pathological) past has turned a character irrevocably towards madness and murder.  This concept, often featured in a “deadly preamble” or flashback, is a standard of the slasher format.

And then, of course, we have the victim pool, in this case a group of sisters; the Morgans. We also have suspects, individuals who could be the killer, and at least two “red herrings.” Red herrings are characters who, through misleading dramatic devices, lead the audience to conclude that they may actually be the killer. 

In this case, Home for the Holidays provides two such red herrings.  One is Elizabeth, who is believed to have murdered her first husband (though the evidence is inconclusive) and who, in the last act, actually dons a yellow slicker. Yet she is not the pitch-fork murderer.

The second red-herring is Doc Lindsay, who visits with the Morgans at inopportune times and seems overly interested in the family’s comings and goings. Of course, this is just because he’s on the make; in love with Christine. But his first scene, which he shares with Alex upon her return to town, suggests he’s a busy-body and gossip.

Then we have the killer, who is differentiated visually from the remainder of the cast a wardrobe that stands out; in this case the yellow-slicker. Also, the killer is armed with a distinctive weapon: the pitch-fork.

There’s even a mini “tour of the dead” here, as Christine, running through a rain-storm at night, stumbles upon the body of one of her dead sisters, Jo, in the mud.  In many slashers, the tour of the dead occurs in the final chase, as the killer’s victims are discovered by the last survivor of the crime spree.

Speaking of Christine, she absolutely qualifies as the film’s “final girl,” the one (always female) character with the insight and observational skills to stay alive, even while a psychotic killer is loose.

If Home for the Holidays pioneers some of the slasher sub-genre’s most well-known elements, it also knowingly reflects classic literature, and in particular, one work by William Shakespeare. There’s a clear King Lear quality to the telefilm, as patriarch Benjamin Morgan summons his daughters (four, rather than three…) to his death-bed, to prove their love for him. 

His way of doing so (and ensuring an inheritance) is to have them commit murder for him, which is certainly a twist not featured in King Lear, but perfectly in keeping with the oeuvre of the man who wrote the screen adaptation of Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1960).

Although it is a simplification to note that King Lear concerns two major themes: the failure of political authority, and the nature of true love, those themes are also present in this TV-movie, at least after a fashion. 

Mr. Morgan, the authoritarian father-figure and patriarch of the family, has fallen into physical and mental weakness. He is no longer fit to lead the family, and yet he holds onto power by manipulating his daughters.  Quite noticeably, there is a dearth of male characters in the film. Lindsay only shows up long enough for suspicion to be cast upon him, and a male sheriff shows up briefly in the aftermath of the violent coup de grace, so Benjamin Morgan is the only major male character featured in Home for the Holidays. That he is weak, confused, and no longer able to discern truth or justice, is an important point.

Similarly, what is true love? Does one commit murder for true love?  The film revolves around those questions, and Morgan’s family members, including both Christine (our surrogate, perhaps, for Cordelia) and Elizabeth, grapple with them.

Above, I noted that Home for the Holidays is “fascinating,” and I used that adjective because almost none of the film’s outstanding mysteries are solved by the time the movie ends.

Of course, the killer is unmasked and taken away in a police car, but we don’t know if Mr. Morgan was really being poisoned, since he wouldn’t allow a doctor to examine him. 

Similarly, we don’t know who killed Elizabeth’s first husband, or why he was killed.

We don’t even know that Elizabeth is innocent of that crime, only that she is innocent of the pitch-fork murders featured at the Morgan Estate.

The whole movie is a mystery, but the film, to its credit, doesn’t reveal any more than it needs to, which leaves open the doorway to multiple interpretations. For instance, one might conclude that Elizabeth did kill her first husband, and is killing her second as well. However, she is not the pitch-fork murderer.  If this is so, then a killer is still on the loose when the movie ends. Julie Harris delivers a strong performance as Elizabeth Morgan, keeping her cards close-to-the-vest so viewers might rightly ask questions about her behavior and actions. There is one scene, for instance, where she describes how she will do anything to avoid returning to jail, and there is a brief flash of murderous ferocity in Harris’s eyes. Very quickly, that look subsides into mild acquiescence.

Like She Waits, the TV-movie I reviewed her two weeks ago, Home for the Holidays is slow-paced, and at times deadly dull. With all the murders and ambiguity to keep the thing pacey, the made-for-TV-movie should be thrilling, but John Llewelyn Moxey’s direction doesn’t do the movie any favors.

So, Home for the Holidays is a well-cast and well-performed, pseudo-Shakespearean, proto-slasher TV-movie, with a glacial pace.

Only in the seventies, right?

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