Saturday, May 06, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Lidsville: "Mark and the Beanstalk"

Weenie (Billie Hayes) materializes a magic bean while attempting to help Mark (Butch Patrick) escape from Lidsville. The bean sprouts a bean stalk stretching high into the sky, and Mark attempts to climb it.

Hoo-Doo (Charles Nelson Reilly), however, intercepts the young man and decides that he wants to see the real world for himself.  

Hoo-Doo decides to climb the bean-stalk, and enter the world beyond.

A fascinating event occurs in this week’s episode of Lidsville (1971-1973). Hoo-Doo climbs a giant bean-stalk and leaves the “World of Hats.”  

What does he see as he reaches the brim of the hat?  New York City!

In particular, we see an aerial view of the city, and The Empire State Building.  So now we know that there is a way to escape Lidsville. Furthermore, we know where Mark would end up upon leaving: The Big Apple.

Unfortunately, after introducing this successful escape route, Lidsville proceeds to ignore it in upcoming episodes.

Another intriguing aspect of the series follows-up on matters I have written about before. In particular, Hoo-Doo is not just a typical bad guy, but an evil landlord of sorts, one beholden to a bureaucracy. 

This week, he complains that he has gone bankrupt because the “dead beats” of Lidsville haven’t paid their back taxes. He climbs the bean-stalk, in fact, to find Mark’s parents and blackmail them regarding their son's future.  If they pay him, he will release the boy.

Once more, the specter of taxpaying is specifically raised. This is the third time in the series it’s happened.  But on the other hand, Hoo-Doo never again attempts this particular plan to earn more cash.

Next week: “Turn in Your Turban, You’re Through.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Ghost Busters: "Only Angels Have Wings" (November 22, 1975)

In “Only Angels Have Wings,” The Red Baron (Howard Morris) and his grease-monkey, Sparky (Robert Easton), materialize in the local graveyard and need a new plane.  

They wish to take revenge on the British pilot who shot the Baron down in World War II: Lord Smedley Hargrove.

Unfortunately, Spenser is a descendant of the British flyer, and so the ghosts' revenge focuses on him.

The (extreme) budgetary limitations of The Ghost Busters (1975) come into play a bit in this week’s episode. 

In particular, there are scenes here in which the ghosts of The Red Baron and Sparky ostensibly take flight in a plane, and attack Tracy, Spenser and Kong.  

We never see the plane, even once, only actors pointing towards the roof of the sound-stage.  Similarly, the finale involves Spenser downing the plane by throwing split pea soup (as thick as fog!) at it.  

Again, we don’t actually see the plane crash, or come down.

This week’s ghost is not a silver screen monster, either, but a famous historical figure. We have seen this aspect of the series formula before, with “They Went Thataway,” an episode about Billy the Kid.  At least when the monster ghosts are inept fools, no real person's memory is being slandered.

Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will recognize Sparky as Robert Easton, an actor in two films skewered by the Satellite of Love: The Giant Spider Invasion (1975), and The Touch of Satan (1971).  

Outside that singular honor, Mr. Easton had a diverse and impressive acting career, appearing in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) and playing a character called Sparks in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961).

Next week: “The Vikings Are Coming.”

Friday, May 05, 2017

The Films of 2002: The Ring

The Ring (2002) -- an American remake of Ringu (1998) from director Gore Verbinski -- commenced the Japanese horror remake trend of over a decade ago.

Some may view this fact as a negative legacy, since the trend resulted in some truly bad horror films, like The Eye (2008) and One Missed Call (2008). 

On the other hand, The Ring is universally-acclaimed as the best of the J-Horror remake breed, and more than that, I’d name it as one of the ten best horror films from the span 2000 – 2009. 

In short, the film succeeds not only because it is scary as hell (especially considering it is rated PG-13), but because -- like all the great horror movies in history -- it expresses something important about the age in which it was created.

In this case, The Ring obsesses on the notion that modern technology is not connecting or informing the population of the 21st century, but rather negatively influencing and otherwise harming them. As you no doubt recall, the movie concerns a VHS tape that will kill you if you watch it, but will permit you to live in peace if you pass it on to other viewers. 

In the social media-heavy Web 2.0 Age of “shares” and “retweets” this cycle of copying and re-broadcasting takes on an even greater significance than it did during the movie’s post-9/11 milieu. 

What happens when disturbing imagery goes out to millions of people -- young and old alike – instantaneously?  

What are the repercussions for people and communities when this footage is seen, seen again, and then manipulated and disseminated?

Importantly, The Ring conveys this idea of instantaneous information transmission in unforgettable visual terms. The entirety of the story is presented in a kind of de-saturated, silver coloring, an intentional reflection of the twilight, static-laden world of reflected computer monitors or TV light. 

And the film’s bogeyman -- a monstrous child who literally climbs out of a TV set -- is depicted with blurs, hiccups and periodic visual interference. She is a digitized image come to life.  

But this boogeyman is something else too. She is also the ghost of a forgotten emotion (rage) or story, one bouncing around the airwaves, never truly dead, always ready to return.

“It’s about the tape. The one that kills you when you watch it.”

When a teenager girl, Katie, dies exactly seven days after viewing a mysterious VHS tape, her aunt, Rachel Keller, investigates her death.  Rachel finds and watches the tape herself at a mountain cabin, and then realizes, after a phone call, that she has just one week to live.

With help from her estranged boyfriend, Noah (Martin Henderson), Rachel attempts to find the maker of the tape.  

The trail leads back to the Morgan family, who lived and kept horses on Moesko Island. While Rachel attempts to talk to Mr. Morgan, she learns of his daughter, a little girl named Samara (Daveigh Chase) and her incarceration at a local psychiatric facility. Apparently, the girl had frightening psychic powers, including the capacity to burn imagery on X-ray film...or videotape.

Noah visits that facility, but finds that Samara is long gone.

Meanwhile, Rachel must accelerate her efforts to find Samara and end her curse because her sensitive son, Aidan, has also watched the dangerous videotape, and will die in seven days.

“You play it, and it’s like somebody’s nightmare”

As I noted in the introduction above, The Ring is a treatise on modern technology, particularly television. 

The film opens with two teenage girls discussing TV signals and phone signals killing brain cells. “I hate television,” Katie (Amber Tamblyn) says. “It gives me headaches. You know, I heard there are so many magnetic waves traveling through the air, because of TV and telephones, that we're losing ten times as many brain cells as we're supposed to. Like, all the molecules in our heads are all unstable. All the companies know about it, but they're not doing anything about it. It's, like, a big conspiracy.

This chunk of dialogue reveals a few important points.  

First, it reveals that the girls live in a pervasive culture of distrust. Katie, at least, is fearful that she doesn’t know the truth about how her everyday technology works, and furthermore doesn’t trust the establishment -- government, business, science, or the media -- to explain it truthfully. 

Secondly, Katie's dialogue suggests that modern technology plainly and simply kills, murdering brain cells a little at a time. This urban legend conveys, in a nutshell, the film’s critique of modern technology.  Under the guise of connecting you to those you love, these high-tech instruments actually kill you.

The Ring proves very concerned, indeed, with the idea of signals of an inappropriate or unsafe nature entering your house and your psyche, unbidden.  

Why should the movie obsess on this notion?  Well, in real life, it was a topic of some controversy. America had just been through Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings, wherein blow jobs were discussed around-the- clock on 24 cable news-stations. I still remember parents complaining about having to explain some of the sexual terminology to their young children.  

And then, soon after that, the 24-hour news stations broadcast hour upon hour of horrific imagery from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and even the bullet-ridden corpses of Saddam Hussein’s sons.  

Again, how can one explain these events and images to the very young, or the unprepared? Although horror movies when they air on TV must contextualize their visualizations with ratings explaining suitability for the young, newscasts come with no such warnings.

At one point in The Ring, Rachel steps out of her apartment, onto a ledge, and peers down into an adjacent apartment building.  She is the only person standing outside in the vast complex.

The film then cuts to a long, impersonal shot of the building, where it looks as though inhabitants are warehoused.  As the camera focuses on various apartment units, we see that the TV set is prominently placed in each dwelling, and that it is on in every unit as well, depicting some image. 

We see these people and their TV sets, and feel they are blissfully unaware of the world outside their windows. And yet they believe themselves connected to that world because an appliance -- a TV set -- is activated.  The long pan across these living units raises a few questions

What images or terrors are coming into the world over there?  In that apartment? 

Or the next one over?  The impression is that Samara's tape may not be alone in its transmission of pain and suffering.

Later, Rachel’s sensitive son Aidan (David Dorfman) watches Samara’s tape and Rachel is furious at this transgression. 

The pictures on the television have exposed him to images that she was not prepared him to see, and that are dangerous to his psyche and could, literally, do him grave harm.  This scene explicitly trades on a parent’s fears that the air-waves may not be safe for children’s eyes.  

In the post-9/11 world, you can’t leave a kid alone in the front of the TV, because you just don’t know what he or she will see.  Far from being the "babysitter" of a previous generation; a safe generation, the TV now is a portal through which children might see any number of horrors.

On top of such visual flourishes, the film’s main character, Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) is a journalist, a person responsible for what type of “news” reaches the rest of the world.  

When, during the film's finale, she pushes the copy button and then passes the horror onto someone else, without comment or explanation, Rachel is committed a technological crime of sorts. We expect her to be responsible and moral, given the public trust she holds, but The Ring, again suggests that those in the media are ultimately untrustworthy gate-keepers.  

A child, like Aidan, by contrast, is trustworthy, and at film’s end he asks the question that Rachel willfully ignores: “What about the person we show it to?  What happens to them?”

Mr. Morgan (Brian Cox), Samara’s father, also reserves a high degree of hatred for journalists, as he says to Rachel.  “What is it with you reporters?” He queries. You take one person's tragedy and force the world to experience it...spread it like sickness.”  

Again, we are left to ponder the nature of contemporary news, and the phenomenon of 24-hour news stations on cable TV. Fox, CNN, and MSNBC jump on a popular story and ride out, regardless of the human or personal toll their reporting exacts.

Much in the way that, a generation earlier, Poltergeist (1982) critiqued television as a portal of evil, The Ring thus positions the new shape of television and media, circa 1999 – 2002 as a technological and inhuman monstrosity.  

This idea is expressed in several scenes which show important action either transmitted on or reflected by the television set.  

Again and again we get compositions of characters watching screens, a fact which indicates the importance of that "act" in our modern culture. At one point, we even get a Goldilocks-type shot with a big-screen/little screen dynamic for Rachel and Aidan.  They are joined in the act of watching something...inappropriate.

Importantly, Samara, it is reported in the film “never sleeps.”  Do you know what else never sleeps? 

A 24-hour cable news channel on TV.

Even the near-ritualistic repeating of Samara’s tape in the film seems to reflect the nature of modern mass media.  

You can check in on CNN every two or three hours and find it replaying the same footage, the same imagery, the same “breaking news” reel.  This was true, as well, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, shortly before The Ring premiered in theaters. A nation’s trauma was recorded, broadcast and rerun day after bloody day, over and over again, and those who saw it felt authentic fear and real trauma even though they were safe, and lived thousands of miles away from Manhattan, or Washington D.C.  

The suffering of the few was spread “like a sickness” and a virus of fear was released into the world at large.  

That virus, eventually, became the Iraq War, a war that would never have occurred had the media not been complicit in drumming up a culture of absolute, pervasive fear.

Steely and silver in color palette, The Ring thus reveals a world in which people -- despite all the connection provided by telephones and television -- feel isolated from one another.  

Noah and Rachel barely talk, and Noah is unwilling to step up as Aidan’s father.  “I don't think I'd make a good father. Maybe it was because my own was... such a... disappointment. Thing is, I don't want anyone else to do it, either, be your father.”  

In other words, Noah doesn’t seem to truly be living, but rather existing in a kind of half-paralyzed, half-awake state.  He wants to be a Dad and he doesn’t want to be a Dad. He has a job, after all...looking at screens all day.

Similarly, Rachel doesn’t listen to Aidan’s teacher, or to Aidan’s worries about death, and Samara’s mother committed suicide.  

Taken all together, this world is a dark place where love seems subdued, but personal traumas spread like wildfire, chain-mail style, via “the tape" and TV monitors.

Samara’s brand of evil also fits the film’s organizing principle, of suffering transmitted to many, like a disease, by modern technology.  

The last thing she sees is a “ring” around the well where she is trapped, and yet a “ring” is also the description of the sound a telephone makes.  The phone rings when Samra reaches out to warn viewers of the tape of their impending demise.  

A “ring” is also a synonym for a circle or loop, and news footage of tragedies are often discussed in terms of being “looped.”  Samara may be physically dead, but her suffering keeps transmitting via phone ring, and via the ring or loop of the tape itself.  

And this is how she wants it.  “Everyone will suffer,” she insists.  In modern culture, and thanks to technology, everyone can experience one person's suffering.  And as often as they would like.

The Ring establishes a new paradigm in the American horror movie involving culpability, and that too is part of it successful artistic gestalt. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, “vice preceded slice and dice.”  That turn of phrase means, simply, that the victim pool in horror movies often brought on their own deaths by breaking moral taboos. They smoked weed, had premarital sex, or snorted coke.  

This paradigm was seen in the slasher formula of the 1980s, but also the Interloper formula of the 1990s, wherein quasi-respectable white men (think: Timothy Hutton in The Temp [1993]) broke “the rules” to get ahead in his profession, only to see the blow-back destroy his family and reputation.

But films like The Ring, The Grudge (2004) and Pulse (2006), suggest something different. 

They suggest that the very act of being present, of watching or seeing is enough to warrant the wrath of angry spirits or individuals.  

In a hyper-connected, globalized world, the act of watching is enough to doom you.  Knowledge of a crime itself becomes the crime. Once you see the "the crime," you are culpable for it, a fact which is reflected in the photographs of the impacted in The Ring.  

Everyone becomes a hideous monster on film because they have "seen" Samara's tape.  They are now carriers of the disease, of the sickness that is spreading, according to Mr. Morgan.

Horror movies are often accused of coarsening the culture, or showcasing imagery that is somehow damaging to a society. Ironically, The Ring makes the reverse case. Consider: horror movies are rated appropriately, and reflect aspects of the society that created them. They are fictional works of art that are about violence in the culture, and how that violence affects people.  

TV news, by contrast, is not safely bounded within an artistic frame-work, or a regulatory one, for that matter. So while the horror film can comment meaningfully on the culture, the media, in its "fair and balanced" reporting, can actually damage it.  It just puts the images out there and leave it to "you" [to] "decide." 

The Japanese original, Ringu (1998) is a remarkable film too, with some big differences from the American version. There, the mystery of the island involves a volcano, not horses.  And the Noah figure, Ryuji, boasts psychic abilities, which helps when contending with Sadako, the film’s version of Samara. But perhaps because it was designed for American audiences, I find The Ring much scarier and on-point about technology than its Japanese predecessor. Both are great horror films, for certain.

In particular, the structure of The Ring, originated in the Japanese film, is clever because it doesn’t reveal the true horror of Samara’s behavior until after Rachel has solved the mystery.  

Until Noah becomes Samara’s victim in the film's last moments, we have seen only snippets of her activity, mainly the gruesome corpses she leaves behind.  

Thus, for the duration of the movie, we can only imagine how, precisely, Samara’s tape is murderous.  But then, all that coiled-up, sustained energy is released in the climactic scene with Noah, and we get to watch Samara’s emergence from the TV -- as a ghost and as a ghost signal -- virtually uninterrupted.  

There are few moments more genuinely disturbing in the American horror cinema of the early 2000s than Samara's escape from the television. Perhaps Samara’s water-logged form, long-hair and herky-jerky “digitized” movements have been aped so often now as to render them ineffective. 

But at the time, Samara’s ascent from the well -- and the TV set -- was a valedictory moment in the horror genre; the moment when the next generation of terror techniques and principles arrived and a new paradigm was born.

The Ring also develops well the notion of inevitability, of a “ring” of repeating events. 

You see the tape, and then you see the images of the tape in real life, until, finally, you meet Samara and she kills you. Accordingly, imagery from the tape including a ladder, water running blood-red, a fly, and an oval mirror, all recur progressively during Rachel’s investigation. The question becomes: were they already there, or are they a side-effect of Rachel’s vision; of her life re-shaping to the imagery that Samara has forged from her mind?

The Ring is an unnerving and disturbing film, made more so by the fact that it very much considers how we live in the 21st century, and wonders about all images that we have transmitted and committed to the ether.  

Could they come back to haunt us?

Movie Trailer: The Ring (2002)

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Planet of the Apes TV Series Blogging: "The Trap" (September 27, 1974)

There's a long-standing, honorable and familiar tradition in cult television regarding a particular story scenario:

Two committed enemies are forced to work together to extract themselves from a difficult, life-threatening spot despite their extreme differences.

You may have seen this dramatic idea played out, large scale -- human pilot against alien Drac -- in Wolfgang Peterson's epic film, Enemy Mine (1985), for instance. But a similar tale has also been a staple of sci-fi TV programs across the decades

This "My Enemy/My Ally" narrative conceit, as I sometimes term it, proved especially popular during the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps it was a coded reflection of the Global Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, a conflict that separated the world into two intractable sides, two ideologies, two superpowers.

Since many cult TV programs are geared explicitly towards the idea of imagining and presenting a better, more positive future -- pointing towards the evolution and growth of our species -- this explanation certainly makes abundant sense. 

Episodes of the "My Enemy/My Ally" variety often suggest that -- once thrown together into a life-threatening scenario -- enemies can find a common bond if only they leave their pre-existing, hostile, cultural beliefs behind. The notion is that understanding and trust are seeds that can grow inside people over time, and even blossom into peaceful co-existence, tolerance and hopefully, real friendship. 

In the era of mutually assured destruction, it was powerful for sci-fi television to suggest that -- just by being thrown together into a common danger with our mortal enemies -- we could prevent nuclear annihilation. By personally knowing our enemy, we could make a better choice...for the planet.

One highly-intriguing variation of the "My Enemy/My Ally" theme involves the controversial issue of race relations in America. By and large, this sub-text was the thematic territory for most episodes of the short-lived, 1974 Planet of the Apes series that aired on Friday nights (on CBS) in the fall of 1974. 

Writing about the TV series in his book, Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics and Popular Culture (Wesleyan University Press, 1998, page 157), author Eric Greene noted that the TV version of the popular franchise showed: "the victory of "reverse racism" over equality, as the formerly oppressed apes lord it over the degraded humans, who are now apes' servants and, in some cases, slaves. (In this aspect, the Apes show may have anticipated the white cry of reverse racism that would later gain currency...)"

In "The Trap," (original airdate: September 27, 1974) written by Edward J. Lakso and directed by Arnold Laven, our three heroic fugitives make for a village called Numai that has "a reputation for harboring fugitives."

Nearby stands the ruins of San Francisco, and Virdon believes that there may be some operational computers there...some computers that could help them get back to their own time.

Unfortunately, General Urko and his Lieutenant, Zako (Norman Alden) are hot in pursuit. An earthquake rattles the ruined city, and Burke and Urko tumble down a deep hole into the Earth...into a subterranean subway system from years past...from a time when humans ruled the planet.

While Zako and Virdon negotiate above to rescue their trapped comrades, Urko and Burke attempt to forge an uneasy alliance below. Urko, a pro-apes, anti-human bigot repeatedly trades in insulting stereotypes. "I always assume a human is lying. It makes things easier," he notes. "I don't work with humans," he likewise insists. 

Finally, he refuses to help Pete build a steel support cross (a metaphor for a well-known religious symbol, perhaps, of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness), because to do so is "human labor" and, well, he doesn't do human labor.

Up above, Zako similarly informs Virdon, "No bargains with humans. You are worth nothing."

As human viewers living in modern America, the audience instantly recognizes Urko's protests for what they are: prejudice.

Urko boasts a pre-existing belief that humans are inferior, but his belief is not based on facts or science. 

It's just...a strongly-held (and absolutely wrong) personal belief. Burke actually shows Urko "the facts:" a line of posters for organ replacement technology, disposable clothing and mass transit. He even shows the gorilla a human-manufactured solar battery that has operated for centuries. All these artifacts reveal that human beings are intelligent, resourceful creatures, but Urko refuses to believe his lying eyes.

So the crux of "The Trap" involves a very interesting notion; that Urko's (and by extension Ape Culture's)... bigotry results from a deeply-felt sense of historical insecurity. 

The apes already know that their culture was built on man's civilization a long time ago and still feel inferior. Rather than face this truth, they deny it. They try to erase it.

When Urko discovers a poster in the subway for the San Francisco Zoo (depicting a primitive gorilla in a cage, eating a banana...) he goes ballistic because his irrational belief about humans has been challenged; his strongly-held racism has gone up against that inconvenience known as "reality." Facts will not sway him.

In gazing specifically at racism (and in making human beings -- all of us -- the victims of entrenched racism), "The Trap" exposes the vast gulf in understanding and sense of extreme anger that often precludes the development of trust between people of different backgrounds, whether ideological or based on skin color.

To both sides in the on-going "racism" debate, the long span of existing history becomes only an opportunity to relive old hurts. Thus, no progress is forged. It's just tit-for-tat. Urko can't let go of a past in which humans, he believes, threatened ape power and superiority. 

And Burke, at least tacitly, views the ape's world as "upside down." He wants to go back in time and prevent the ape planet from existing in the first place. He wants to take his planet back. So long as these attitudes remain locked, there can be little progress between opposed personalities/viewpoints.

Interestingly, "The Trap" offers a smidgen of hope about entrenched racism...and then skillfully draws back from that hope in time for a very dark ending. 

Zako gives his word that he will allow Burke, Virdon and Galen to go free once Urko and Burke have been rescued from the station below. Going up against Urko...the diffident Zako keeps his word. He is a man (er...Ape) of honor.

But then, after the fugitives are gone, Zako sees the point of contention between Urko and Burke: that poster of the San Francisco zoo; that relic of old hatreds. In a tirade of violence, Zako shreds it to pieces...realizing that there is a secret to be protected after all. He feels duped by the fugitives; like they used him. The implication is that he will not -- as he did here -- trust humans any time soon.

What "The Trap" intimates is that real progress can occur between racial "enemies" only when the past is no longer a daily prologue and incitement to anger. That's a tough lesson to learn...especially when people on all sides feel wronged.

But "The Trap" remains valuable because it occurs almost entirely in a location -- the post-holocaust city -- where out-of-control human hatreds finally turned on themselves and destroyed virtually everything.

That's the final destination of sustained ideological and racial hatred, isn't it? Annihilation. For everyone. (And we know, from Beneath the Planet of the Apes that's the destiny this franchise envisions for beings of the planet Earth).

So, in this dark "My Enemy/My Ally"-styled story from the Darwinian Planet of the Apes, audiences detect how deep-seated prejudice survives. And how learning -- and therefore forgiveness - is possible...but may be outright refused, even in the face of reality. And in the face of cold, rational facts too.

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?

TV-Movie Promo: Home for the Holidays