Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the 70s. This week’s entry is a rarity for the boob tube horror sub-genre in that it’s essentially a slasher. Even better? It’s a good one! The film is mostly set in one location over a couple nights with a strong, recognizable cast, and it has terrific fun with the atmosphere of a rain-soaked Christmas scored to thunder and lightning.
Now join me as we take a trip back to the 1970s with an under-appreciated Christmas movie about the joys of family, murder, and pointy objects. It’s time to go Home for the Holidays!
When: November 28th, 1972
The Morgan family is as far from tight-knit as a family can be, and while it’s a death that drove all four daughters away from home it’s the threat of another that brings them back. Alex (Eleanor Parker) has called her three sisters Frederica (Jessica Walter), Jo (Jill Haworth), and Christine (Sally Field) back for the Christmas holiday as she fears something bad is on the horizon. Their father Benjamin (Walter Brennan) mailed her a letter, and its singular takeaway was that he believes his new wife Elizabeth (Julie Harris) is slowly poisoning him. Alex shares this with her sisters after picking them up at the airport, and when they return home their bedridden father confirms it. He’s happy to see them all but gets right to the point — he wants them to kill Elizabeth.
Backstory spills from the women’s lips revealing the extent of their collective suspicion, mistrust, and hatred. The girls’ mother took her own life — or was it murder?! — after learning Benjamin was cheating behind her back with Elizabeth. Curiously, Elizabeth’s husband also died from poisoning, and while it was ruled a suicide some wonder aloud if it was actually murder! So yeah, no one trusts Elizabeth. The daughters’ faith in their father isn’t much stronger, but they’ve agreed to listen in part because he’s a wealthy man nearing death and they don’t want to be booted from the will.
Everyone wants something, everyone suspects others of wanting it too, and the problem only magnifies once someone in a yellow raincoat begins killing the sisters. Is Elizabeth making a preemptive strike? Has one of the sisters decided she wants any inheritance for herself? Is the omnipresent and super nosy Dr. Ted (John Fink) a part-time killer? Or has Santa Claus traded in his fur-trimmed coat for a slicker and a pitchfork?!
Writer Joseph Stefano knows a thing or two about crafting suspense — he adapted Robert Bloch’s classic Psycho to the screen for Alfred Hitchcock — and he drops viewers into a already tumultuous tale efficiently and smartly. We quickly get to know each character, and it works well to shape suspicions and allegiances. Alex is the eldest and as such casts a protective arm over her siblings and father, but having been the oldest when their mother died she also holds the most resentment towards Elizabeth. Frederica turned quickly to the bottle, both alcohol and pills, as a way of dealing with her past. Jo chose sex and half-hearted relationships to dull her senses, while sweet, innocent Chris insists on seeing the positive in everyone. She’s an optimi–wait a minute. Maybe she’s the killer and is simply pretending to be all squeaky clean so no one suspects her!
It’s a TV movie filmed on the 20th Century Fox back lot, but director John Llewellyn Moxey takes full advantage of his setting to deliver an atmospheric thriller. A late scene featuring one of the sisters being possibly stalked by someone sees her moving through the big house’s dark, labyrinthine floor plan and nearby barn as thunder booms outside and flashes of lightning illuminate the frame. Moxey uses plenty of zooms to make sure viewers catch clues, reaction shots, and reasons to suspect everyone of being the killer. The murderer’s identity is hidden by rain, the bright yellow slicker, and the camera, and Moxey teases the giallo element through repeated shots of the killer’s gloves — but rather than black leather they’re more suitable for dish-washing. George Tipton‘s score is present but never overdone, and its main theme pairs a bit of menace with its holiday whimsy.
The cast is great with everyone nailing their characters with precision and occasionally melodramatic glee. Brennan is cantankerous as ever while Harris balances misunderstood sincerity and suspicion well. Haworth is terrifically snotty and sells her disinterest in the family at every turn, and Walter’s portrayal of a fearful and angry drunk teases the character she would embody far more humorously decades later in Arrested Development. Field, meanwhile, shows why the world fell so quickly and easily in love with her in the 70s.
Don’t worry, I won’t spoil the killer’s identity for you — unless I already did! — as it’s a fun flick worth seeking out whether it be for the holidays or anytime you have 73 minutes to spare. Home for the Holidays is a tight little thriller guaranteed to leave you suspecting everyone at one point or another, and it builds to a satisfying conclusion that sees sweet innocence prevail. Take that how you will.