The 1970s were a phenomenal time for TV movies in the United States, spearheaded by ABCs ‘movie of the week’ which heralded such classics as Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), John Newland’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) and Dan Curtis’ Trilogy of Terror (1975) to name but very few. One seasonal film that they commissioned was Home for the Holidays, a film which has every right to include itself in the slasher genre. It was written by the great Joseph Stefano (Psycho) and directed by TV veteran John Llewellyn Moxey who most famously shot The Night Stalker in the same year.
We open this film in the Morgan household in the midst of the Christmas period. It’s an impressive home both in size and décor, with artificial Christmas trees littering every spare surface. The head of the household is Benjamin Morgan (Walter Brennan) and he’s dying. Married to his second wife Elizabeth (Julie Harris), we discover through a local resident that his first wife committed suicide five years ago. His eldest daughter Alex (Eleanor Parker) has arrived at the mansion after collecting her three sisters Freddie (Jessica Walter), Joanna (Jill Haworth) and Christine (Sally Field) to bring them home for the holidays for the first time since the loss of their mother. Before they enter the house Alex informs her siblings that she has a note from her father that alleges that his second wife is trying to poison him.
It’s not long before their father has summoned them up to his room and instructs his daughters that they should find a way to kill his wife before she manages to kill him. The sisters are obviously shocked at their father’s plan, and discussions between them quickly turn towards the circumstances surrounding their own mother’s death as well as the suspicion that surrounded the poisoning of Elizabeth’s first husband.
Freddie is undoubtedly the most highly strung of the sisters. She has a predilection for continuous drinking, and appears liable to the occasional hysterical screaming session during her periods of drunkenness. This is the last straw for Joanna who also decides the allegations seem unfounded and she suggests that the whole reason for coming to the house is a trick. After all, the sisters are the only benefactors of the will so what reason would Elizabeth have for murder? As Joanna ventures into the treacherous thunder and rain outside towards her car, she’s stabbed with a pitchfork by a figure in a yellow mac and red wellingtons – the same waterproofs that happened to be in the kitchen earlier on. A coincidence or a red herring?
Despite its billing as a made for TV slasher, Home for the Holidays actually has a number of things in common with an Italian giallo film. It has a gloved killer (albeit red rather than black!), prominent score and themes of madness and paranoia as well as the aforementioned red herring. It’s a really classy murder mystery that skips swiftly through its 74 minute running time and is assuredly written – as expected – by Joseph Stefano with fleshed out characters who all seem to have notable and believable flaws in their personalities.
If you can ever track down any of these ABC movies of the week the majority are well worth a look as is Michael Karol’s book on the subject. Boasting excellent production values and inventive storylines they yield far more hits than misses, and without doubt Home for the Holidays belongs firmly in the upper echelons of the series successes.