“If a nightmare like that ever happens again – if for some evil reason, I’m ever accused by anyone of killing – well, the next time I will not be the one who wakes up screaming…”
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Starring: Eleanor Parker, Walter Brennan, Julie Harris, Jessica Walter, Sally Field, Jill Haworth, John Fink, Med Flory
Screenplay: Joseph Stefano
Synopsis: At Christmas, the four daughters of Benjamin Morgan (Walter Brennan) reunite under the family roof for the first time in many years. Eldest daughter Alexandra (Eleanor Parker) slips in quietly to see her father, whose ill-health confines him to a room on the ground floor of their isolated country house. Nervously, Benjamin demands to know where she is? – before sending Alex off to the airport. A recent storm has temporarily receded, but Alex finds the road covered with water and blocked by a falling branch, which the young local doctor, Ted Lindsay (John Fink), is in the process of removing. The two greet each other, with Ted observing that it has been nine years since Alex was last home; while she says firmly that it’s only for the holidays, and confirms that she is on her way to pick up her sisters. It is raining again before they reach the house, but Joanna (Jill Haworth) refuses to go inside until Alex is more explicit about the “family crisis” that has brought them all home. Christine (Sally Field), the youngest, asks if their father is ill—prompting Alex to reply quietly that he is dying. To the unforgiving Jo, this is no reason for them to be called back; but then Alex shows the others the letter she received from their father, claiming that his wife is poisoning him. Once inside, Alex tries to hurry her sisters into their father’s presence, but Frederica (Jessica Walter) drags her heels, begging for a drink first. Alex is firm, however, and is shepherding the others towards their father’s makeshift bedroom when they stop—suddenly aware of the presence on the shadowed staircase of Elizabeth Hall Morgan (Julie Harris). Remarking that, though they haven’t met before, she knows that the four each have their own ideas about her, Elizabeth adds that she hopes they can at least be civil to one another. She tells the sisters that she feels she knows them well from hearing their father talk about them, and that he is longing to see them again after so many years: too many, she adds with quiet reproof. As Elizabeth withdraws, Freddie speaks brokenly of their mother, of Elizabeth in their mother’s place…and how their father killed their mother: insisting upon his responsibility when Jo replies flatly that their mother killed herself. Alex interrupts, pointing out once again that, first and last, he is their father—and then leads the others to him. Once his daughters are gathered at his bedside, there are some painful interchanges before Benjamin insists that Elizabeth is poisoning him. He speaks bitterly of his past belief in her innocence, when she was accused of murdering her first husband, and warns his daughters that they, too, will be in danger if she knows why they have really come home. When Jo asks coolly how exactly they expected are to save his life, as he demands, Benjamin replies that there is only one thing to be done: they must kill her before she can kill him…
Comments: My usual Christmas double-bill is Die Hard followed by the original version of We’re No Angels…but you better believe Home For The Holidays is knocking hard for admission.
Like Fright, this is a film that tends to come up in discussions about proto-slasher movies; but also like Fright, it isn’t a slasher movie at all. In fact, if you were going to classify Home For The Holidays as anything, I think you’d have to call it a giallo.
At first glance that might seem like a stretch: this is, after all, an American made-for-TV movie from 1972, with a cast of familiar faces, and a story built around a Christmas family reunion; but all that notwithstanding, this film shares with the giallo its murder-mystery framework, a rising body-count, and a plot built upon aberrant psychology: all of this in addition to a cynical attitude towards family and Christmas that warms the cockles of my bitter little heart.
And as for what this film does with – and to – its cast of familiar faces— Well, let’s just say that people tuning in the ABC Movie Of The Week on 28th November 1972 probably got a bit more than they bargained for.
To be perfectly frank, Home For The Holidays doesn’t make a lot of sense (what was I saying about giallo-like?). Its screenplay – by Joseph Stefano – is stuffed full of red herrings and dangling plot-points, which at only 75 minutes long it hardly has time even to begin to deal with. In fact, the film almost collapses under the weight of its back-story, which repeatedly gets in the way of the actual plot. There’s also not much here by the way of “direction”: for the most part, John Llewellyn Moxey and his cinematographer, Leonard J. South, are content just to point their camera at their predominantly female cast and let the ladies get on with it. And if you’re not of an age or otherwise in a position to appreciate the casting, you might find that the opening stretch of the film tests your patience.
But taken the right way, this film is enormous fun. After all—how often do you get to watch such a ridiculously talented cast tear each other to shreds verbally while tripping over a dead body every other scene? (In one character’s case, literally.) The best thing of all, though, is that, given that cast—it doesn’t matter who the killer is, it’s going to be delightful and hilarious.
Which brings me to my final introductory point: I will be revealing the killer’s identity, so if this sounds like your sort of thing, run away and find a copy, and come back when you’ve watched it. (Psst: at the moment it’s available online, though it probably shouldn’t be.)
The credits to Home For The Holidays play over tinkly, cheerful Christmas music, while the film proudly spells out its made-for-TV credentials—including Aaron Spelling as one of its producers, and an amusing sorting of the cast into various categories of “stardom”.
There’s nothing much here to warn the viewer of what kind of film it actually is, though once we grasp that even these earliest moments are absurd: from the immaculate condition of the house (who cleans it? – Elizabeth Hall Morgan, or the mentioned but unseen “Mrs Kelly”?), to the enormous wreath on the front door – of a house no-one visits – to the soaring Christmas tree in the foyer: where did that come from? – who put it up? – and why?? I mean, whatever else the Morgans are expecting of the family reunion, it can hardly be a merry Christmas!
But perhaps it was perfectionist Alex, who is seen hanging an ornament or two on the tree’s lower branches before realising the time. She is unaware of her step-mother’s presence on the stairs as she slips into her father’s room and, in response to his hissing inquiry, assures him that Elizabeth is still in her room.
Alex’s encounter along the road with Ted Lindsay reveals that he is now “Dr Lindsay”; and that it has been nine years since any of the Morgan women were home. We get the feeling, in Ted’s repeated inquiries about whether “all” of Alex’s sisters are coming home, that there is one sister in particular he wants to ask after, though he doesn’t say so. On the other hand, Alex chooses to ignore Ted’s wry remark about her still “mothering to death” the others.
It is dark, and the storm has broken again, before the four Morgan sisters reach the house. The already tipsy Frederica is looking for her next drink, to the dismay of family baby Christine; but Joanna keeps the four of them outside, demanding to know why Alex has really sent for them—forcing them to break their oaths of never returning.
Chris speaks nervously of their father’s health, prompting Alex to reveal, quietly, that he is dying. Jo’s chilly response is to observe that that is hardly reason enough, forcing Alex to show the letter she received from Benjamin, in which he claims that his new wife is slowly poisoning him. On her own behalf, she adds that whatever their father might have done in the past, the four of them can’t let “that woman” get away with murder…again…
Once inside, Freddie pleads for a drink again, but along with the others is herded towards Benjamin’s room. They stop dead when they see Elizabeth on the stairs: we learn here that the sisters have never met their step-mother before, though they know all the public gossip about her, plus a few other things; conversely, Elizabeth observes that she feels she knows them well, from listening to their father talk about them. There is a reproof in her manner as she adds that she is glad they came home, finally.
Alex then leads the others into Benjamin’s bedroom, and as they gather around their father, the camera pans from sister to sister: Alexandra, Joanna, Frederica and Christine—or as they are invariably called, Alex, Jo, Freddie and Chris.
This is a prime example of the screenplay throwing in a touch that just muddies the waters. Are we to suppose from this nomenclature that the first Morgan marriage foundered on the late Mrs Morgan’s “failure” to produce a son? Were the girls then forced into the position of having to make up for that failure? – particularly, perhaps, oldest child Alex? Typically of this film, however, this detail is simply there, never explicated, and never in the broader sense impacting the actual storyline. And let’s face it, whatever Benjamin Morgan was expecting from his remarriage to the notorious Elizabeth Hall, it certainly wasn’t children.
The implication is that the four left home in the wake of their mother’s death, though their subsequent conversation with their father throws up a darker suggestion. Either way, we can only wonder how much agency Chris had in any such decision: she is the youngest by a space of years, and could have been in her mid-teens at most at the time, so if she went one of the others must have taken her; again, most likely Alex; though this too is left to our imaginations.
Benjamin and his daughters then exchange pleasantries—helpfully filling in some back-story. He is nice enough to Chris, who is revealed as being in her first year of graduate school; but he quickly moves to sneering at Jo over her sexual precociousness and later string of husbands (and not-husbands), and from there to “poor Freddie” and her addictions: “You keep taking those pills, and one night you’ll go like your mother did!”
Jo tries to bring the reunion back on point, prompting Benjamin to warn the others to keep their voices down, as Elizabeth will undoubtedly be listening—“If she hears one word of this, your lives won’t be worth a red cent!”
This whole scene, I should mention, and indeed much of the film that follows, is absurdly accompanied by horror-movie-esque flashes of lightning and rolls of thunder. An acutely uncomfortable Chris has moved from her father’s bedside to the window, and in one particular flash she sees Elizabeth crossing the lawn and going towards the barn in a yellow rain-slicker and dull-red Wellington boots. She reports this to the others.
Jo’s mocking attitude to her father’s fears provokes him to reiterate that he is being poisoned: “Is that so hard to believe?” Uh, no, actually. In fact I’m tempted to quote Georgette Heyer here: “I cannot conceive how it comes about that you were not murdered long since.”
Benjamin adds as proof that Elizabeth murdered her first husband; everyone knows that. He sees, however, that his daughters don’t believe him. Alex insists that she does, and Benjamin concedes the point: she – “Even you, Alex!” – wouldn’t have come home otherwise. He explains that Elizabeth knows nothing of their real reason for being there: he has told her that he begged them to come because he needs their forgiveness—and that they have because they want his money.
The others are dismayed when they learn that Benjamin has accused Elizabeth to her face of her supposed crime. Her response, he adds, was to call him, “A senile old fool”, and to offer to call the sheriff herself: a claim we must set against the fact that the Elizabeth we see has a constant demeanour of more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger.
Freddie wonders if perhaps they had better just call the sheriff? Benjamin’s unequivocal, “No!” prompts the wry observation from Jo that he’d rather be murdered than laughed at: “The people of this town have been waiting exactly ten years for something like this to happen.” Benjamin says bitterly that he believed back then in Elizabeth’s innocence—but he was wrong.
Sooo…it was ten years ago that Elizabeth Hall supposedly murdered her husband, prompting Benjamin to, ahem, espouse her cause; and nine years ago that the girls left home? And where in all that did the first Mrs Morgan commit suicide?
It is then Freddie who tries to bring things back on point, demanding to know what their father wants them to do? His answer is emphatic: to save his life; and there is only one way they can do it:
Benjamin Morgan: “Kill her!”
Fade to ad-break.
When we come back, the allegedly bedridden Benjamin is up and listening at the crack of his bedroom door, as his daughters discuss his extraordinary proposition out in the living-room. Alex insists that they shouldn’t take it literally: that Benjamin was just trying to underscore the urgency of the situation. Jo isn’t so sure about that. Freddie just wants a drink, much to Chris’s dismay. She announces her intention of getting her some coffee instead.
This takes Chris out to the kitchen—where some rubber boots sit still wet, a yellow slicker has been thrown over a chair to dry, and Elizabeth Hall Morgan is washing and peeling vegetables while making the job twice as difficult as it needs to be by wearing rubber gloves the same shade as the boots, and humming to herself: “Silent Night”, if you please.
Chris pulls up awkwardly. Elizabeth is almost effusively welcoming, though, insisting that she sit by the stove and get warm, while she makes the coffee, and moving the slicker out of the way to accommodate her. Chris stares at Elizabeth for a moment, obviously trying to reconcile her father’s version of her with this one, before sitting down.
To make conversation, she asks after Mrs Kelly, who does still work for Benjamin, but is currently ill. She did the pre-Christmas prep the day before, we hear, in anticipation of not being well enough to come again; while Elizabeth wonders how she manages to negotiate the woods between her own house and the Morgans’ at all: “They scare me to death!”
Elizabeth is herself finishing up all the Christmas dinner cooking—and we get an hilarious low-budget-movie moment here as she opens the clearly unlit oven to baste a clearly fully raw turkey with a clearly empty baster. (Maybe she’s planning on the one-fell-swoop approach of food poisoning?) “It will be a while,” she observes in a masterly piece of understatement.
Chris initially bridles at Elizabeth’s comments about the danger of Freddie mixing alcohol and pills, but concedes that she shouldn’t be drinking. Elizabeth then mentions Mrs Morgan’s death, and asks whether Freddie still blames her father? – adding that drinking a bit too much is probably preferable to “going a little mad”, as she once did: causing Chris to gawp at the implication that the late Mr Hall, too, committed suicide. By this time the coffee is ready, and Chris departs with thanks, clearly bewildered by her discovery that she rather likes Elizabeth: this version, anyway.
As she downs her coffee, Freddie gives her own slant on what Chris has had to say, suggesting that their mother killed herself because she found out that Benjamin and Elizabeth were having an affair. (Really? Walter Brennan and Julie Harris? My brain does not want to go there…) Freddie continues to ramble tearfully, finally insisting that if their mother had in fact committed suicide, she would have left a note: that she died instead of a broken heart; that no-one has loved her, Freddie, since…
Chris tries to soothe her sister, and to coax her downstairs to dinner (that turkey, ten minutes later, must be done to a turn). “I’m having my dinner,” replies Freddie, picking up her glass again…
But Chris and Jo do dress up and descend to the dining-room, where a festive table awaits:
Chris: “How Christmasy!”
Jo: “You’d think we really were home for the holidays.”
Elizabeth, entering, overhears Jo referring to her as “our intended victim”, but gives no sign as she seats herself and invites one of the other three to say grace. Alex does, as Chris sneaks looks at her step-mother.
A conversation of even more than the expected awkwardness follows, with Elizabeth bemoaning their father’s inability to join them, and Alex asking the doctor’s opinion of his condition. Elizabeth’s quiet insistence that she has been forbidden to call in any doctor paves the way for Jo’s needling remarks about men in general and husbands in particular, and how wives can only be expected to “take so much”…though in her own case, she adds, she always had Alex to run home to; so she never had to resort to murder…
Elizabeth takes her up sharply enough and cuts through the innuendo to the circumstances of her husband’s death. An embarrassed Chris follows up Elizabeth’s own earlier hint, suggesting that perhaps Mr Hall did it himself?—
Elizabeth: “You’re the first person who’s considered that possibility…aside from the Grand Jury.”
Elizabeth then insists that she hardly thinks about it any more—her days in a prison cell, her position as town pariah, her inability to get a job, how one day she woke up screaming in an asylum…
And if it were ever to happen again, she concludes, should she ever be accused again—well, it won’t be her who wakes up screaming…
At which point, Frederica wakes up screaming.
Her sisters rush upstairs—and upstairs again as they realise she’s in the sewing-room, presumably once their mother’s retreat. There they find Freddie in full screaming hysterics, having also cut her wrists with a broken whisky-glass.
She backs away from the others, holding the glass as a weapon, and points at a portrait of their mother (“So beautiful!” she keeps insisting of the woman who looks exactly like her). As she pants about death and murder, the others try to intervene, each in her own way:
Chris: “Please let us help you!”
Jo: “Drop that glass, Freddie!”
Alex: “You’re going to bleed to death!”
As Freddie collapses, weeping, over the portrait, the others get her under control—although when she sees her step-mother in the doorway, she starts screaming again. As Alex and Jo haul her away, the former hisses at Elizabeth that the room was always kept locked, so how did Freddie get in? Elizabeth denies all knowledge—but then finds Chris staring at her in a way that indicates she has re-set to her original opinion of her. She departs, leaving Chris to ponder the portrait—upon which Freddie has left a smear like a long, bloody tear-drop…
Down a flight, Jo is packing. When Alex again tries the-he’s-our-father argument, Jo waves it away—pointing out that it was Alex who persuaded them all to leave him in the first place. Now, in any case, she doesn’t particularly care what Benjamin is dying of; though she personally exonerates him of any blame – “legally or morally” – for their mother’s death, since she was batty from the day Chris was born: “As batty as poor Freddie is now!”
Alex: “What a charming way to talk about your family!”
Irritated, Jo goes on to tell Alex to stop treating her like a child; to stop playing “big sister”: though this gives her pause:
Jo: “I once told Chris I felt we were your emotional prisoners, and she said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if it was the other way around?’”
Alex ignores the implications of this rider, apologising to Jo if she ever did make her feel like a prisoner, and begging her to stay: “We need you!” Jo is astonished to discover that Alex genuinely believes in the threat to Benjamin’s life. She, conversely, from the first moment she saw their father’s letter, felt that it was a ploy to trick them all into coming home.
Jo’s objections are also practical: why would Elizabeth be trying to kill Benjamin? – not for profit, since she knows the four of them are back in his will. Is she a thrill-killer? Perhaps just for freedom, Alex responds; adding wryly, “Emotional prisoner?”
Anyway, Jo is implacable about leaving, and asks for the keys to Alex’s car. She shrinks from dealing with Freddie in her current state, but Alex, resigned, tells her that the keys are out in the vehicle, persuades her to say her goodbyes while she takes her suitcase down, and promises to handle Benjamin for her.
Freddie is almost catatonic, so the scene Jo feared doesn’t eventuate. Chris leaves her sister’s bedside and slips downstairs with Jo, who begs her to come away too:
Chris: “Oh, Jo! Don’t start spooking me with your eerie feelings!”
Jo: “Don’t you be the one who wakes up screaming!”
Okay. So we’ve been set up to expect Home For The Holidays to be a certain kind of film – or perhaps, one of two different possible kinds of film – but here it lurches suddenly to display a hitherto unsuspected third identity, as we watch Jo venture out into the rainy night and run towards the barn that Alex uses as a garage. Once she is inside, the music changes – the camera’s perspective shifts – and we realise that Jo is not alone. As she stands with her back turned, putting her suitcase into the car, a figure emerges from the shadows: someone wearing a yellow slicker and pinkish rubber gloves and boots. The person bends over and straightens with a pitchfork in their gloved hands…
I wonder if anyone saw that coming in 1972? I may say that I didn’t in 2021.
Christmas morning breaks with the rainstorm only intensifying. As Elizabeth watches from an upstairs window, a small car pulls up at the Morgan house: we recognise it as Ted Lindsay’s. Chris goes to open the front door – briefly distracted by the slight movement of the door to her father’s room as it shuts – and finds Ted on the doorstep. He says he’s come to wish them all a merry Christmas – ha! – but it’s obvious that he’s really come to see Chris. He’s even brought her a gift, a silver locket. Their brief chat encompasses Chris’s long-ago crush on Ted and the fact that, no, she’s not married: she bemoans (albeit smilingly) her tendency to “scare them off” by “needing too much”.
Ted then says that he’d better get going, as he knows Elizabeth has had instructions not to let him in. Chris suspects that this is actually Elizabeth’s idea, but Ted confirms that he overheard Benjamin giving the order. Impulsively, Chris asks if Ted could tell what’s wrong with her father “just by looking”, but her plan to take him into her father’s presence under the guise of wishing him merry Christmas – ha! – is thwarted when Elizabeth, emerging, announces rather snippily that Benjamin is sleeping.
To Chris’s astonishment, Ted clearly has some idea of what is – or what supposedly is – going on; but he tells her that unless Benjamin agrees to some lab-tests, there’s nothing he can do. He surprises her even more by revealing that it was Elizabeth who asked him to come, about a month previous, after Benjamin first accused her. To Chris this proves that she must be innocent.
“Or clever,” says Ted dryly.
He asks Chris out for a drive the following day, though admits it may not be possible, as the river is still rising and there’s the possibility of the roads being washed out.
Chris then goes to make coffee and do the dishes: the camera pausing as she pulls on those red rubber gloves…
And that’s as much as we see of Christmas with the Morgans—HA!! That night Alex checks on her apparently sleeping father – who bounces up with a panicked look as soon as she leaves his room – before trying to reassure Chris. She tells her that, the next morning, she intends to ask Elizabeth to leave. Chris is rather appalled – because, after all, she might be innocent – prompting head-shaking condemnation of her naivety from her big sister: “Don’t you ever get tired of being so childish?”
Alex apologises, but the sting remains. She explains tiredly that everything always seems to fall upon her—while Freddie has her pills, and Jo her parties…
“I’m still here,” says Chris—as one of the more familiar crashes of thunder from the sound-effects library enlivens the moment.
After Alex departs for bed, Chris decides to take Ted up on his parting offer and call him; but the phones, of course, are out. (And there’s that thunder again…)
A noise leads Chris to the kitchen, where Elizabeth is preparing warm milk with honey. She comments that she made some earlier for Benjamin, though she doubts that Alex actually let him drink it. She then offers Chris some—and there is a short though pregnant silence while the latter tries to think of a tactful excuse, finally going with not needing help to sleep.
Speaking of which, the concoction turns out to be for Freddie, who is busy polishing off her bottle of vodka. There is an inconclusive moment between the two before we next see Freddie in her bath—bottle by her side, glass in her hand; no sign of the milk and honey. Half-asleep, she stirs uneasily—and then two rubber-gloved hands grab her by the ankles and pull her forward into the water…
It’s Chris who finds her the next morning, though her screams soon bring the others running. As Alex turns a look of no uncertain accusation upon Elizabeth, Benjamin calls querulously from below, demanding to know what’s happened. Alex takes Chris away, leaving Elizabeth to break the news of what she insists was suicide; though she then suggests it could have been an accident, as Freddie was still taking barbiturates against her warning—
—which Benjamin and Alex both jump on, as proof that she was in Freddie’s room. An increasingly incensed Elizabeth admits this, and explains why—adding that no, Freddie didn’t drink the milk and honey; that she drank it herself; and that the dregs are still by her bedside, if they’d care to get them analysed.
As Alex, nose in air, goes back upstairs, Elizabeth further breaks the news that the phones are out, so they can’t call the sheriff; and that after all the rain, the roads have almost certainly been washed away: that they are, for the time being, trapped.
Alex’s response to this is to announce from the upstairs landing that there is no mug in Elizabeth’s room—and no pills in Freddie’s.
Alex and Chris retreat to the kitchen, where the former lays out her version of Elizabeth’s guilt: asserting as her motive the prospective loss of, not the property, or the money, per se, but her sanctuary. Chris fights this reading, asking why – given her need to kill all of them – Elizabeth just let Jo go? Her panic is rising and, unable to still and wait for whatever is to happen, she proposes going for help: not the ten-mile walk to town, which would be impossible, but one mile through the woods to Mrs Kelly’s, where the phone might be working. Alex pishes her but, sick of her sister’s attitude, Chris sets out anyway—although without donning either the slicker or the boots, which the camera thoughtfully shows to us while the soundtrack flourishes dramatically.
Alex watches her go. So does Elizabeth. Chris plunges gamely into the woods, but has not gone far when she hears what sounds like footsteps behind her. She breaks into a run, as the camera picks out a slickered-and-booted figure carrying a pitchfork…
Home For The Holidays is not, as I say, really a slasher film, but we get an amusing foreshadowing of one of that subgenre’s most beloved conventions here as, no matter how desperately Chris runs and scrambles, the purposefully walking figure behind her never seems to be any further away.
Chris starts to toggle in a panicky way between running and hiding, finally hunkering down in a space within some huge, twisted tree roots. She is only just in time: her pursuer strides up almost to her hiding-place, thrusting the prongs of the pitchfork into the ground in frustration before setting off again…
As night falls, Alex tends Benjamin. As she goes to the window, she is startled to see Elizabeth outside, wearing a yellow slicker, and looking around wildly as if in search of something—or someone. She throws her own inadequate rain poncho around her shoulders, and goes out to see what she’s doing.
We then cut to Chris, who after her terrifying experience has turned for home—but makes it only as far as the barn. She rushes forward, seeking shelter, and literally trips over Jo’s body—which was buried, but the relentless rain has uncovered her shallow grave…
“Christine!” says Elizabeth suddenly. “I was so worried I wouldn’t find you!”
Chris has already unleashed a series of screams, and now she lets fly again—shrieking in terror as she dashes for the house. Inside, she cries out repeatedly for her sister as she rushes from door to door, turning all the locks.
Except she forgets about the storm cellar.
By now the power is out as well as the phone (no let up in the thunder and lightning, though). Chris still can’t find Alex, and while she is dashing around in rising hysteria, she hears footsteps from below—and finally takes refuge in a closet.
Elizabeth emerges from the cellar. “Christ-ii-ine!” she calls, rather placidly, all things considered. (It isn’t clear if she saw the body…or if she needed to.) She continues to search and call, but finally goes outside again. Chris, hearing the door, emerges and moves silently towards the staircase—though like everyone else, she can’t seem to help brushing the Christmas tree and setting the ornaments tinkling. Finally she dashes forward into Benjamin’s room, and shoots the bolt on the door. And so desperate is she, she turns to her father for sympathy.
He’s dead, of course.
She doesn’t make the discovery herself, though: Elizabeth’s tearful voice announces it from behind her. (Presumably there’s another door we were unaware of.) Chris screams again, slams back the bolt, and takes off running once again—out of the room, and out of the house, as Elizabeth cries out for her to come back…
Chris is still running along the road when a car comes past: it’s Alex. Rushing up to her, Chris pours out her story incoherently; Benjamin’s death, that Elizabeth killed Jo, her pursuit of herself, how she just ran—
“I know,” says Alex. “I knew you’d come to me. You always came to me…”
There is a pause as Chris fights her dawning realisation. “She—would have killed me if I hadn’t gotten away,” she says uncertainly.
“She wouldn’t have killed you,” replies Alex calmly.
Then she opens the car door—planting her Wellington boots firmly on the wet ground.
“Alex!” Chris whispers. “Why?”
“I want to be free of you all,” says Alex through her teeth.
Chris can find no better response than to point out that she could have just, you know, left; but Alex shakes her head. She wouldn’t have been free that way, not really free; not emotionally: “Your helpless little faces would have followed me wherever I went,” she says with a mixture of despair and resentment. “Sooner or later, I’d’ve come running back because somebody needed me…”
And then she lifts a tyre-iron.
And while I am by no means advocating family elimination—I can say truthfully that, the more time that passes, the more this scene speaks to me.
And besides, let’s be honest: who hasn’t wanted to hit Sally Field with a tyre-iron?
One savage blow, and Chris is rolling and tumbling down the sharp slope at the edge of the road, to lie motionless in the debris at the bottom. Alex knows she didn’t make clean contact, though, and with a gesture of frustration she swaps her weapon for a torch, trying to see whether she achieved her objective or not. The light falls upon Chris: Alex seems to be debating with herself over climbing down to make sure when another car comes along. It’s Ted, of course – who else? – and instead, Alex hurriedly makes herself look like a victim—or rather, a survivor.
“What!?” gasps Ted incredulously, as Alex sobs that they’re dead, they’re all dead: that “Mrs Hall” killed them all—except Chris, last seen running for her life from the house into, “Those godforsaken woods”.
Ted pulls himself together and offers to search for Chris, while Alex goes into town for the sheriff. Assuring her that the main road has reopened, he hurries into his own car and drives towards the house; while Alex, after a moment’s thought, realises that the circumstances do oblige her to go for the police.
It is the next morning when the sheriff finally does head for the Morgan house. The rain has finally stopped, and the sun is even out. Alex is driven by the sheriff, while a deputy follows in her car; and as they pass a certain spot along the road, Alex cannot help shooting a questioning glance into the woods; though of course from that angle she can see nothing…and nor can anyone else. She gives a little smile…
As the three of them enter the house, a grim-faced Elizabeth leans over the upstairs balustrade. Having already told the sheriff where her father is, and Jo, Alex offers to lead him to Freddie; though she can’t help giving another smug little smile as she sees Elizabeth looking down at her.
She is about to open the door to Freddie’s room when Ted steps out of Chris’s, next door, and says quietly that he found her. As the two pass each other, Alex smiles again as Ted tells the sheriff that he has to call the coroner—but pulls herself together in order to go into a dramatic display of grief for the benefit of her auditors.
“Oh, Chris!” she sobs loudly. “Oh, my poor baby!”
And then Chris opens her eyes.
Alex backs away in horror and, as the failure of all her plans – all her effort – and the loss of her lovely freedom – that Chris is still alive, goddammit – dawns upon her—she screams. She’s still screaming when the sheriff and the deputy come for her. Or maybe she’s laughing…
An undetermined amount of time later, a shaky Chris is helped downstairs by Elizabeth, who also carries her suitcase. The two women embrace before Ted takes Chris away. From the porch, Elizabeth watches them drive off before going back into her sanctuary. Her sanctuary…
I’ve watched plenty of gialli in my time, but even so, I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a film with such an extraordinarily high proportion of misdirection as Home For the Holidays. There are at least two other films that this film could have been, including the one given the most initial set-up—that is, Benjamin siccing his daughters onto his wife. And maybe that was the plan, only Alex snapped before he could properly set it in motion, who knows?
But that’s the point: almost the entire back-story is red herring, from Elizabeth’s supposed murder of her husband, to whatever was going on between her and Benjamin back then, to Mrs Morgan’s suicide—right up to Benjamin’s belief that he is being murdered, or rather his non-belief, as his refusal to see a doctor would imply.
Meanwhile, there’s so much portentous dialogue along the way that it is quite impossible on a first viewing to pick out the bits that actually mean something. (Particularly since almost everything gets underscored by thunder and/or lightning.)
And none of this ultimately has any direct bearing on the killer’s actual motive, which is a perfectly understandable, if literally insane, desire to – with apologies to Sidney Poitier – get the dead weight of her family off her back.
But as it stands, all this surrounding smokescreen simply adds to the fun of Home For The Holidays, which is a deliciously nasty bit of work—and to be fair, one that does keep you guessing for quite a while, even if only out of sheer confusion. It’s also fascinating to watch the prototypical versions of certain slasher-movie tropes play out—and here the film benefits from our future knowledge, as we don’t rule anyone out as the killer simply because of the logistical difficulties involved (we’ve seen too much Offscreen TeleportationTM since for that).
Meanwhile, the ensemble cast, in addition to the film’s made-for-TV background, makes Jo’s murder even more startling than it inherently is. Nothing in the film to that point leads us to expect that kind of violence, and even at this distance the scene retains its capacity to shock.
At first literally anyone could be the killer; and the film is at its most giallo-esque in setting up its suspects (“Oh, look, Benjamin’s out of bed! Oh, look, Ted’s hanging around again!”). There are a couple of nice double-bluffs here: Elizabeth is so obviously guilty that she’s obviously not guilty, so perhaps she is? – while the more overt reason we are given to exonerate her, the battier she behaves.
The same reasoning may be applied to Chris, though the other way around: she’s so obviously the only normal one in the family that of course we think she’s insane. I suppose “Sally Field: Serial Killer” was a bit too much to hope for in 1972, when she was fresh out of The Flying Nun; though considering the furore that followed Betsy Palmer’s casting against type some years later, it’s fun to think about it. I do feel, though, that the film tips its hand a little early, since the pursuit in the woods makes it only too clear what is actually going on; but with only 75 minutes at its disposal – and a dwindling cast – I guess we can’t be too critical of it for that.
The running-time may also account for the almost entire lack of subtlety on display; granting that there’s certainly a tongue-in-cheek aspect to some of it, like the absurdly obtrusive thunderstorm. I must also highlight Jessica Walter’s delightfully over-the-top performance as Freddie, a kind of Lady Macbeth in reverse. At the other end of the spectrum, the one really light touch here is the shift in Julie Harris’s appearance: when we first see Elizabeth, she’s neat, poised, and matriarchal; but only twenty-four hours later – twenty-four hours spent in the company of her extended family – she’s a haggard mess.
And that – for some of us – is perhaps the most wickedly appealing aspect of Home For The Holidays: there is no inherent reason why this film needed to be set at Christmas-time, it just is. This choice not only allows the clichés of the holiday season to counterpoint the increasingly ugly reality of life – and death – with the Morgans, but provides a fittingly ironic backdrop for the revelation that Alex’s once willingly assumed role as caregiver and the glue that holds her family together has become over time an unbearable burden, poisoned by the weight of expectation. As the tree ornaments tinkle and the family implodes, and as a Christmas Eve dinner more uncomfortable than a pitchfork in the back unfolds, you begin to wonder whether Joseph Stefano and/or John Llewellyn Moxey weren’t working through a few issues in this film…except for the air of wry enjoyment with which all this plays out. (See also: Sally Field getting hit with a tyre-iron.) We may not quite be at a faux-terrorists busting open an electronic vault to the strains of “Ode To Joy” level of cynicism here, but—it’ll do.