In this day and age, movies made for the small screen aren’t exactly what you’d call noteworthy. Most of them are hardly watchable at all, for that matter. We’re constantly subjected to the CGI horrors of nature-run-amok, women-in-peril chick flicks and nauseatingly sentimental family dreck. But way back in the groovy 70s, TV movies were in a completely different ballpark. They were much more creative, made by truly talented people with lots of gusto. Of course, though, only one thing really comes to mind when on the subject of television. That one thing deservedly being the awesome power that is Aaron Spelling, the late great TV tycoon to end them all. Home For The Holidays, in which he served as executive producer, predates all the well known holiday themed slashers with veteran horror filmmakers at the helm and an Oscar caliber cast, including a leading role from a young Sally Field. Unfortunately lost on an out-of-print VHS, Home For The Holidays is surely a hidden gem worth seeking out.
After receiving a strange letter from their father, four sisters reluctantly return to their childhood home, an apparent hotspot for gothic family controversy, and find him bed-ridden, on the verge of pushing up daisies. While their stepmother Elizabeth (Julie Harris of “The Haunting”) claims he’s just dying of old age, their father has a different story. He believes Elizabeth is slowly poisoning him to death and wants his daughters to “get rid of her” themselves instead of contacting the police. Although the girls seem to hate their stepmother, they’re quick to dismiss their father’s story as nothing but paranoia brought on by senility. But everything soon changes when a bad storm traps them inside and a killer starts trimming the family tree.
Written by “Psycho” scribe Joseph Stefano, Home For the Holidays is quite the intriguing little mystery that hooks us right from the start and never lets go. Although the characterization is fairly minimal, it’s still effective as each sister is clearly defined and made easy targets for suspicion. Alex is the Big Sister type who seems mentally exhausted from having to keep the whole family together. Joanna is a sort of callous jetsetter who’s been through more than a couple husbands and doesn’t seem to care for anyone but herself. Christine (Sally Field) is the sweet but naive baby of the bunch. And Frederica (the sublimely creepy Jessica Walter from Clint Eastwood’s “Play Misty For Me”) is an emotionally damaged alcoholic pill-popper.
Why is Frederica so unstable? Why do the sisters seem so distant from their father? Why do they have such strong hatred for their stepmother and why is she supposedly trying to kill her husband? It’s all so juicy, isn’t it? This couldn’t possibly be anything but an Aaron Spelling production. And it just gets better and better with bits of backstory and twists thrown into the mix as it goes along. With so much already going for it, the eventual appearance of a slicker wearing killer with a pitchfork just comes off as icing on the cake.
Of course, since it’s made for TV, there isn’t much slasher action to be seen here. The deaths are pretty quick and bloodless but it doesn’t really matter. I was more interested in the killer’s identity rather than the slayings. Aside from the sisters, Julie Harris does an amazing job seeming like she’s full of dark secrets and potentially dangerous. Even the bed-ridden father can’t seem to be trusted. So who could the killer be? It’s very refreshing to see a whodunit that actually works. Director John Llewellyn Moxey, already a pro with TV horror, does well keeping us second guessing ourselves and building the tension right to the very end.
Isn’t Christmas just the perfect time for horror? The extreme euphoria of it all somehow creates the opposite intended effect, making us feel fearful instead of joyful. But aside from the requisite Christmas tree and an eerily festive score, this home doesn’t exactly express the holiday spirit, which was quite disappointing. We even have to settle for rain instead of snow. And while thunder and lightning are always great bedfellows to horror, it just seems a bit odd for a Christmas movie. Home For The Holidays may not be ideal for some slasher fans, lacking the proper atmosphere, gore and nudity. But with Aaron Spelling drenched intrigue and the Flying Nun, who cares what it lacks? I don’t know about you, but that’s certainly good enough for me.