Wednesday, December 18, 2013

December to Dismember: HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972)

In the epic annuls of "They Don't Make 'Em Like This Anymore" there are entire subvolumes devoted to the '70s. Counter-culture was in the air and being subversive was super-chic. This was a time when mainstream couples in their 20s and 30s would go on first dates to see DEEP THROAT (1972) in an actual cinema. This was a time when wild-eyed, foaming-at-the-mouth, wing-nut misanthropes were safely tucked away in barber shops instead of hosting cable news shows that claim to be "fair and balanced".

During this amazing period in history, filmmakers would actually try to surprise audiences. Now it seems that mainstream audiences demand to have their pre-fabricated expectations fulfilled by cinema without a single twist or misdirection. The bad guys are bad and the good guys are bad, but the good guys have an ironclad just cause. No vagueness, no ambiguity, if someone gets punched, killed, or tortured, they had it coming, and it was for a good reason. Usually because they aren't nice to women, animals or those of ethnic origins.

Ironically theatrical films of the '70s were suddenly unshackled from the draconian censorship of the Hays Code by Jack Valenti's new MPAA ratings board, whose first incarnation went into effect in 1968. Ironic because as we all know, Valenti and his MPAA slowly turned into something even more twisted than Will H. Hays could have ever dreamed up. TV movies, under the censorship of the FCC, unable to show the graphic content of theatrical films, were forced to resort to creative concepts, interesting casting, twisting plots and clever dialogue. Case in point, the Aaron Spelling / Leonard Goldberg produced ABC TV movie HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS. As director Paul Kyriazi told us, this movie came out of left field for some (like his mother) who thought they were sitting down to some wholesome home-spun Christmas movie back in '72.

Alex Morgan (Eleanor Parker, who passed away on the same night that I watched this), the big sister in the family, is meeting her strangely male nick-named sisters at home for Christmas for the first time in a long time because their father, Benjamin Morgan (Walter Brennan), is dying. Right off the bat we know there isn't a drop of saccharine in this yuletide tonic as the angriest of the sisters, Jo (Jill Haworth) vents her ire the minute Alex tells them of their father's impending demise. "Is that the only reason you made us come back? I swore I'd never set foot in that house again, not even to have the pleasure of seeing his coffin closed!" So no cocoa, knit sweaters and choruses of "O Tannenbaum" this year then? Well, it's just one malcontent, right? Alex then tells the girls that Dad sent her a note saying that his wife was poisoning him and says "we can't let that woman get away with murder... again."

Not only do the girls blame dad for the death of their mother, but apparently their homelife up until that point wasn't exactly out of a Pipi Longstocking novel. When they gather around their father's bed, Dad decides that this is the perfect opportunity to take them all down a peg. He slams Freddie (Jessica Walter) has been self-medicating with pills and vodka, Chris (Sally Field) gets a slap on the wrist for being naive, but Dad saves the best for Jo in this exchange:
Dad: "Jo, I lost track of all of the husbands..."
Jo: "So did I, until I realized that you didn't have to marry them to sleep with them."
Dad: "As I remember, you found that out in junior high school."
Oh daaaaaaayyyyummm!! And I thought my family had some issues with lingering resentment over parental disapproval! Better still, Dad demands that his flock of female failures spend the most wonderful time of the year killing his wife, before she kills him! God bless us, everyone.

As it turns out the new stepmom, Elizabeth Hall Morgan (Julie Harris), was not just suspected of poisoning her last husband, but actually tried in a court of law and spent time under special psychiatric care. While the suspicious sisters delicately probe around the issue over the dinner table, Elizabeth tells them of the strange circumstances of her late husbands death and how it drove her mad. Only temporarily, of course, but "if for some evil reason I am ever accused by anyone of killing, the next time, I will not be the one that wakes up screaming." Well ok, then! There's always someone who has to drop that not-so-veiled threat before you even make it to dessert, isn't there?

This sets the stage for a surprisingly atmospheric reworking of THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927), complete with thunder and lightning, torrential rain (it's California, no snow) and an American gothic mansion in which someone in a yellow slicker and red rubber gloves is picking off the family one by one. Just as much as it owes a debt to John Willard's seminal 1922 stage play (by way of many film adaptations), HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS pre-dates much of the '70s Bava-inspired slasher films in the US and was made four years prior to ALICE SWEET ALICE (1976) which made the yellow rainslicker an icon of evil.

You could make an argument that it is full of the same trappings that have been in these "Old Dark House" movies and stage plays for nearly 100 years, but this raises itself well above similar TV outings, benefiting from a surgically sharp script by Joseph Stefano. Stefano may be best remembered for writing the screenplay for a relatively unknown low-budget film titled PSYCHO (1960), plus many other TV and film credits, including both incarnations of "The Outer Limits" (1964 and 1998). Unlike many of the TV movies that gave the medium a bad rap, HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS is not a 22 minute concept stretched out to a flabby 73 minute feature. Instead it is a 90 minute concept squeezed down to a tourniquet-tight 73 minute feature. Because of this, it moves at a blistering pace in spite of being what is essentially a brooding and atmospheric horror film laced with humor painted so dark that it almost blends into the black, stormy night.

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