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Eleanor Parker in 1972

The holidays can be a very difficult time for some. I know from firsthand experience that when you don’t have any family to rely on or any kind of financial security to speak of Christmas can feel like a national nightmare inhabited by drunken revelers, crazed shoppers, and merciless merchants. This is compounded by what author Anthony Trollope once called “the perils of winter.” More folks tend to die during the winter months than any other time of the year so when you’re coping with the death of a loved one or a life-threatening illness the pressure to remain “merry and bright” can become wearisome and demoralizing. I mention all of this because one of my favorite telefilms seems to perfectly capture the darker aspects of the holidays that are so often swept under the rug. Throughout 2013 I’ve spotlighted a few of my favorite made-for-TV movies so it seems appropriate to conclude this unofficial series with a look at HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972), a surprisingly grim and suspenseful Christmas themed thriller that also happens to star Eleanor Parker who recently passed away at the age of 91.

In HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS Parker plays Alex, the eldest sister in a dysfunctional family made up of a high-strung pill-popping alcoholic named Fredrica (Jessica Walter), a promiscuous multiple divorcee called Jo (Jill Haworth) and the young and somewhat naïve Christine (Sally Field). The four sisters reluctantly return home during Christmas to pay one last visit to their dying father (Walter Brennan) who remarried a local woman (Julie Harris) after the girl’s mother committed suicide. Once the sisters arrive home, their father informs them that he believes his current wife is slowly poisoning him to death. The sisters, who all loath their father, dismiss his suspicions but Alex thinks there might be some truth to his claims and insists that they all stick around and try to figure out what’s going on. Soon afterward it becomes apparent that the entire family is being stalked by a pitchfork-wielding maniac who wants them all dead. But outside a winter storm is raging and with the roads washed out and the phone lines down it’s going to be difficult to escape the murderous wrath of the mysterious Christmas killer.

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Like all good “old dark house” movies, HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS relies heavily on its claustrophobic setting to create an atmosphere of dread but its buoyed by the creative directing choices employed by John Llewellyn Moxey (CITY OF THE DEAD aka HORROR HOTEL, THE NIGHT STALKER, etc.) and a solid script from Joseph Stefano (PSYCHOEYE OF THE CAT, etc.). This low-budget telefilm also benefits from some solid performances by Julie Harris as the aloof and quietly sinister new wife of the dying patriarch and Jessica Walter who pulls out all the stops playing the visibly damaged drug taking sister still openly mourning her mother. But the real scene stealer is Eleanor Parker who was still incredibly lovely at age 50. She shows perfect restraint as the self-contained oldest child with maternal instincts that are severely tested as the film progresses. Parker’s surprising character arc is the highlight of this grisly small screen treat that was released two years before Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) and six years before John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), making it an important predecessor of the American slasher film.

The fitting tagline used to sell HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS to television audiences when it debuted in 1972 as part of ABC’s long-running Movie of the Week series was, “There’s nothing more chilling than a warm family gathering.” If you’ve ever dreaded attending a holiday family get-together or found yourself lacking in Christmas spirit, you’ll appreciate the icy irony. The film could easily be enjoyed as a cruel farce with a bleak sense of humor but at the heart of HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS is a sad story about a broken family that can’t escape the dark shadow left by their mother’s suicide. This group of deeply wounded women has also been mercilessly bullied by a coldhearted father and no “Christmas miracle” is going to rescue them from their horrible fates.

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS has never been released on DVD but you can still find video copies of this unusual holiday horror treat selling on Amazon and eBay. Hopefully, we can look forward to a proper DVD release in the near future but if you’re still in the mood for some Christmas entertainment and don’t mind the abysmal quality of the print, you can currently catch HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS streaming on Youtube.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for Turner Classic Movies in December 2013