Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they watch and then discuss the fallout of a particularly painful film. Be wary of spoilers.
Jim: Happy post-Thanksgiving lull, Ken. It’s been just about a year since we kicked off this series with The Book of Henry—12 months later, I think I can say with some degree of certainty that the movies have only gotten worse. Considerably worse.
Ken: I wholeheartedly agree, Jim. I don’t know if this regular feature can be considered “aspirational” if our aspiration is to drill ever closer to our antipode. Maybe we will finally find a film so bad that it breaches through the other end of the planet and becomes somehow good. But I submit that your pick this month, Home Sweet Home, is probably not that film.
Jim: Ah, sort of a China Syndrome situation, wherein the entire Earth is destroyed.
Ken: We were discussing how Thanksgiving-themed films are thin on the ground. How did you come across this gem?
Jim: Thanksgiving certainly isn’t as well represented as other holidays, at least when it comes to horror fare. You’ve got Thankskilling, which is great in its own way, but the only “legit” horror films set at the Thanksgiving holiday seem to be 1987’s Blood Rage and this particular piece of 1981 claptrap, Home Sweet Home. This is clearly coming hot on the heels of Friday the 13th, during a brief boom of slashers set at literally any available holiday. It’s about as close as you can get to a feature-length version of Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving trailer from Grindhouse.
Ken: I should have known we had John Carpenter to thank for this crime.
Jim: Oy. Ken, Ken, Ken. Sean Cunningham directed Friday the 13th. John Carpenter directed Halloween. For shame.
Ken: My mistake. But you’ve got to admit there are definitely some shades of Haddonfield, Illinois, in this dud’s attempt at the invincible slasher-killer villain, right? I know a film this dark—literally, physically dark, as in bereft of photons, not tonally dark—is supposed to read as a stylistic choice. Instead, it’s pretty clear they just couldn’t afford lighting.
Jim: Or mics, for that matter.
Ken: No kidding—was this whole film dubbed? The other major similarity to Halloween I note is our massive killer. And we’re introduced to him in the very first scene! Why don’t you tell us about our ripped murderer?
Jim: Well, the opening scene is the only time in the film when you can say with honesty that things get to the point quickly. A random man is sitting in his car on the side of the road, listening to the radio when he is suddenly leapt upon by this Lou Ferrigno-looking mound of a man and strangled, while the killer (whose name is “Jay”) brays like a hyena throughout. Why does our killer roam about, slaughtering anyone he sees? Because he’s an escaped maniac who’s high on PCP, that’s why!
Also: He’s played by “Body by Jake” Steinfeld, who was famous as a fitness instructor and low-tier actor later in the ’80s and ’90s.
You wouldn’t like me when I’m on PCP.
Ken: I love that you said “Lou Ferrigno-looking” right away, because you beat me to it.
Jim: I knew that I only had one shot to be first.
Ken: Not only does he kill a dude with his bare hands and shoot drugs straight into his tongue in the first scene, but he also cackles while purposefully aiming for a feeble old lady in the middle of the street. The movie legitimately freeze-frames on her startled face as he runs her down. Jim, I truly hope you can get the screenshot on that.
Jim: I’ll certainly do my best. I was laughing my ass off all through the opening scenes here, not because he was killing people but because I found the director’s decision to show him shooting PCP into his tongue and then leisurely and carefully driving through the credits sequence to be hilarious. It’s the only time in film history when you’ll see a scene of someone shooting up and then carefully merging on the highway immediately afterward.
Ken: Right. His anything-goes murder spree is strangely selective.
Anyway, this is the most action we get for about, what? 50 minutes? We’re then introduced to our victims, a group of horny, obnoxious couples out in a secluded house in the hills, preparing a Thanksgiving repast and bickering over who will go get what forgotten items with whose malfunctioning car.
Jim: While watching the film, I described the plot as “running errands and car trouble.” That’s pretty much all that happens for a huge chunk of the run time.
Ken: I can’t remember the names of these chumbalones, to be honest.
Jim: Let’s list off our characters in the weird ranch domicile, then. As many as we can remember.
Ken: Okay, so there’s the visiting couple: Blonde Dude and his girlfriend, who try to make out in the car right in front of the place.
Jim: They try to do far more than just make out, right in the driveway. I dubbed them “Steve” and “Pam.” I have no idea what their names actually were.
The head of the household, meanwhile, I immediately started thinking of as “Uncle Rico.” He has a sweet young thing who is about half his age. He also has a friend present, who keeps saying he’s there “to talk business,” although it’s never even remotely clear what he’s referring to. That guy has a Mexican girlfriend in tow who apparently doesn’t speak any English, and there’s a whole lot of borderline offensive jokes about her singing in Spanish.
“Wanna see my high school football videos?”
And then there’s the best character in the film. Tell us about the guy you know I’m clearly referring to.
Ken: Oh god. Jim, this guy. He wears KISS makeup and has an electric guitar with a backpack amp. His sole character trait is that he’s completely obnoxious and looks for every opportunity to cock-block the horny adults in the household. He is the son-by-a-previous-marriage of “Uncle Rico.” His name, Jim, is literally “Mistake.” Multiple characters were shouting “Mistake!” at him while chasing him around with bats and telling him they were literally going to kill him, and I figured it was bad writing, the scriptwriter forgetting that he’d already used that insult, but no, IT’S HIS NAME.
Jim: You’ve got to love that his character introduction is his father chasing him, yelling “I’m going to kill you!” without a hint of playfulness in his voice. But it’s earned, because these people live in constant torment because of Mistake. Every time you’re about to have a tender moment, he pops up out of the bushes and starts noodling on his guitar, saying things like “rock ’n’ roll forevah!”
The film’s breakout character, in all his glory.
Ken: I will say that this gives rise to the most unintentionally funny moment when, later, Blonde Dude discovers a murdered woman who was last seen with Mistake, and his immediate (and totally reasonable) conclusion is that Mistake must have killed her. It is the most realistic plot point in this film. Because seriously—why WOULDN’T a kid literally named Mistake, whose chief interaction with his family is that they threaten to murder him NOT kill somebody?
Jim: It seems like a reasonable conclusion to jump to, but it doesn’t lead anywhere because the real killer presents his Body by Jake to them shortly thereafter. And speaking of, let’s talk a bit about the various kills in the film. They’re sort of crammed into a 40-minute segment that waffles between “entertaining” and “so dark that you’re straining to ascertain any kind of vague shape on the screen.”
Ken: Yes, let’s please just skip past the crabbing about cars not working, or bets on the big game, or the annoying guy and his Spanish-only girlfriend. If I’m not mistaken, Uncle Rico is beset upon by battery troubles and goes delving into his engine to remedy it. Bodies by Jake enters the frame out of nowhere with a FLYING ELBOW and just slams the hood down on him hard enough to kill him. It is a laugh-out-loud moment.
Truly, we wish you could see this one in motion.
Jim: Definitely the most hilarious of the kills—there’s no denying that. The whole audience guffawed at that one. Somehow, “flying in from the negative space off camera” becomes one of the killer’s signature moves. He has the screen presence of a “scarer” in a haunted house, basically.
Ken: He’s good at it! Next, car trouble strands the two women on their way to the store for wine. He goes ahead and attacks from out of nowhere, slaughtering both of them, too.
Jim, this movie should be an advertisement for AAA.
Jim: Most of the rest of the kills just proceed in very workmanlike fashion. He stabs people; he chokes people; he throws people around. We can see about half of his actions; the other half are completely obscured by the fact that each scene was lit with a book light.
Ken: Yes, one of his gambits is that he cuts the power to the house—great idea for a killing spree, horrible idea for a film that cannot invest in professional lighting.
Jim: I chuckled at them saying they needed more firewood “for light.” Meanwhile, the only other person who gets a good death is Mistake.
Ken: I remarked to you that Mistake’s death is actually quiet a visual. While the obnoxious youth is helping the Spanish-only girlfriend change her shirt (which he purposely spilled cranberry sauce on because he’s a creep), Bodies by Jake slips into the house and holds her at knife point. Then he totally just drags her outside, only to murder her and then strangle Mistake with a power line. This causes the strings on his axe to LIGHT UP AND COOK OFF, GLOWING RED AND EVERYTHING. It’s a legitimately dangerous stunt. I actually wonder how they rigged it up.
My key prop!
Jim: Maybe they just straight up killed Mistake and did everyone a favor.
Ken: I guess we should look the guy up on IMDB and see if he died in 1981…
After searching the web, it seems that “Mistake” was played by stage magician and mime enthusiast Peter De Paula, who has only a couple other screen credits to his name—including a 1978 appearance on the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman show as “Mime #1.” He never appeared in film or TV after Home Sweet Home, but he did apparently keep up with his stage magic routines, as evidenced by this thread on a magician’s forum of people discussing his whereabouts in 2009. As of 2005, he had apparently “shifted his interest into computers.”
Jim: Anyway, his death pretty much clears out the last of the remaining minor characters, leaving us with only Steve and Pam—and also the 4-year-old little girl who belongs to one of them? I’m not sure. Her name is “Angel,” and she’s actually the most famous person in the movie. I bet you didn’t realize that.
Ken: Really? Who is she?
Jim: This was the screen debut of actress Vinessa Shaw, who would go on to play the teenage girl female lead in Hocus Pocus, among other things. She was in a lot of movies in the ’90s and 2000s, like 40 Days and 40 Nights, and Corky Romano.
Ken: No sh*t! I actually DO know her.
Would Vinessa Shaw have ever been able to land the coveted role in Hocus Pocus if not for Home Sweet Home?
Jim: Yep, that’s my one piece of Home Sweet Home trivia. I wonder what memories, if any, she might have of having made this movie as a little girl. “Hey Vinessa, what was Jake Steinfeld like on set?”
Ken: Hopefully none TOO traumatic. She comes off light in it. Steve dies, but Pam gets a few good stabs in, and Bodies by Jake dies in a hail of police gunfire. Amazingly, these two cops were put on the mantle in an earlier act, in which they hornily stopped the two women on their way to get wine.
That and the flaming guitar death are the two most competent achievements of this film, I think.
Jim: They make sure to do the old “killer’s eyes open in the final shot” cliché because no one clearly cared too much at that point.
Ken: I was waiting for it.
Jim: It’s sort of difficult for me to imagine that anyone involved in this genuinely thought that they were going to be making Home Sweet Home: Part 2 in the immediate future. Come to think of it, why did it even have that title? When I first heard the name, I sort of assumed that the killer was going to be the escaped relative of someone present at the Thanksgiving dinner—like he was going to crash the event and wreak havoc and it would be all the more personal because they knew who the guy was. Instead, our villain Jay was just an unstoppable PCP juggernaut who happened to end up there and kill all these people by pure chance.
Ken: His “Home Sweet Home” tattoo is apparently the only thing we’ve got going on there. I, too, foolishly expected there to be some kind of justification for his fixation on this particular house. But nope! Just a random killer on drugs!
Jim: Oh my lord, I totally forgot that he had the name of the film tattooed on him. They should just use that same method for the Jared Leto Joker film, and call it Damaged. Now THAT would make for a memorable Thanksgiving Day hatewatch among sympathetic family members.
The classiest way to work in the title of the film, no doubt.
Ken: Who would be today’s PCP-hyped killer were this shot today, do you think? I’m sure the WWE has someone angling for a franchise.
Jim: It’s sort of hard to pick a modern actor analogous to Jake Steinfeld, because we don’t really have these beefcake-type dudes as our action heroes anymore, do we? Outside of The Rock, the modern Hollywood asskicker is like, 99 pound Tom Cruise or 66-year-old Liam Neeson. I guess if you really wanted to capture the same aesthetic as Home Sweet Home, though, you could get a guy like Hafthor Bjornsson, who was The Mountain on Game of Thrones.
Ken: True enough. Funny how these standards of murder-brick-sh*thouse change with the times, isn’t it?
I hope your holiday season continues to be festive, Jim. And I know you’re as excited as I am for our ongoing annual tradition next month: The long-anticipated sequel to Netflix’s A Christmas Prince!
Jim: I really hope this installment features our heroine learning that as Queen, she has to preside over some kind of bloody pagan holiday festival of renewal, per Aldovian tradition.
Ken: I’ll be sure to bring the eggnog and my Krampus mask. Until then, sir.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and you can follow him on Twitter. Kenneth Lowe is a contributing writer for Paste Movies, and you can read more of his writing at his blog.