It was the final film of Walter Brennan’s to be released during his lifetime. It came only a year after Jessica Walter’s breakout role in Play Misty For Me. It stars classic Hollywood legends Eleanor Parker and Julie Harris—not to mention Sally Field, still years away from the Sybil/Smokey and the Bandit one-two punch that would make her famous. Most editions of the ABC Movie of the Week are blessed with a big-name star or two, but few had quite as stacked a cast as 1972’s Home for the Holidays.
When ailing patriarch Benjamin Morgan (Brennan) urgently calls his four grown daughters Home for the Holidays, they aren’t exactly keen. A cruel man and a bad father, whose philandering led to their mother’s suicide, he’s the reason they’ve stayed away for so long.
Still, it turns out there’s a good reason for his summons. He is convinced that his much younger wife Elizabeth (Harris)—his daughters’ stepmother—is trying to poison him. Her previous husband died under similar circumstances, and Benjamin has been getting sicker by the day. With varying degrees of skepticism and reluctance, Christine (Field), Joanna (Jill Haworth), Frederica (Walter) and Alex (Parker), agree to stick around and help investigate. Sure enough, murder is soon visited upon the Morgan household. But Benjamin isn’t the first to meet his maker…
It’s not just the actors that make Home for the Holidays such a treat. For one thing, it was written by Joseph Stefano, whose most famous credit is Psycho. Besides that granddaddy of all slashers, he also scribed lesser known creepy gems like The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre and The Kindred. More than enough to earn his horror bonafides.
Then there’s director John Llewellyn Moxey. While he did helm a handful of cinematic features (in that arena he never bettered his debut, the bone-chilling The City of the Dead), he found his mojo as a director of TV movies. The Movie of the Week was not exactly known as an auteurist paradise, and indeed Moxey was more than capable of turning in workmanlike productions, but he also had a far higher hit rate than many of his fellow small-screen directors. Several of the nine MOTWs he made over the years are veritable classics: The Last Child conjures an immersive post-apocalyptic world on a shoestring TV budget; The Night Stalker oozed atmosphere and starred (almost) every great 1950s B-movie actor in existence. His work spanned many genres but, like Stefano, Moxey was always at his best when meddling in the macabre.
Though there’s only so far that Home for the Holidays can get from the notorious MOTW stylistic tropes (it’s hard to ignore both the histrionic score and the farcical amount of whip zooms), Moxey crafts a number of striking shots that elevate it artistically and dramatically: The murderer’s yellow raincoat and huge pitchfork deserve iconic status, and a pair of legs dangling over the side of a tub becomes hauntingly sad. While it’s not quite as consistently eerie as The Night Stalker, the rain storm that lasts for the days-long duration of the sisters’ visit home is still chillingly evocative (even if the placement of some of those thunder claps is more than a little cliched!).
Moxey’s film hits the TV movie sweet spot with delicious aplomb: There’s enough campy cheese to satisfy those for whom that’s their sole MOTW requirement (see Jessica Walter’s whole proto-Lucille Bluthian performance; how adept she and Field are at screaming bloody murder), and yet a surprising pathos at its center. When the killer is discovered—and it’s far from immediately obvious who they are—the answer isn’t arrived at in a blaze of triumph, but a slow, sickening dawn of realization. This is a film about family trauma that doesn’t tie everything up with a big red bow of reconciliation.
Amid that impressive cast, it’s the lonesome, brittle bite of Julie Harris’ Elizabeth that leaves the most lingering impression. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter all that much whether she’s been poisoning her husband or not. Stuck in that isolated house with that miserable man, made an outcast through the malicious gossip of the wider town, it’s difficult not to feel sorry for her. As she strikes up a tentative friendship with Field’s Christine, the youngest and sweetest-natured of the siblings, her stumbling attempts to extend the warmth she’s been so rarely granted herself are so achingly raw that they’re almost painful to witness. If Harris had heard that TV movies were considered a sub-par relative to their big-screen counterparts, it’s impossible to tell from her performance.
Walter Brennan, Jessica Walter, Eleanor Parker, Sally Field, Julie Harris, Joseph Stefano, John Llewellyn Moxey: A host of great talent, and yet this doesn’t make the top three of a single one of their filmographies. With the collective skills of a cast and crew like that, however, how could Home for the Holidays have been anything but a gift? If you’re feeling distinctly unfestive about the holidays this year, then this is a Movie of the Week that will find you in excellent company.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.