Telefilm Time Machine: Home for the Holidays (1972)

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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 only 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 mother of his four daughters committed suicide. Once the sisters arrive home, their father informs them that he believes his current wife is slowly poisoning him. 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 a solid script from Joseph Stefano (PSYCHO, EYE OF THE CAT, etc.) and some good directing choices by John Llewellyn Moxey (CITY OF THE DEAD aka HORROR HOTEL, CIRCUS OF FEAR, THE NIGHT STALKER, etc.). This low-budget telefilm also benefits from some solid performances from 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 dead 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 get severely tested as the film progresses. Parker’s surprising character arc is the highlight of this grisly small screen treat that helped usher in a wave of American slasher films inspired by Italian thrillers (a.k.a. giallos or gialli).

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 Christmastime telefilm selling at Amazon. Hopefully we can look forward to a proper DVD release in the near future but if you’re still in the mood for some holiday themed entertainment and don’t mind the abysmal quality of the print, you can currently catch HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS playing on Youtube.

11 Responses Telefilm Time Machine: Home for the Holidays (1972)
Posted By Richard Harland Smith : December 26, 2013 8:42 pm

I own this gem on VHS. Man, I remember this from its original airing. I was 11 and that year Santa brought us scorched earth!

Posted By AL : December 26, 2013 9:58 pm

Can anyone answer this question? Eleanor Parker played the Baroness in THE SOUND OF MUSIC.
. In the stage version, her character had 2 songs which were cut for the film. My question is this: Were these 2 numbers filmed but later cut from the final print or were they not filmed at all? I’ve always wondered…

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : December 27, 2013 2:46 am

It’s my understanding, Al, that screenwriter Ernest Lehman felt that letting Eleanor Parker sing would make her sympathetic to the audience – so the extra songs were eliminated from the equation in scripting.

Posted By Max Cheney : December 27, 2013 5:56 am

Thanks for this look at film that I missed during its original airing. What a cast! You’ve made me really want to get this and watch it!

Posted By robbushblog : December 27, 2013 6:52 pm

Man, what a cast! And has Sally Field ever been cuter than that picture of her standing just inside the opened door?

Posted By AL : December 27, 2013 9:40 pm

Richard–thank you for the update. Alas, it’s as I feared. Lovely Eleanor Parker. Those 2 numbers were good, especially HOW CAN LOVE SURVIVE. I just found a 2-disc DVDr (on iOffer) with both HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS and HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS 2–both in widescreen! I hope someday to see a decent DVD set of BRACKEN’s WORLD–the bootleg is of atrocious quality & unwatchable. She was so beautiful in WOMAN IN WHITE; She was brilliant, as always, in CAGED–that film really disturbed me. The critics said she was mis-cast in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM; maybe so, but her performance was outstanding.

Posted By AL : December 27, 2013 9:56 pm

DUH! Richard, I goofed–I was thinking of SILENT NIGHT BLOODY NIGHT

Posted By tdraicer : December 28, 2013 4:11 am

Eleanor Parker gave an excellent performance in one of my favorite films: The Naked Jungle (feminist romance, he-man adventure story, and monster movie all in one).

Posted By Susan Doll : December 28, 2013 9:34 pm

Given my Grinch-like attitude regarding holidays, this sounds right up my alley. But, more importantly, what a cast — from Sally Field to Walter Brennan.

Posted By eric : December 29, 2013 8:57 pm

hi there i love tcm soo much. at the begining of each month i scroll through as far as i can to record movies i want to see.i started by watching all the big name actors movies but then found so many lesser known actors by me anyway and started watching their movies also.i never get enough.lol.one thing is i wish u would have a john wayne month not just one night.ive never seen pittsburgh on tcm and would just love a whole month of him.just one more thing.i see you are doing a science segment every friday in january and didnt see my all time favorite sci fi classic robinson crusoe on mars.i wish you could have worked that one in.oh well may be later.keep up the great work and thank you all for the great programming and for robert osborne.

Posted By swac44 : January 6, 2014 6:41 pm

Jessica Walter seems to be in training for her latter-day roles as the martini-loving matriarch on Arrested Development and her spy agency head in the hilarious animated series Archer. Guess I need to see this pronto!

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