Killer Christmas: HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (ABC-TV Movie 1972)

Four daughters reunite at the old family homestead during Christmas to visit their estranged, dying father. Sounds like the perfect recipe for one of those sticky-sweet Hallmark movies, right? Wrong, my little elves! HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, originally broadcast as part of ABC-TV’s “Movie of the Week” series (1969-1975) is part proto-slasher, part psycho-biddie shocker, and a whole lot of fun! It plays kind of like a 70’s exploitation film, only with a high-powered cast that includes Sally Field, Eleanor Parker, Julie Harris , and Walter Brennan, a script by Joseph (PSYCHO) Stefano, and direction courtesy of John Llwellyn Moxey (HORROR HOTEL, THE NIGHT STALKER).

Rich old Benjamin Morgan (Brennan) has summoned his daughters home on a dark and stormy Christmas Eve, claiming his second wife Elizabeth (Harris) is slowly poisoning him to death. Elizabeth was once ‘suspected’ of poisoning her first husband (though never proven) and spent some time in an insane asylum. The girls haven’t been back since their mother committed suicide nine years ago, and believe dear ol’ dad drove her to it. There’s seemingly level-headed Alex (Parker), pill-popping lush Freddie (Jessica Walter), multi-times married Jo (Jill Haworth), and sweet young grad student Chris (Field).

Freddie, drunk and stoned, has a freak-out when she enters her late mother’s room, and tries to commit hari-kari of her own with broken glass. Jo decides to split the scene, and is followed to her car by someone wearing a yellow rain slicker with red boots and gloves – items owned by Elizabeth! When Jo discovers her keys aren’t in the ignition, she turns back to the house, only to get impaled with a pitchfork! Freddie, recuperating in a hot bath with a bottle of vodka, is dragged under the water and drowned – by someone wearing those same red gloves! The phone is dead, the roads are washed out, and it’s thundering and lightening like crazy, so Chris gets the bright idea to try and make it through the woods to the nearest neighbor’s house a mile away.

Chris is stalked by that slicker-wearing, pitchfork wielding someone in a scene reminiscent of slasher movies to come, with some ominous piano and strings in the background. Ducking away, in a panic now, she heads back home, only to trip over Jo’s corpse! She hides in her father’s room, when Elizabeth enters and says “He’s dead”, causing her to go screaming into the night. Running down the dark country road, a car driven by Alex pulls up, and the real killer is revealed… and it’s not who you think (or maybe it is, if you’ve seen enough of these films!). This penultimate scene is followed by a cool twist ending which I wouldn’t have seen coming had I not watched the movie before.

Angelic young Sally Field makes a darn good Scream Queen… could be the kid has a future in pictures! Uptight Julie Harris, always skulking about and peering through windows, is as obvious a red herring as Bela Lugosi in a butler’s uniform! Triple Oscar nominee Eleanor Parker steals the show with her histrionics at the end, Jessica Walter goes over the top (but in a good way), and neither Brennan nor Haworth (BRIDES OF DRACULA, HORROR HOUSE)  get much to do, but add to the star power. I’ve been looking for something a bit different than the usual holiday fare this year, and HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS certainly fills the bill. If you’re craving your Christmas goose with a dash of arsenic this season, check it out, it’s available on YouTube!

 

Growing Pains: YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW (Warner Brothers 1966)

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Francis Ford Coppola  was still a UCLA film student when he made YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW, the 1966 coming of age comedy he used as his MFA thesis. The young Coppola was 27, and had gained experience working for Roger Corman ; indeed, Corman gave him his first break when he hired Coppola to write and direct the horror quickie DEMENTIA 13. But YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW was his first major studio release, and put him on the map as a talent to keep an eye on.

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Bernard Chanticleer is a 19 year old nerd with a way-overprotective mother and disinterested, authoritarian father. He works for Dad at a New York City library, and is constantly goofing up on the job. Dad thinks it’s time for Bernard to spread his wings and move on his own, much to Mom’s displeasure. She finds him a room at a house owned by Miss Thing, who’s tenants include conservative Patrolman Graf. The house comes complete with Miss Thing’s late brother’s chicken, who’ll peck at any females coming to Bernard’s floor, making Mom extremely happy.

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Co-worker Amy Partlett has a crush on Bernard, so man-of-the-world pal Raef tries to school Bernard in how to get in her pants. But Bernard only has eyes for Barbara Darling, a weirdo actress in an Off-Off-Off Broadway play. Barbara, who’s best friend is a dwarf writing her biography, reads Bernard’s gushing fan letter and decides to meet him. But little does he know his dreamgirl is a bipolar nightmare, having him move in, sexually teasing then degrading him to the point where he can’t get it up. Meanwhile, Amy’s frantic calls to the rooming house cause Miss Thing to pay a visit to Dad, winding up locked in a vault with his antique collection of erotica, and the craziness really escalates after Bernard steals Dad’s rare Gutterberg Bible and makes a mad dash through the streets of New York!

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There’s no doubt this was made in the swingin’ 60’s, from the frenetic jumps cuts to the drug references (Raef slips Bernard some LSD) to the soundtrack by John Sebastian and The Lovin’ Spoonful, including the hit single “Darlin’ Be Home Soon”. We even get treated to shots of Bernard touring Times Square in it’s mid-60’s sleazy Grindhouse heyday. Editor Aram Avakian does an outstanding job putting together Copploa’s scenes, incorporating footage from the director’s DEMENTIA 13 and Corman’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM  for good measure.

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The casting is an eclectic mix of newcomers and veterans. Canadian Peter Kastner plays Bernard as earnest yet endearingly goofy, conveying the youthful angst of a mama’s boy trying to break free. Karen Black makes her major film debut as Amy (she had a miniscule part in the 1960 exploitaioner THE PRIME TIME), and went on to a long career. Tony Bill (Raef) had been seen in COME BLOW YOUR HORN and SODLIER IN THE RAIN, later becoming a director (MY BODYGUARD, SIX WEEKS) and producer of note. Elizabeth Hartman (Barbara) had been Oscar nominated the previous year for her debut in A PATCH OF BLUE; at the time, she was the youngest (22) ever nominated for Best Actress.

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The vets include husband-and-wife team (at the time) Rip Torn and Geraldine Page as Bernard’s befuddled parents, Julie Harris as the prudish Miss Thing, Michael Dunn (THE WILD WILD WEST’s Dr. Miguelito Loveless) as Barbara’s confidant, and New York actor Dolph Sweet (later of the sitcom GIMME A BREAK) as the cop. YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW is no GODFATHER or APOCALYPSE NOW, but Coppola fans will want to check out this early work, when the young director was just finding his voice and vision.

Halloween Havoc!: THE HAUNTING (MGM 1963)

“No one will come in the night… in the dark!”

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There’s nothing like a good haunted house movie, and 1963’s THE HAUNTING is one of the best ever. Producer/director Robert Wise cut his filmic teeth on Val Lewton shockers like THE BODY SNATCHER  and noirs such as BORN TO KILL  before graduating to mainstream movies like I WANT TO LIVE! and WEST SIDE STORY. In THE HAUNTING he returns to his dark roots to create a nightmarish vision of Shirley Jackson’s eerie novel The Haunting of Hill House.

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“Scandal, murder, insanity, suicide” have plagued Hill House for close to 100 years. The cursed Crain family were its original inhabitants, designed by eccentric Hugh Crain. The house is a darkly foreboding Gothic structure with oddly tilted angles both inside and out. Dr. John Markham, a paranormal investigator, visits proper Bostonian matron Mrs. Sanderson, the house’s current owner, asking to take a lease on Hill House to conduct his research. She consents but only if her nephew Luke, a callow young slacker, accompanies him.

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Markham puts together a team that includes Theodora (“Just Theodora.”), a beautiful bohemian with ESP, and Eleanor ‘Nell’ Lance, a fragile recluse who’s had ghostly experiences in the past. Markham believes Hill House is a gateway to the supernatural, though skeptical Luke is only interested in what the house will bring on the market. It’s implied (though not overtly stated, this being 1963) Theodora is a lesbian or bisexual with an attraction to Nell. This subplot is well handled by Wise, with Nell becoming more attracted to Markham as the film goes on, much to Theodora’s annoyance.

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Nell and Theo are the first to experience supernatural activity, hearing a constant pounding, groans, heavy breathing, and feeling a terrible coldness. Markham and Luke return from chasing what they assume was “a dog” when they encounter the frightened girls. The quartet goes downstairs, and all doubts are erased: a message is written on the wall saying, “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME”.

The following day a ‘cold spot’ is discovered in front of the nursery, where Abigail Crain lived from birth to death. Nell is beginning to doubt her sanity, and relying more and more on Markham. Her hopes are dashed when the doctor’s wife Grace arrives with news that reporters are asking about what he’s doing at Hill House. Grace insists on staying with them, and in the nursery to boot, despite her husbands protestations. That night, they hear the disembodied noises creeping closer and closer to the nursery. Nell runs into the room only to find Grace has vanished.

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Nell is becoming more unstable with each passing minute. We see her alone in front of the grotesque statuary dancing with (what she believes is) the ghost of Hugh Crain. Seeming to be possessed by the house itself, she climbs the rickety spiral staircase where a suicide once took place. Markham goes up to try to save her, but not before Nell is horrified when Grace pops out from a trapdoor above her. Nell’s mental state convinces Markham to send her away from Hill House, but she insists she belongs there. “I’m the one it really wants, can’t you feel it?”, she tells the doctor. “It’s alive, watching, waiting… waiting for me”. She reluctantly drives away from the house- but never leaves, in a truly frightening ending I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen it.

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Julie Harris (Nell) was one of the most acclaimed actresses of the 20th Century, winner of five Tony Awards, an Emmy, a Grammy, the Kennedy Center Honor, and Oscar-nominated for MEMBER OF THE WEDDING. Her Nell has a tenuous relationship with reality at best, as we find out through her interior monologues. Harris has a broken quality to her that makes the audience care despite her seeming descent into madness. She can also be seen in the films EAST OF EDEN with James Dean, I AM A CAMERA (which was later turned into the musical CABARET), Rod Serling’s REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, and THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR.

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Clair Bloom (Theo) is also outstanding in a tricky role for the era. Dressed in pop designer Mary Quant’s outfits to emphasize her bohemian status, Bloom shows great restraint in creating a portrait of a woman outside the mainstream.  When Nell calls Theo “one of nature’s mistakes”, she’s more than likely talking about her sexuality rather than her clairvoyant powers. Bloom was another stage star, who made her film debut in Charlie Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT. Other movie roles include LOOK BACK IN ANGER, Laurence Olivier’s RICHARD III, and Ray Bradbury’s THE ILLUSTRATED MAN with then-husband Rod Steiger. More recently she appeared in THE KING’S ENGLISH; the 85-year-old actress will be featured in the upcoming MAX ROSE, co-starring with screen legend Jerry Lewis.

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Richard Johnson (Markham) once turned down the role of 007 James Bond. THE HAUNTING is perhaps his best known film role, but genre fans will recognize him from THE MONSTER CLUB and Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE. Russ Tamblyn (Luke) was a former child actor who starred in Wise’s WEST SIDE STORY. He later popped up in the cult TV series TWIN PEAKS. Lois Maxwell, 007’s Miss Moneypenny, plays Markham’s wife Grace. Behind the cameras, DP Davis Boulton’s shadowplay is reminiscent of Wise’s early RKO work, editor Ernest Walter puts things together smoothly, Humphrey Searle’s score is appropriately eerie, and Tom Howard’s special effects are spot on. Special note must be made to the sound department, again evoking the Val Lewton films, down to the overlapping dialog. THE HAUNTING was remade in 1999, and despite technological advances was a critical and box office dud. Just goes to show when it comes to haunted houses, the old ways are always best, especially when they’re in the hands of a master craftsman like Robert Wise. Those of you who haven’t seen this classic need to put it on your Halloween watch list this season. You won’t be disappointed… but I guarantee you WILL be frightened!