Ailing patriarch Benjamin Morgan (Walter Brennan) summons his four daughters home for Christmas. None of the sisters are especially fond of the old man since they hold him responsible for driving their mother to suicide. But then Benjamin tells them he believes his new wife Elizabeth (Julie Harris) is trying to poison him. Responsible eldest sister Alex (Eleanor Parker), frosty Jo (Jill Haworth) and alcoholic Frederica (Jessica Walter) are sceptical while sweet, meek youngest sibling Christine (Sally Field) believes Elizabeth is a warm, caring person. However, given her first husband died in suspicious circumstances, there remains some doubt as to what she is up to. Then on a stormy night a sinister pitch-fork wielding killer starts stalking the Morgan sisters...
Not to be confused with Jodie Foster’s 1995 directorial outing of the same name, Home for the Holidays was a seasonal fright-fest produced by Aaron Spelling back when the future soap opera mogul was regularly making spooky TV movies like Satan’s School for Girls (1973). Scripted by Psycho (1960) screenwriter Joseph Stefano for director John Llewellyn Moxey, one year before he made the seminal The Night Stalker (1973), the film has an amazing cast to match its pedigree production team. Four famous leading ladies rip into their roles with relish. Jill Haworth savours a rare chance to play a seemingly cold-hearted character before her regrettably early exit while top-billed Jessica Walter, a year on from her amazing turn in Play Misty for Me (1971), pulls out all the stops but proves genuinely moving as brittle, tormented Frederica before meeting a similar fate.
It must be said both performances and dialogue lean towards the melodramatic although are in keeping with the soapy tone symptomatic of many Aaron Spelling productions. The protagonists are all prone to windy, self-analytical monologues, delivered with conviction by the classy players but frustrating in their tendency to deflate some of the suspense. Too often the film loses its momentum with another round of tearful recriminations, tantrums, traumas and confessions with Moxey over-reliant on using the zoom lens to underline big shocking moments as if this were General Hospital or some other daytime soap opera. After establishing an intriguing, suspenseful premise in the first act, Stefano’s screenplay sadly goes down another entirely more predictable route with the crazed killer in a yellow raincoat picking off the Morgan sisters, one after another. Most surprising of all, Moxey makes nothing out of the Christmas setting. This is not subversive yuletide fare along the lines of Black Christmas (1975). There is no attempt to exploit the unique atmosphere of the season. The action happens on a generic dark and stormy night that could be any time of year.
Which is not to suggest Home for the Holidays is entirely without merit. Given the restrictions imposed on television during this period, Moxey weaves a fairly foreboding tone. Certain aspects of the film, including Eleanor Parker’s sly tongue-in-cheek vamping, suggest this was at least part intended as a black comedy but though the killings are staged in oddly perfunctory fashion this musters a solid degree of suspense. It boils down to an extended chase involving a young Sally Field, post-Flying Nun pre-Oscar, escaping through the rain-soaked mud and trees before the rote twist ending that is more sad than shocking.