HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972)
Don’t let the title fool you. Other than the fact that it takes place at Christmas time, this obscure little gem bears no resemblance to Jodie Foster’s 1995 rom-com of the same name. It is, in effect, a made-for-TV slasher film by veteran horror director John Llewellyn Moxey (City of the Dead, The Night Stalker) and screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Psycho).
Summoned back to the palatial home of their estranged, ailing father, Benjamin Morgan (Walter Brennan), four women learn that he suspects their stepmother, Elizabeth ( Julie Harris), is trying to poison him. For years, they’ve blamed their father for their mother’s suicide. She became distraught over Benjamin’s affair with Elizabeth, whom, they learn, was accused of murdering her first husband.
It’s an awkward family reunion. Tempers flare and accusations fly left and right. It might start like a dysfunctional family drama, but soon, the daughters start dying one by one, victims of a mysterious, hooded figure in a yellow rain slicker. All signs point to Elizabeth as the killer, but she isn’t the only one with skeletons in her closet.
Home for the Holidays is a taut, atmospheric thriller that builds in suspense. The hooded, gloved killer, who’s not averse to using a pitchfork for purposes other than intended, bears some resemblance to the villains of the European giallo films from the same period. And, like that
mystery-horror subgenre, it saves its big reveal for a surprising climax. It often makes the lists of best made-for-TV horror movies (and Moxey is one of few directors who can boast of having more than one title on such lists).
Outside of connoisseurs of made-for-TV horror’s golden age (the 1970s and ’80s), it may be all but forgotten. But it’s helped along by a great setting (an isolated country estate where the roads have been washed out by heavy rains), lots of thunder and lightning, genuine scares, and a formidable, mostly female cast of seasoned actors (Harris, Sally Field, Eleanor Parker, and Jessica Walter). The cast alone makes it worth anyone’s while. Field was mostly known for Gidget and The Flying Nun up to this point, and Home for the Holidays gave her a chance to stretch her dramatic boundaries as the bright and innocent youngest daughter, Christine. Parker is excellent as the oldest sibling, who’s bitter and resentful toward Elizabeth, and Jessiuca Walter chews the scenery as a drug-addled depressive on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This one deserves rediscovering. Mystery, Horror, not rated, 74 minutes, Amazon Prime, YouTube
L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997)
In L.A. Confidential, Christmas is a running gag throughout the first act of the film, used only for the occasional punchline or on a newspaper cover. At best, the holiday is a good excuse to get drunk. In the first scene of the film, a Los Angeles cop pulls down Christmas décor to get the attention of a man who beats his wife. Goodwill toward men? Not in L.A. and not in this movie. If that seems cynical, that’s the point.
Based on the book by James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential is a noir that constantly devalues human life. The death toll in the film is high, culminating in an unforgettable shoot-out. Those who do survive are used for their bodies, or they’re uncompromising politicians. When some of them do the right thing, they’re invariably punished for their good deeds. It’s the opposite of the Christmas spirit.
This kind of irony is pervasive in L.A. Confidential, in no small part because the film is about the division between the glitzy Los Angeles portrayed on the screen and the grittier post-World War II reality. Onscreen, cops can’t tell a lie. In the film’s reality, they’re criminals. Onscreen, Los Angeles is filled with celebrities. In reality, most people can only get close to the stars by paying for the services of prostitutes who look like actors. It’s supposed to be Christmas, but there isn’t a flake of snow in Los Angeles and most everyone in the film is about to be greeted more by a disaster than a miracle. Crime/drama, Rated R, 138 minutes, IMDb TV
THE THIN MAN (1934)
Mark Tiarks | For The New Mexican
Nothing says Christmas morning quite like trying to shoot the ornaments off the tree with a BB gun while nursing a wicked hangover. Yes, it’s a Buon Natale with Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) in The Thin Man, the breezy, boozy tale of a detective who married up and retired, only to find that his well-to-do bride wants him back in the gumshoe racket. He reluctantly agrees, but first there are some domestic mysteries for him to crack, like who gave the not-quite-as-hungover Nora an elegant new wristwatch and a full-length fur coat for Christmas. (He did, it turns out.)
The hangovers stem from the Christmas Eve party they hosted at their posh New York hotel suite. There’s not a child in sight, and the guests, all friends of Nick’s from his detective days, are a motley crew of dipsomaniacs, detectives, cops, ex-cons, aspiring pugilists, police beat reporters, and, as it turns out, murder suspects. The case involves an inventor who’s gone missing and his dysfunctional family, which Nick finally solves by bringing all the suspects together for a fancy dinner party cum interrogation session. (“It’s the nicest dinner I ever listened to,” Nora says.)
The breakthrough aspect of The Thin Man is the relationship between Nick and Nora, in the first of 14 Powell-Loy cinema pairings. They’re irreverent, affectionate, and entirely equals, proving that husbands and wives could have fun, not to mention sex, while serving up sophisticated banter with a speed worthy of Olympic fencers and solving a mysterious crime at the same time. The proportions of comedy and suspense are as carefully balanced as one of Nick and Nora’s perfect martinis.
Hollywood worked fast back then. Dashiell Hammett’s novella of the same name appeared in the December 1933 issue of Redbook magazine, and the film opened in May 1934. Director W.S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke took about 15 days to film the entire movie. To his credit, Van Dyke noticed early on the off-screen rapport and repartee between his two stars and encouraged them to improvise in many of their scenes. In fact, the shooting gallery aspect of the Christmas morning scene wasn’t in the script at all; Powell spotted the BB gun among the presents under the tree, loaded it up, and began firing as the cameras rolled. Comedy, crime, mystery, no rating, 91 minutes, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Fandango, Santa Fe Public Library, Video Library, VUDU ◀