Saturday, December 19, 2015

House of Neurotic Women

'Tis the season to be jolly, folks! Streets are bustling with shoppers, families gather together and smile around a sumptuous Christmas feast, people gleefully wrap presents for their loved ones and Christmas carols about good tidings and joy fill the air.  However, despite all the peace on earth and good will towards men yakkety-yak this is the time of year where Americans descend upon shopping centers like rampaging Vikings and kick one another's faces in to get a better deal on a Blu-ray player. All the while the wealthy sit back and sneer at the desperation of the lumpen proletariat and hapless middle class to dismember one another over half-priced electronics.
And the mayhem doesn't end after the holidays have passed either. As someone who once worked seasonal retail, I now have a morbid fear of elderly women who line up at eight a.m. the day after Christmas just so they can claw one another's eyes out over discounted wrapping paper and Christmas cards.
DAWN OF THE DEAD ain't got nothin' on that.
This is also the time of year you may be subjected to some Ned and Maude Flanders types who think it'd be cute to go caroling, a tradition started by marauding drunks, and inflict their neighbors with a bunch of tone deaf Christmas songs. Therefore, I have a nice vat of boiling oil ready and I'm not afraid to use it.
Christmas is also the time of year where one is supposed to enjoy the company of their loving family, but if you're like me, family gatherings are more like a game of Pin the Tail On the Personality Disorder.
For those facing a lack of familial support, financial means and whose fragile emotional state cannot handle being bombarded by all the mass-manufactured holiday cheer, 'tis the season to hang yourself by the chimney with care.
For any readers crawling into this dark corner - have no fear! Your hostess, Madamoiselle Macabre is bringing you some mad, macabre and neurotic Christmas treats to pick up your spirits.
And you don't really need store-bought presents in pretty wrapping or a loving family to make your holiday. The maudlin swill distributed by those money-grubbing greed swine so we'll feel inadequate enough to mindlessly buy the useless garbage they're peddling is right in one respect and that's that the spirit of the holiday is in your heart.
Celebrate Christmas doing what makes you happy and to hell with tradition.
I've already witnessed a drunk Jimmy Gillespie beating a Salvation Army Santa over the head with his own donation bucket and if that doesn't holler Christmas spirit, I don't know what does.
So, get yourself all warm and cozy while I present to you the ultimate dysfunctional family Christmas, the made-for-TV proto-slasher melodrama HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972) written by PSYCHO (also a Christmas movie)-scribe JOSEPH STEFANO and directed by master of television horror JOHN LLEWELLYN MOXEY (THE NIGHT STALKER).

The Morgan Sisters (Sally Field, Jill Haworth, Jessica Walter and Eleanor Parker) in HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972)

On Christmas Eve, the Morgan sisters - dependable surrogate mother Alex (classical Hollywood leading lady, ELEANOR PARKER who we all remember as the Baroness in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, but who earned her place in my heart for her portrayal of the tortured protagonist in LIZZIE), neurotic pill-popping alcoholic Freddie (JESSICA WALTER of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and PLAY MISTY FOR ME), acerbic-witted, multiply-divorced party-girl Jo (played with deliciously bitchy relish by British horror mainstay JILL HAWORTH) and ingenuous grad student Chris (soon-to-be SYBIL SALLY FIELD) - return to their childhood home where their estranged father (WALTER BRENNAN) lays dying. And during an appropriately atmospheric Gothic thunderstorm to boot. And anyone who grew up in a dysfunctional family knows that any family reunion is a chance to set aside old resentments and recriminations so we can move on and create new resentments and recriminations.
To say there are many old wounds to be reopened and unfettered bitterness is an understatement. "I swore I would never set foot in this house again, even to have the pleasure of seeing his coffin closed," Jo sneers.
But in addition to this, the Morgan family patriarch confides to his daughters that he believes his former mistress and second-wife, Elizabeth (JULIE HARRIS, THE HAUNTING) is poisoning him to death. Though she proclaimed her innocence, ol' Liz was tried and convicted for poisoning her first husband's hot toddy.
Now Paw insists that his daughters celebrate the joyous reunion by killing their stepmother before she can kill him.
Aren't the same parents who provide absolutely zero love and support for their children always the ones that make the most demands?
However, as the storm rages outside and washes away the road to town, a pitchfork-wielding killer in a yellow raincoat begins picking off bickering family members one by one...

Yes, kiddies, it's soap opera melodrama (produced by AARON SPELLING, no less) mixed with proto-slasher panache and like chocolate and peanut butter, they're delicious together. And in '70s made-for-television format that's like putting chunks of caramel brownie in the mix too (mmm...caramel...). JOSEPH STEFANO's script is packed with sharp dialogue (particularly when the tart-tongued Jo is speaking) and wrings every last drop of claustrophobic atmosphere out of its limited setting. The lightning illuminating close-ups of faces in rain-spattered windows, the omnipresent thunder, the blood droplets dripping from the portrait of Mother, the candlelit dinner, the winding staircase and the sound of ornaments clinking as Chris dashes past the Christmas tree fleeing her attacker are all perfect. I'm not surprised to learn that SEAN CUNNINGHAM wanted to cast SALLY FIELD as Alice in FRIDAY THE 13TH as her chase scene through the woods is the thing slasher movie dreams are made of. The marvelous cast takes the drama up another notch, lending a gravitas to the melodrama. It does not hurt that pretty much every cast member is a veteran of portraying female neurosis.

Jill Haworth as Jo Morgan in HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972)

Having to contend with dysfunctional family relationships during the holiday is never easy and HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS mines this dark terrain as the wealthy Morgans are one of those families where interaction is built less on love and emotional support than on shame, blame, recrimination and unmitigated hostility.
In exploring the melodrama of the Morgan family, the film delves into the dangers of emotional needs as every character is a prisoner of them in one way or another.
There is no love lost between the Morgan daughters and their father. The film implies they were always made to feel unwanted by him because he would have preferred sons and even designated masculine nicknames to each daughter. His brazen affair with his current wife, Elizabeth, may have even driven their already fragile mother to suicide.
He has even gone so far to disinherit his daughters. His reunion with his girls is not a joyous one, as he regards each of them in a patronizing, ridiculing manner before revealing he has called all of them home not to rebuild their relationship but for completely selfish reasons.
Steadfast Alex is overly-responsible and selfless; she is the support her sisters run to when they are in trouble. However, this is at a cost to herself and there is clearly resentment bubbling underneath the surface.
"I once told Chris I thought we were all your emotional prisoners," Jo tells Alex. "But she said, 'wouldn't it be funny if it were the other way around?'...if you were our emotional prisoner. Are you?"
Alex is not a daughter or sister, but a safety blanket that is discarded once demands are met.
Alex has sacrificed her own needs and well-being for her sisters and has become their prisoner and victim as a result.
Freddie suffers from feelings of worthlessness and a need to be loved that she drowns in addiction. Her devotion to her dead mother (whom she resembles) stems from a feeling that her mother was the only person who ever loved her.  Freddie's dependence on the support of others and unfulfilled needs ultimately lead her to self-destruction.
Jo's tart tongue and hedonistic lifestyle are barriers she has erected to protect herself from the needs of others; one can assume one of the reasons she has been divorced multiple times is that she denies the emotional needs of others. Except for Alex, she is not dependent upon anyone, but she has also built a prison for herself in order to keep others out.
Upon being asked why she is unmarried, Chris replies that she needs too much and scares men away. Chris, seemingly the kindest and most well-adjusted of the Morgan sisters, is also childish for her age and has never become self-sufficient and her emotional demands are exhausting for others to fulfill.
The last words of the film are in fact, "Take care of her" and are spoken in regards to Chris. Chris may remain an emotional prisoner in that she will always be dependent.
Elizabeth, the not-so-wicked stepmother, became a literal prisoner after being accused of poisoning her husband and ostracized by the townspeople.
Once freed, she is again a prisoner on an isolated ranch in a loveless relationship with an unyielding and demanding husband with no other sources of support or comfort.

Jessica Walter as Freddie Morgan in HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972)

I will not spoil HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS's ending here, but there are two close-ups of two different female characters at the end of the film, both finally alone with strange half-smiles on their faces. Society constantly barrages us with idea that it is somehow wrong to be alone and that the perfect family or perfect relationships are what we need to make us whole. This is only intensified for women, as women who remain single and childless are often viewed as defective and deviant.  Perhaps HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS posits it is better to be alone, at peace and free to take care of yourself than embroiled in toxic relationships with family and loved ones.

It's always more entertaining to endure fictional familial dysfunction than your own, so for all of you gentle readers having to deal with screwed up family or are spending the holiday alone because you are avoiding your screwed up family, fix yourself a nice hot toddy and have Christmas with the Morgan family as you can watch HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS for FREE on YouTube!
God bless us, every one.

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