Coming home for the holidays has never filled me existential dread. My family and I get along just about as well as can be expected, with a fair bit of affection smoothing out the occasional bumps and squabbles. As such, I’m somewhat mystified by the annual inundation of holiday survival guides for people that loath to even spend an afternoon or two with their closest relatives. I suppose I could just be lucky, but I think it’s equally possible that those who are loath to spend time with their family are themselves the problem. The authors of these articles seem to invariably write for Buzzfeed, Huffpo, and other publications devoted to finding the problematic implications of harmless, everyday activates. I have no trouble believing such people could be narrow-minded, petty and juvenile enough to go about picking fights at Christmas dinner. Though for every whining drama-queen there are probably a few folks with legitimate grievances against their families. Certainly, the daughters of the Morgan clan in today’s movie have ample reason to detest their father.
Nobody would accuse Mr. Morgan of being a good person, certainly not after driving his wife to madness and suicide with his constant affairs. Nor does he have much going for him in the brains department either, because after his wife’s death he married his mistress, Elizabeth Hall, a woman widely suspected of killing her first husband. Now, that he finds himself on death’s door, he’s convinced that Elizabeth has been gradually poisoning him. The thing for any sane person to do would be to go to the police and have them handle the situation or at least kick his wife out of the house so she can’t slip any more arsenic into his morning coffee. But Mr. Morgan cannot stand the collective “I Told You So” that everyone in his small country town would give him if it were to become public knowledge that his second wife was trying to kill him. Clearly, the logical course of action is to summon his four estranged daughters home for the Christmas holiday and have them kill their stepmother. Does this sound a little batty to you? It sure does to me, making me suspect that Mr. Morgan is suffering from dementia, not poisoning.
Of the daughters, only Alexandra really believes and sympathizes with her father, she’s the one that managed to drag the other three back home. Frederica, the next in line is too drunk and hopped up on pills to form or articulate any conclusive opinion one-way or the other. The man-eating harlot Joanne hates her father more than any of them, and doesn’t really give a shit weather dad is being murdered or not. Joanne also hates Elizabeth, so she’s perversely the most on-board with murdering her too. Christine, the youngest and most tolerable of the sisters isn’t convinced that Elizabeth is a murderer at all, and that they’re all being rather a bit too hasty condemning her for a crime that may not even be happening. Evidently, Mr. Morgan really wanted a son, as all the sisters are called by gender-neutral/masculine derivatives: Alex, Freddie, Joe, and Chris.
The atmosphere of the house is lifted straight from The Old Dark House (1932), fortunately without any of the attempts at “humor” that make the original such painful watching. Outside a storm rages, frequently punctuating sinister dialogue with the crash of thunder (judging by the fact that they are getting a thunderstorm in December, I assume this film takes place somewhere in the South or more probably Southwest part of the USA). The Morgan house is located somewhere out in the country, with the nearest settlement worth anything 10 miles away, and the closest neighbor more than a mile through the woods. With the storm raging it’s only a matter of time before the roads are washed out and everybody is trapped there.
The interactions between the characters on the other hand are straight melodrama, of the a kind that betrays the film’s origins as a network TV movie of the week. Everyone is whining, more or less constantly, though Freddie is far and way the worst offender. Freddy never got over her mom’s suicide, and spends the night getting smashed on vodka in her room. Not sure why Mr. Morgan thought she’s be much help in committing a murder, the only person Freddie is liable to kill is herself (particularly if she keeps mixing alcohol and pills). Freddie even interrupts dinner with a piercing shriek, the others find her drunk and raving over an old portrait of their mother. Freddie is brandishing a broken glass, and we are told, though we do not see because this is a TV movie, that she is bleeding from a deep gash on her wrist. While Freddie is definitely the worst of the lot as far as melodrama is concerned, the rest of the inhabitants of the Morgan house are all pretty wretched as well. I will freely confess, if my family was half as bad as this lot, I’d be a bit less joyful to come visit on Christmas and Thanksgiving.
It’s for this reason that I don’t blame Joe for deciding to take off after dinner. The roads are looking like they’ll flood soon, and frankly I wouldn’t want to spend a weekend trapped insider with this bunch very much either. Alex wants all the sisters to stick together, but ultimately agrees with Joe that it’s better for her to leave. Joe’s departure highlights a minor absurdity with the film: There’s only one car for all six people at the house, and it’s Alex’s. Neither Alex nor any of the sisters lives with Mr. Morgan and Elizabeth, so how do the two manage to get into the town that is 10 miles way? Are they calling in cabs? Elizabeth could probably manage the hike, but Mr. Morgan can’t even manage the flight of stairs up to his old bedroom, and has to sleep instead in his study. Even more bafflingly, Alex seems to be fine with Joe taking the car by herself, and leaving it in town. How does she plan to get it back? Fortunately my logistical issues with the car are not that important: an unseen assailant clad in a yellow raincoat murders Joe with a pitchfork. Phew. The killer hides the car though, leaving the rest of the house none-the-wiser about Joe’s death and now completely stranded at the Morgan house, even if by some fluke the storm doesn’t wash out the roads.
The next day passes without incident, other than a visit by Dr. Ted Lindsey, who is being set up as the totally superfluous love interest for Chris. But things start getting exciting that night, when we see Elizabeth preparing a drink of milk and honey (yum) and bringing it upstairs to Freddie. The film cuts out there, because this is suppose to be a whodunit dammit, and the next shot we see is Freddie reclining in a bathtub, evidently asleep. There’s a reason why you don’t take baths when you’re blackout drunk kids, and it has nothing to do with the fact that preparing a bath is usually well beyond your capabilities when your in such a state. All it takes is a little nudge from an unseen killer wearing red rubber gloves to send Freddie tumbling into a watery grave.
A drunken pill-popper like Freddie was bound to die like this someday, but with a rumored murderess hanging around everyone is a bit on edge. Chris is willing to believe that this is all an unfortunate accident, that Freddie took a few too many sleeping pills and passed out in the tub. Everyone else is convinced that Elizabeth poisoned the warm honey and milk she was making and gave it to Freddy. Elizabeth says she offered Freddie the drink, but that Freddie wouldn’t take it (not surprising given Elizabeth’s status as suspected poisoner). When Freddy didn’t drink it, she had the milk for herself and left the mug sitting on her bedside table. Sounds reasonable, but the only problem is that the evidence doesn’t back the story up, Alex can’t find any pills in Freddie’s room and there’s no trace of the milk and honey anywhere. Now, with a potentially murdered body sitting upstairs, everyone agrees that it’s time to call the cops, except for Mr. Morgan but he’s not really given a vote. Only problem is that the storm has knocked the phones out.
Chris decides that it’s better to take her chances with the storm than to wait around in the Morgan house with a murderer. There’s no way she’ll make it back to town, but the neighbor place is certainly doable, with a little bit of luck their phone will still be working and at the worst it will put some distance between her and the killer. Alex begs her not to leave, that she’ll be in great danger out in the woods when she barely knows her way around anymore. Chris isn’t interested in listening though; she books it as soon as she can manage. Maybe Alex had a point about how dangerous it would be though, because as soon as she’s off to the woods the killer in the yellow raincoat and red boots is stalking her.
As this is a mystery I won’t reveal the big twist at the end, but sufficed to say most astute audience members will see it coming a fair way off. Hell, I guessed it before there had been a single murder, and I’m the type that is always taken by surprise when he reads an Agatha Christie novel. It’s just a little too obvious a twist to be really satisfying when guessed correctly, or genuinely shocking if missed. The film might have been more effective in that regard had I viewed it as it were originally intended, that is interrupted frequently by commercials and with only half my attention while I was baking a cake. As it stands, this TV movie is one that doesn’t really hold up that well when watched attentively for a single sitting.
The acting is wildly uneven, with most of the cast doing a serviceable job as daytime melodrama. The shining exception is Julie Harris, who starred in the 1963 version of The Haunting, in the role of Elizabeth Hall-Morgan. We know that Elizabeth was acquitted of the murder of her first husband, but Harris makes it easy to see why so many people think she really did it. Her Elizabeth is just downright creepy, she manages to be menacing without actually doing anything genuinely frightening. Hell, Harris scares the shit out of me just fixing dinner and humming Christmas carols. The rest of the cast cannot measure up, not even Jessica Walter who was excellent in the earlier Play Misty for Me. Her over-the-top performance as Freddy is doubtlessly the result of not having much to work with in the way of a script. At least she seems like she’s having fun.