Thursday 22 November 2018

Home Sweet Home (1981)

Director: Nettie Peña
Writer: Thomas Bush
Stars: Jake Steinfeld and Vinessa Shaw

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Ah, Thanksgiving, that bizarre American holiday in which people are so thankful for everything they have that they feel the need to murder people the very next day just to get more of it. I've never quite understood Thanksgiving, but then I'm not American. I didn't grow up learning all the little rituals: not just eating turkey but watching Snoopy in the Macy's Day Parade on the television and listening to all eighteen and a half minutes of Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant on the radio. Being English, I always found it odd that the descendants of immigrants would take a day to thank the Native Americans for saving the lives of their ancestors without apologising for everything that followed, especially when it remembers a specific event that nobody can actually place in history. I was surprised to discover that it didn't even have a firm date until the early 19th century, varying from state to state until settling on the final Thursday in November to replace a prior holiday, Evacuation Day, which remembered finally leaving the country.

Nowadays, I live in Arizona and I celebrate Thanksgiving with my American family on the fourth Thursday in November, to which Congress moved it as late as 1941. We stuff ourselves with food, misbehave with the grandkids and come home early because some family members work retail so have to go to work to prepare for the onslaught of Black Friday, the year's busiest shopping day. As a holiday that didn't even exist on a national level until Abraham Lincoln decreed it in 1863, it imposed itself quickly on the calendar and almost the entire country celebrates, regardless of colour, creed or religion. Given such blanket adherence, I'm rather shocked that more horror movies, or more movies of any genre, come to think of it, haven't been set on Thanksgiving. There isn't even an unofficial Thanksgiving movie, in the way that Die Hard has become an unofficial Christmas movie. If it isn't Christmas until Hans Gruber falls off the Nakatomi Plaza, then what has to happen on screen for it to be truly Thanksgiving? I have no idea.

The most obvious horror movie to fill the Thanksgiving slot on my Horror Movie Calendar is 2009's ThanksKilling, with a tagline as gleefully memorable as "Gobble, gobble, motherfucker!" but I like to dig backwards and find more obscure movies for this project. Initially, I was looking at Blood Rage, which I placed on a pedestal in an early review as the 'Worst Film of the 1980s' after seeing it in the theatre a decade and change ago. Watching afresh at home, I see that it's far from that, even though lead actress Louise Lasser sleepwalks through the film like she'd stepped out of a billboard warning against meth addiction. I'm not sure that she even knew a movie was being made around her; she may have felt she was hallucinating the whole experience. I also know that Blood Rage isn't the worst movie of the eighties because Home Sweet Home is far worse. However, it's also that rare creature, a slasher directed by a woman, it features interesting people and it was the debut of Vinessa Shaw of Hocus Pocus fame so I just had to switch selections.

Now, Home Sweet Home is so obscure that I could only find a copy in full frame, but I doubt it would play any better in widescreen. It has so much confidence in its actors that none of them are included in the opening credits! Those credits don't mention the lighting crew either, possibly because they didn't show up for certain scenes; it's credible that no footage was shot for them and voices were added later to pretend that there was. The editor is likely only listed because she's also the director, Nettie Peña, and I wonder what she was trying for as there's something here, buried deep down, that hints at interesting, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Initially, it's routine. Some crazy dude with big muscles hauls some guy halfway out of a parked car and strangles him to death. The radio is on and the news conveniently tells us precisely what we need to know. He's Jay Jones and, the previous night, he escaped from the Hobart State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he spent the last eight years for bludgeoning his parents to death.

He's also a PCP addict, for some reason—perhaps mental institutions had moved on from electro-shock therapy and lobotomies—and he injects himself on the tongue before driving away. He's a calm and courteous driver for an escaped lunatic who hasn't seen a road since he was eighteen—he keeps his eyes on that road and he doesn't text—but he does grin wildly and he speeds up to run over old ladies while laughing maniacally. Jake Steinfeld, who overplays Jay Jones with abandon, is actually a big deal, just not as an actor. He arguably started the celebrity fitness industry, founding FitTV, a 24/7 fitness TV network. He also founded, of all things, Major League Lacrosse, which competes for the Steinfeld Cup. His work in film began as a personal trainer for clients like Harrison Ford and that somehow led him into voicing Git the lab rat in Ratatouille. He chaired the National Foundation for Governors' Fitness Councils, served as honorary mayor of Pacific Palisades and even carried an Olympic torch. Most importantly, he hates this movie.

Every escaped lunatic needs a family to terrorise, of course, and Jones has Harold Bradley's. Why he selects the Bradley residence is pure chance; the ladies need wine so they drive off to get some and Jones, who's pulled off the main road to clean old lady blood off his car, decides to follow them. That's really as deep as the script, written by Thomas Bush from his original story, gets. Then again, he entire experience prior to this was as a PA on a trio of TV movies, as horrific as Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July and Rankin & Bass's The Return of the King. IMDb tells me that he went on to be an assistant sound editor on Evil Dead II in 1987 but, as this film is dedicated to his memory, I doubt that! He's certainly not as important to cinema as Don Edmonds, who plays Harold Bradley, given that he'd been directing movies since 1972 and producing them since 1973. His most famous title was Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, perhaps the most well known Nazisploitation movie of the seventies, but he was also responsible for a string of other exploitation titles.

Edmonds plays Bradley suprisingly well, but then he was an actor long before he added any other role to his filmography; his debut on TV was in The Betty Hutton Show in 1959 and he expanded into film in Gidget Goes Hawaiian two years later. Bradley is supposed to have run a record label in the seventies that recently went out of business, causing him to nearly go off the deep end, and we have no problem buying that because Edmonds feels like the love child of Tony Orlando and Danny Trejo, with his oversized sunglasses, cowboy hat, leather jacket, porn stache and shirt unbuttoned too far like he just got home from an over forties disco. He also seems to be just a little unstable, wanting a beer one minute and a valium the next, all the while raging at or about his son, who he honest to God calls Mistake. Everyone else follows suit so that's presumably his actual name. Who would do that to a kid? And what trauma would it inflict upon him? Maybe that's why he's unusual enough for visitors to comment on it before they get there.

Ironically, Mistake is possibly the only reason why I can't forget Home Sweet Home. I know that it sucks and I know that almost every moment in it could have been done better, but Mistake is such a wild anomaly that I simply can't ignore him. How wild, you ask? He may be best described as a new wave mime, right down to the face paint and white shoes, but he has an electric guitar plugged into a portable amp on his back. He apparently likes nothing more than to spy—and I mean overtly spy without any pretense of hiding—on couples who are making out and, when they notice his presence, he says something inappropriate, plays a lick on his guitar and hightails it out of there. I'm not sure that I've ever seen a character who feels more like he waltzed in from a completely different movie, felt that he liked the look of the place and decided to stay. Everyone else is in a slasher movie, but Mistake thinks that he's in a slapstick comedy. Nobody wants him there and they say so too, in scenes that feel uncomfortably like group therapy sessions.

It isn't just Mistake who contributes to the feeling that Harold's house is a disaster waiting to happen, as the Bradleys have invited an array of other varied characters to their Thanksgiving dinner. Why, we have little idea; Bush's script merely hints in ways that are never consistent. It really feels like Don Edmonds, who produced the film, just invited his neighbours along for the shoot and had them ad-lib characters for fun. So let's see if we can figure it out! Harold Bradley owns the place, which may be a ranch or may be an apartment block, and Mistake is his son, but that's not his mum whose boobs he's ogling. I thought it was his dad's girlfriend but, as Angel, who's only five, is listed as a Bradley on IMDb, maybe she's his stepmom. She has to be Linda too, through applying a process of elimination to the credits. Gail's the goth who accompanies her for wine. Jennifer came with Scott. Maria, who needs to stop singing Besame Mucho right now, came with Wayne, who's here on business. So she has to be Linda, because that's the only name left!

Now, this is a slasher flick so we're well aware that these people are only in the film to be murdered by our friendly neighbourhood psychopath in what will hopefully be interesting ways, but it would have been nice to have a little background first. As it stands, we have precisely no idea how or why any of them even know the Bradleys! It's only the fact that Gail clearly knows Linda and Harold just as clearly knows Wayne that we figure that attendance wasn't randomly selected through lottery. Hey, maybe Jay Jones won a ticket too! And, at this point, he's more than welcome because, frankly, we're eager to see most of these people die horrible deaths, starting with Harold Bradley himself, who goes in memorable style, cut in half by a car bonnet. The lead up to this is truly insane! You see, the eletricity goes out and the backup generator doesn't power the TV, so Harold goes for gas. His jeep runs out of fuel and breaks down simultaneously, so he siphons gas from the killer's station wagon and goes back to steal the battery. Then... wham!

Bizarrely, the character we don't want to see die is Mistake, who suddenly becomes sympathetic completely out of the blue. While he has no restraint around adults and honestly seems to enjoy pissing off every last one of them he can find, he's gentle and tender with his little stepsister, Angel. He cares about her, enough that he'll play guitar for her and perform magic tricks, good ones too as actor Peter DePaula isn't really an actor. His role as Mistake is an odd combination of the only other two entries in his filmography: as 'Himself - Magician' on The Mike Douglas Show in 1975 and 'Mime #1' on an episode of Wonder Woman in 1978. He's known more for his stage work, including a year stint as the Magician in the musical The Magic Show as it toured the country, cast in part because of his background as an actual magician in New York. I still have no idea why he was cast in this film or why he played the role in the way that he did, but Mistake's connection to Angel is the only grounding he has and it's the best thing about the film.

Revisiting Home Sweet Home, it's hard to fathom just how bad this is. I honestly wonder how much of this was script, how much was improvisation and how much was asides by the actors that were caught on camera and kept. And when I say "actors", I realise that I may well mean "friends of Don Edmonds who showed up for Thanksgiving and decided to make a movie while they waited for food like a Victorian parlour game". The last third of the film unfolds during Thanksgiving dinner, though not much gets eaten. The only character who really tucks in is little Angel, who prompts a frantic search when she vanishes, only to be found sprawled out under the table eating turkey. Mistake does serve Maria, spilling cranberry sauce all over her shirt in the process. As she leaves the table, Jennifer exclaims to Scott, "She is so Latin, I don't believe it!" I'm guessing that this wasn't in the script and Colette Trygg was just commenting on a fellow cast member that she'd only just met. I hope "Wake up! It's time to go to bed!" wasn't scripted.

I wonder if any of these non-actors thought that this would be their big break. I'm pretty sure that none of them, back in 1981, saw five year old Vinessa Shaw, who plays Angel, as the one who would become the biggest name (excepting Jake Steinfeld who found most success outside the movies). It took Vinessa a decade to return to the screen after this, showing up again at sixteen as Rodney Dangerfield's boss's daughter in Ladybugs. Her breakout role as Allison in Hocus Pocus followed in 1993 and it was uphill from there. She describes Stanley Kubrick, for whom she worked in Eyes Wide Shut, as "the first person who encouraged her to continue acting", and it was her role as Domino in that film that prompted Alejandre Aja to cast her as the lead in his remake of The Hills Have Eyes in 2006, bringing her back to the horror genre after a quarter of a century. I wonder if she remembered making this picture so many years earlier and I wonder if she gives thanks over turkey every fourth Thursday in November for the opportunity it sparked.

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