There seems to be a slasher film about every holiday imaginable – Halloween, Christmas, Birthdays, even April Fools’ Day, they all have their own movies. The holiday of Thanksgiving is ruefully underrepresented in the catalog of horror. In 1981, director Nettie Peña tried to exploit the thus-far unexploited with Home Sweet Home, and the resulting film is the best kind of bad.
Home Sweet Home begins by introducing the Killer, an escaped mental patient played by Jake Steinfeld of “Body by Jake” fame, as he rips a victim from his car by the neck and throws him aside. The Killer takes the car, but not before he injects himself with PCP (in his tongue!) in the front seat. He then continues to demonstrate his insanity by running an elderly lady down in front of a witness. He keeps driving until he gets to a secluded cabin where a family is getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner. The family includes an ex-record executive, his wife and kids, a guy who rents an apartment from the family and his girlfriend, and a couple of other random characters, all disposable. Predictably, the Killer starts picking off the family one by one in crazy and fun ways, and the only question that remains is who will live and how will they stop the Killer from finishing them off.
Produced by Don Edmonds (True Romance), Home Sweet Home includes all of the ingredients in the formula for a slasher film. Psycho killer? Check. Stupid, oversexed victims? Check. Isolated location and cars that don’t start? Check and check. Body count and awesome kill scenes? Double check plus.
Home Sweet Home has the look and feel of a quickie. Peña takes an inexperienced cast (after Steinfeld, the most notable cast member is a five-year-old Vinessa Shaw, who would go on to play Domino in Eyes Wide Shut) and crew and pushes a coherent albeit stereotypical slasher movie out. The screenplay, written by Thomas Bush, seems like more of a plot outline than an actual shooting script, and much of the dialogue feels awkward and improvised. The plot itself is a simple rehash of every killer-on-the-loose horror film and, aside from the backdrop of the Thanksgiving holiday, is nothing unique at all.
The script is not Home Sweet Home’s only weak point. The film is full of technical problems. The audio dubbing is hilariously bad, both with the dialogue and the sound effects. The second half of the film, taking place after the sun goes down, is a murky mess, with the viewer having to all but guess at what is going on in the darkness. The editing is without rhythm and the film is unevenly paced, dragging for long stretches then suddenly picking up to non-stop death and dismemberment.
So, with all that’s wrong with Home Sweet Home, why even watch it? It’s awesome, that’s why.
Hands down, the best character in the film is a kid named Mistake. No, really, that’s his name. Played by Peter De Paula (who’s only other professional credit is playing a mime in an episode of “Wonder Woman” in 1978), Mistake spends the entire movie in whiteface makeup, holding a guitar with an amplifier on his back. He strolls around ripping guitar riffs, annoying the heck out of everyone until they take off after him and a Benny Hill-esque chase ensues. Mistake is the only unique character in the film, and, as irritating as he is to watch, he keeps the other characters on their toes and thus, helps to keep the film watchable. The Killer is another aspect of the picture that really makes the experience great. Steinfeld overacts the maniacal role, and his limited acting ability translates to the part surprisingly well. The Killer laughs throughout the whole film, but not a devious, evil laugh – it’s more like a giggle, the type of chuckle that makes the audience expect him to stand up and say “just kidding!” the whole time. Of course, this never happens, but the Killer is kind of like a car wreck; it’s not pretty, but no one can stop looking. He’s not scary in the least, but he is fun to watch.
The special effects are surprisingly well done, considering the technical limitations of the film. The practical effects are pretty standard fare for horror movies of the era, and Home Sweet Home makes good use of them. Blood and guts are plentiful, but, without any real scares, the gore just adds to the camp and unintentional humor that runs rampant all over the film.
Home Sweet Home is best enjoyed with a group of friends, preferably after a few drinks, or possibly on a tryptophan high after eating too much turkey. The shock and awe at this entertainingly bad movie should be shared with loved ones. It’s too amazing to keep secret.
On Halloween, people can watch Halloween. On Christmas, they can throw on Silent Night, Deadly Night. Thanksgiving should belong to Home Sweet Home. Just don’t watch it alone. It’s not as much fun that way.