The now-cliché practice of setting a slasher movie on a holiday has a specific origin. After the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978 (which itself came out four years after Black Christmas), opportunistic horror-movie producers collectively sat down with their calendars and started highlighting holidays. Over the next few years, a glut of seasonally themed horror movies — April Fools’ Day! New Years’ Evil! My Bloody Valentine! — hit grindhouses and drive-ins; so many Christmas-themed slashers were produced during this time that they became a subgenre unto themselves.
Yet, somehow, Thanksgiving missed out. Often forgotten in the rush between Halloween and Christmas, Turkey Day suffers a similar fate in the movies: Even scraping the bottom of the Z-grade barrel, there are no more than a dozen horror films set on or around Thanksgiving. Why is this? On a conceptual level, it’s not an especially scary holiday, nor an especially sexy one: It’s a day for eating too much and falling asleep, maybe watching some football, maybe smoking a joint on a “walk.” It’s too cozy, in short. (On a practical level, Thanksgiving is an American holiday, so you won’t find many international takes on the theme.)
At its worst, Thanksgiving can become a nightmare thanks to fraught family dynamics, as in the almost-cases The Oath (2018) and Krisha (2015). And the idea of a family dinner turning into a massacre does fuel several of the films on this list. More recently, the horrors of capitalism have come into play as Black Friday sales are soaked in red, and a few literal turkeys are unleashed into the November night in the (ironically, quite skinny) canon of Thanksgiving horror. But which of these stuffed ‘n’ basted fright flicks are worth your time? We’ve ranked them below.
“Pilgrim,” Into the Dark (2019)
Compared to Flesh & Blood — the other Thanksgiving-themed entry into Hulu’s holiday-centric Into the Dark streaming series, discussed below — “Pilgrim” is specifically tied to the holiday, at least. But the primary value of this dreadful home-invasion movie is as an example for aspiring directors of what not to do. Basically, the idea is that a wealthy housewife hires a team of Pilgrim cosplayers to take over their upper-middle-class suburban home so they can learn gratitude, or something, and the weekend goes all Funny Games from there. Who are these people? Where did they come from? Why are they doing this? None of these questions will stop this movie from recklessly barreling towards a stupid conclusion. The direction is similarly thoughtless, an illegible jumble of images that seem to have been dictated by whatever looked coolest in the viewfinder on set that day.
There’s a difference between an elemental premise and an empty vessel, and Boogeyman is the latter. Its camerawork is very of its mid-’00s time, and it seems to have been crafted without consideration for pacing, location, or narrative momentum. In other words, everything and nothing happens in this chaotic, boring film, as traumatized orphan Tim (Barry Watson) challenges himself to spend the night alone in the house where his father was snatched by the Boogeyman. Except he’s not really alone, and the Boogeyman himself is ill-defined to the point where he’s not even scary anymore. This one’s a Thanksgiving movie on a technicality, thanks to an early scene where Tim meets his girlfriend’s parents over turkey and stuffing. The real surprise here is a producer credit for Evil Dead impresarios Sam Raimi and Rob Tappert — that’s done little for its longevity, however, as Boogeyman has rightly fallen into obscurity.
ThanksKilling (2008) / ThanksKilling 3 (2012)
The ThanksKilling movies know they’re bad, but that doesn’t let them off the hook. Shot in Worth, Ohio in the early Obama years — although it feels like the ‘80s, thanks to the gratuitous nudity and persistent “F-” and “R-” slurs — it’s astounding that these movies got distribution, given their consumer-grade camerawork and amateur production value. That’s the value of a good gimmick, though, and these movies have one in the form of a foul-mouthed demonic turkey who’s both repellent in a very unfunny way — “you just got stuffed,” it yells after assaulting a woman — and weirdly woke, given its mission to avenge the wrongs inflicted on Native Americans by murdering every white person it sees. It’s cute to see the filmmakers crack up at their own jokes, but honestly? It’s not worth it. Either of these films is going to be the longest, most miserable hour and change of your life.
“Flesh & Blood,” Into the Dark (2018)
Thanksgiving is incidental to the plot of “Flesh & Blood,” which has the air of a script that was retrofitted for a specific franchise rather than being conceived for it. Diana Silvers (a.k.a. Kaitlyn Dever’s love interest from Booksmart) stars as an agoraphobic teen who suspects that her dad, played by Dermot Mulroney in a scenery-chewing performance, is a serial killer. Dracula 2000 and Drive Angry director Patrick Lussier sands down his excessive impulses in this paint-by-numbers TV movie, which is efficient and expository without any real stylistic flair. This both helps and hurts the movie, which unfolds inside the single location of the family’s Craftsman-style home in the Wait Until Dark tradition. Sure, it’s more competently made than some of the films on this list. But sometimes incompetence is fun!
Blood Freak (1972)
Another “classic” of Florida horror, Blood Freak has the “Sears curtains and nicotine stains” look of a Christian propaganda movie, which it partially is. The film’s conservative values enhance its camp factor: It’s bookended by direct-to-camera lectures by a very serious man with a smoker’s cough (played by the film’s director, Brad Grinter) who warns that the plot, about an ex-addict Vietnam vet who’s transformed into a giant homicidal turkey by experimental chemicals, is “based partially on fact, and partially on probability.” (Lol, okay.) Low lighting and ADR gobbles do a lot of the creature-feature work here, and the turkey mask itself looks like paper mâché. But as often happens with Southern-fried exploitation movies — even the moralistic ones — Blood Freak gets surprisingly bloody in its second half, including a scene of real animal death. (It’s a turkey, naturally.)
Home Sweet Home (1981)
By surreal, made-by-aliens standards, the California-set slasher Home Sweet Home is entertaining. There are things in this film that make absolutely no sense, in a good way: The rock ‘n’ roll mime who seems to have wandered in from the set of Phantom of the Paradise. The equally random Mariachi singer the film’s central couple hires to entertain their Thanksgiving guests. But the movie stalls out during long, poorly-lit intervals where exceptionally horny characters (yes — even for a slasher flick) make bad decisions before disappearing with no explanation or resolution. (There is a Thanksgiving dinner scene, but most of the cast is missing by that point.) Home Sweet Home does have the distinction of being one of the few classic slashers directed by a woman: Helmer Netie Pena’s only other credit is as the editor of the horror porn parody Dracula Sucks (1978), making her just as mysterious as this bizarre artifact of a film.
Black Friday (2021)
Black Friday gets a little Christmas in its Thanksgiving horror, but that’s how it goes in real life, too. The creeping encroachment of holiday cheer is one of the more dynamic things about this well-meaning sci-fi/horror hybrid, set in a big-box toy store on Thanksgiving night. The cast is fun — Devon Sawa stars as an alcoholic slacker who’s way too old to be working as a stock boy, along with Bruce Campbell in a role that’s kind of like if Ash had never made it out of S-Mart. The actual mechanics of the film’s “rabid Black Friday shoppers possessed by zombie brain worms” plot are more generic than that description implies, however, and too many of the script’s quips and quirks fall flat in execution. If you’re “meh”-ing a glowing neon alien parasite, something’s off, you know?
In terms of immediacy and tension, Kristy is a solid little dorm-invasion movie. Haley Bennett stars in an early lead role as Justine, a scholarship student at an uppercrust private college who’s left alone on campus over the Thanksgiving holiday. (Justine’s Thanksgiving dinner consists of a turkey pot pie.) Bennett makes for a tough, but believable final girl, and director Olly Blackburn has fun with strobe lights and motion sensors in the chase scenes. The problem is that the killers — lip-ring emo types in aluminum foil masks — have a motivation that’s so preposterous, it threatens to sink the entire movie. They’re part of an online cult with a website where people upload footage of themselves murdering — the film is never really clear on this, but it’s basically just hot girls — and carving their cheeks with the letter “K,” calling them “Kristy” for “follower of Christ.” Why? No idea!
Blood Rage (1987)
Blood Rage was filmed in Jacksonville, Florida, and you can tell. There’s a boozy weariness to the characters in this film, where every dad is a stepdad, every mom is a floozy, and the kids are all unsupervised drinking crème de menthe and warm tomato juice from red Solo cups. In this downbeat environment, the arrival of an escaped mental patient intent on ruining Thanksgiving through murder almost comes as a relief. There’s some backstory about a psychotic break at a drive-in when the two were kids, but the story of Todd and Terry Simmons (both played by TV jobber Mark Soper) is mostly a pretense for corny one-liners — “It’s not cranberry sauce” is deemed a good enough quip to use twice — and outrageously bloody kills. As far as regional slashers go, this is a good one, whose crude touches charm rather than repel.
Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (1998)
Filmmaker Dean Alioto remakes his own The McPherson Tape (1989) with higher production value and improved camcorder technology in this early example of found-footage horror. Released the year before The Blair Witch Project, Alien Abduction aired on UPN with an opening title crawl claiming that the film was a documentary incorporating home-video footage of an alien abduction during a family Thanksgiving dinner in the fall of 1997. Despite credits for the actors — including future Entourage star Emmanuelle Chriqui — at the end of the movie, debate on internet forums about Alien Abduction’s veracity ensued after the broadcast. And even with the hindsight of two decades of found-footage movies, it still works. That’s a testament to Alioto’s direction, which shows a savvy sense of how to use the limitations of pixelated first-person camerawork to create confusion and panic. In its own way, it’s a milestone film — and the only Thanksgiving horror movie that’s actually scary.
Granted, “best Thanksgiving horror movie ever” is a low bar to clear. Even in its original form as a parody trailer in the 35mm double-feature version of Grindhouse, Eli Roth’s holiday slasher would have taken the prize. But the 15-years-late feature version easily wins. Grisly, irreverent, and just the right amounts of mean-spirited and deliberately stupid, Thanksgiving is everything a classical-style slasher should be. The most inspired sequence in the film takes place at an early Black Friday sale, where Roth debuts an obnoxious Masshole variant on his signature hateable characters. Scenes from the original trailer feel shoehorned in by comparison, but a slipshod script is practically a prerequisite for a slasher movie. And the important parts — the kills — are fun (and gory!) enough to let all that slide.