Jingle Binge

Eli Roth’s ‘Thanksgiving’ Earns Its Place In The Ever-Growing Canon Of Holiday Horror Movies

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Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving will likely not end up being the top-grossing horror movie of 2023, and its time in theaters will probably be short; after all, who’s gonna make the trip to see a movie called Thanksgiving during the December holiday rush? The box office almost doesn’t matter, though, because Roth’s Turkey Day-themed slasher will almost certainly achieve a form of immortality regardless, with multiple monuments to its thematic kills appearing in listicle form. In other words, Thanksgiving seems perfectly engineered to land on multiple round-ups: Thanksgiving movies (of which there are relatively few), slasher movies (of which there are many, but not necessarily of a more recent and theatrically-released vintage), and, especially, holiday horror. 

Thanksgiving isn’t the only recent movie gunning (or stabbing) for a spot on lists of the latter. It’s a Wonderful Knife recently played in theaters as a warm-up to its Shudder debut and algorithmic paradise; Shudder also has The Sacrifice Game on its service this holiday season, joining recent titles like Christmas Bloody Christmas. The uptick in holiday-themed horror makes sense on a creative and marketing level; there’s a big audience for horror, a ton of filmmakers interested in the genre, and services like Shudder make their reputations on a willingness to give fans the blood and/or atmosphere they crave, not just during Spooky Season.

Naturally, not all holiday horror is created equal. Thanksgiving has novelty on its side – though there are actually some Thanksgiving-themed horror movies out there already. Blood Rage and Home Sweet Home brought the ’80s slasher craze home for the holidays, and the 2000s-era ThanksKilling series beat the tongue-in-cheek Roth movie to the punch. When Roth first came up with his fake trailer that was included in the 2007 Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez project Grindhouse, was he unaware of the ’80s titles, or parodying them alongside other holiday-themed horror pictures like Mother’s Day? Happily, it doesn’t much matter for his feature-length version of Thanksgiving, even if some of its contortions to include moments from a two-minute fake trailer are a little sweaty. Though Roth pays some mild homage to Halloween and the ’80s-era knockoffs that followed it, he’s really mostly ripping off Scream and its own knockoffs in the field of murder-mystery slasher. (Think I Know What You Did Last Summer, from Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson.) 

There are a couple of gnarly, hilariously stomach-churning cooking-themed kills and tableaux (shades of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), but much of Thanksgiving focuses less on the holiday table-setting and décor, and more the overall feeling of the holiday. While its characters are still teenagers – and in the grand tradition of Scream, don’t look a day under 25 – it engineers enough hometown dysfunction, and characters returning home after college-like time away, to evoke the restless energy of a holiday break. Savvier still is the way Roth orients the film’s inciting accident – a riot that kills multiple people and creates a masked killer’s motivation for reappearing a year later to wreak vengeance – around Black Friday. (Really, if not for the faint brand-name recognition provided by Grindhouse, this could have easily been retitled Black Friday and positioned itself as a Black Christmas companion piece without missing a beat. Naturally, there’s already a zombie-centric Black Friday waiting to be called up to the holiday-horror lists.) So many Thanksgiving movies focus on turkey mishaps or family squabbling; Thanksgiving riffs on those a bit, but cleverly recognizes the way that frenzied shopping has invaded the holiday’s territory and exacerbated its stresses. The movie is a little too sloppy and pleased with its own nastiness to figure out more coherent thematic underpinnings – is the rapaciousness of capitalism enabled by the colonization of the Americas now returning to devour itself? Eh, it’s mostly just a masked psycho – but more care has been put into it the film than simply plugging in an electric carving knife and turning it loose.

Sadly, the same can’t be said of It’s a Wonderful Knife, which is more typical of the algorithm-gaming approach to holiday horror. The film does have a killer dark-comic premise: A would-be Final Girl stops a masked killer on Christmas, only to have her life fall apart anyway. (After all, plenty of her loved ones are still dead.) A year later, she makes the It’s a Wonderful Life wish that she’d never been born, and gets whisked off into an alternate reality where she wasn’t – and the masked killer still roams free. Formally speaking, the movie is a disaster: cheap-looking, tension-free, sometimes falling short of bare-minimum tasks like making its characters look like they inhabit the same physical space. It’s also going to appear on lists of holiday horror movies from now until the heat death of the internet. That was guaranteed more or less from its title, which often feels like the primary reason the movie was made in the first place. 

Horror fans will be relatively understanding when not all of these movies pan out; hardly anyone expects a new classic every time they fire up a holiday horror movie. But that is the more insidious side to modern holiday horror: the proliferation of listicle round-ups, purportedly recommending various titles to gorehounds in search of seasonal scares. As with any genre, subgenre, platform, and/or holiday, the internet has lists to offer. Lots and lots of lists. Lists designed to provide some manner of service to readers, sure, but also designed to perform well enough on Google searches to outrank other, very similar lists – the dark art of search-engine optimization.

The sheer number of these lists means that it’s difficult for individual publications to stand out, and one of the best ways to up the SEO game is to increase the number of titles on your list, regardless of quality. Though there are certainly plenty of intelligent and well-curated lists on nearly any movie subject (and plenty that aim for comprehensive indexing more than best-of-the-best ranking), inevitably multiple lists on the same topic tend to have similar titles in common, in some cases obviously cribbing from each other in an effort to pad their numbers. 

Holiday horror is particularly susceptible to this practice, simply because it will always be scarcer than the broader category of scary movies in general. This means that a lot of junk gets surfaced just because it checks some basic boxes. Take the 2016 horror movie Better Watch Out that played some festivals and was barely released theatrically. It sounds like a killer Santa movie, but it’s not even that; it’s a Christmas-set home-invasion horror-thriller with a twist, which involves nonsensical plotting, a bunch of Home Alone references, and some faux-outrageous satire, little of which has much genuine connection to Christmas. It is nonetheless on countless lists of holiday horror movies, simply because it’s another warm body, creating the mistaken impression that it might be some kind of Christmas horror classic. 

Movies may not be produced specifically with spots on these lists in mind, but knowing that an annual shout-out is virtually assured does probably flatter the filmmakers’ fantasies about making holiday horror in the first place – specifically, with the possibility of becoming a perennial rewatch, rather than something disposable. That’s what a lot of holiday horror movies are: as cheap and temporary as dollar-store decorations, selling a kind of eye-rolling knowingness about the phoniness and stress of the holiday season with no more grace or thought than a Hallmark movie celebrating the opposite. 

The best ones, on the other hand, manage to evoke actual and sometimes complicated holiday ambiance – and almost any adult who has experienced any kind of holiday stress or disappointment understands that this isn’t as simple as bloodying up the décor or cynically “exposing” dysfunction beneath the cheer. Bob Clark’s standard-bearer Black Christmas from 1974, for example, has a sense of wintry isolation alongside its Christmas-light glow. The more recent Christmas Bloody Christmas, shot in gorgeous 16mm, captures a kind of weary dirtbag romanticism among downtown retail employees before giving way to a Terminator-influenced slash-em-up. It’s vastly more lived-in and less visually antiseptic than most of its fellow list-dwellers, a movie whose idea of looking a lot like Christmas goes beyond “stab someone with an ornament or something.”

Christmas Bloody Christmas didn’t get much attention during its initial release last year. But the upside of endless SEO churn is that if someone makes a good holiday horror movie, it will have another chance to find an audience. Thanksgiving didn’t need to be more than a fun slasher to secure a place at the table next year; arguably it didn’t even need to be that, which makes its elaborate gross-out kills feel more generous, perhaps, than they should. Roth really only needed a trailer’s worth of Thanksgiving imagery to rocket to the top of several seasonal lists. At least the exploitation is in the movie, where it belongs, and not handed over to a search engine. 

Jesse Hassenger (@rockmarooned) is a writer living in Brooklyn. He’s a regular contributor to The A.V. Club, Polygon, and The Week, among others. He podcasts at www.sportsalcohol.com, too.