Horror fans know that Eli Roth's Thanksgiving has been a long time coming; after the faux trailer was so well received in 2007's Grindhouse, he started talking about doing it as an actual feature, only for the filmmaker to have to keep kicking that can (of cranberry sauce) down the road as other projects demanded priority. But his dream of making a turkey day-themed slasher goes back even further, to the 1980s, when Roth and his friend Jeff Rendell (Thanksgiving's co-writer) noticed that there were slashers for every other holiday—Halloween, Black Christmas, Mother's Day, New Year's Evil, My Bloody Valentine, April Fool's Day, etc, but not Thanksgiving.
And so the pair began dreaming up kill scenes tied into the holiday's central themes of pilgrims and feasts, putting many of them in their fake trailer to fill that turkey-sized hole in the slasher canon. However, Roth wasn't accurate with the notion that NO Thanksgiving slasher existed, as there were, in fact (at least?) two of them that came along during that golden era of slasher killers: 1981's Home Sweet Home and 1987's Blood Rage, both of which are indeed focused on a killer slicing and dicing his way through a late November gathering. But in Roth's defense, he had an excuse for not knowing about them—they were both relatively obscure at the time, and even now, only hardcore fans know they exist.
In Home Sweet Home's case, even those folks might not know about it. Barely released at the time and all but completely unavailable now (a VHS-sourced DVD is long out of print), the film stars Jake Steinfeld (yes, '80s enthusiasts, the "Body by Jake" guy) as a standard escaped mental patient who picks a family at random—led by none other than Ilsa director Don Edmonds!—and kills most of them as they gather for dinner. It's a pretty generic movie even by slasher standards (an alternate title is even more half-assed: Slasher in the House), as Jake has no costume of any sort, and his character's name of "Jay Jones" suggests upwards of two seconds' worth of creative thinking on the writer's part. The script also couldn't be bothered to clearly establish how any of the family members relate to one another; near the end of the film, a little girl (Vinessa Shaw! The lone cast member who went on to work with Stanley Kubrick, I believe) is one of the few left standing. It's unclear if her parents are the ones protecting her or if they've already been killed. The most memorable character is a talking mime named Mistake, and if there's any reason to track down the movie besides the goofy kills (during which Steinfeld laughs maniacally), it's to enjoy his bizarre appearance.
Faring much better is Blood Rage (aka Nightmare at Shadow Woods), which was filmed in 1983 but sat on a shelf until 1987, missing the slasher boom and left in obscurity until it was rescued and remastered by the good folks at Arrow Films a few years back. The Thanksgiving angle is pretty flimsy, but what it lacks in decorum it more than makes up for in lunacy. The film is about a little kid who murders a couple at a drive-in and blames it on his twin brother, with the innocent one going off to the mental institution and the evil one soaking up all the love of their unbalanced mother (Louise Lasser in a scenery-devouring performance). Ten years later, the innocent brother escapes from the institution to try to prove who the real killer is, and the evil one uses the opportunity to murder all of his friends and neighbors, figuring he can just blame his twin again. It's a deliriously weird film (did I mention a young Ted Raimi appears as a condom salesman?) with a respectable body count and two unhinged performances (Lasser's and Mark Soper as both brothers), making it a must-see even if you don't care about the holiday.
(And on that note, very few areas outside of North America really care about Thanksgiving anyway, so the majority of foreign audiences aren't missing anything by these two films' threadbare usage of it.)
But while both films may have gotten there first, Roth's blows them both away as far as being THE go-to Thanksgiving slasher. He didn't just use the more obvious title and call it a day; the whole film revolves around the holiday's origins (the killer is dressed and referred to as John Carver, the Mayflower pilgrim and later governor of Plymouth Colony) and takes place in a town that might have been on the other side of that door Jack Skellington passed on his way to Christmas Town. It also capitalizes on its modern incarnation as "Black Friday Eve", with the recent years' habit of stores opening on Thanksgiving night for deal-seeking shoppers providing the stage for the obligatory tragedy that sets the masked killer off (the impatient buyers break through the barricades at a local Wal-Mart type store, causing a stampede that leaves a few people dead/seriously injured).
Carver themes many of his deaths around standard Thanksgiving dishes; one victim is stabbed in the brain by corn cob holders, another is basted and roasted in an oven. Just as Trick' r Treat infuses nearly every frame with something tied to October 31st, Roth's return to full-blown horror is unmistakably a Thanksgiving film, unlike Blood Rage and Home Sweet Home, where only a few lines of dialogue really differentiate what they're gathering for—it could have been someone's birthday or anniversary for all it ultimately mattered (all due respect to Blood Rage's iconic "That's not cranberry sauce!" scene). A few snips to those films, and no one would know they were supposed to be tied to the holiday. But that would be impossible here.
A few other Thanksgiving-themed horror films have popped up since Roth's trailer debuted all those years ago; Thankskilling (a Troma-esque horror comedy about a murderous talking turkey) and its even more insane sequel come to mind, and Marcus Dunstan's Into The Dark entry Pilgrim focused on a "first Thanksgiving" reenactment going too far. Plus, of course, there is an Amityville Thanksgiving, with a sequel on the way (to hell with holidays—eventually, there will be an Amityville film for *every word in the English language*), and while its usage of the holiday itself is as threadbare as Blood Rage's, the fan-favorite Kristy uses the novel idea of leaving a student on her college campus during the break while everyone else is visiting their family. But none scratch that itch the way Roth's film does, fitting comfortably with the whodunit body count films of yore to satisfy fans of the slasher genre while also diving so deep into the hallmarks of the holiday that a non-horror fan who loves the holiday might find themselves enjoying it. It may have taken longer than anyone (including Roth) may have liked, but let us be thankful that it was worth the wait.
Check out our interview with Eli Roth on Thanksgiving origins, keeping the kills fun, and more. Thanksgiving is in theaters November 17.