Editor’s note: Massive spoilers for Thanksgiving ahead!
Holiday horror is back in a big way, thanks to Eli Roth’s slasher throwback Thanksgiving. There’s also the recent revelation that Art the Clown will be coming down the chimney to slice and dice the innocent next October in the Christmas-set Terrifier 3 from director and effects artist Damien Leone. Rather famously among the genre crowd, it’s taken 16 years for Roth’s faux trailer sandwiched between Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse to finally get turned into a full-fledged feature. Surprisingly, after six Scream movies and the unprecedented indie success of Terrifier 2, the teen dramedy and gratuitous gore on display in Roth’s Thanksgiving turns out to have spectacularly good timing.
Roth and screenwriter Jeff Rendell managed to crack the code of modernizing 2007’s Grindhouse trailer by pretending that it was a 2023 reboot of a lost slasher movie from 1980. Going with that mindset, the trailer seen in Grindhouse was actually from a film that was so controversial, that every print was destroyed and the crew members changed their names. That allowed Roth to create a modern-day slasher that exists in a post-Scream world. Instead of being forced to make an overly offensive ’70s drive-in picture that would have been hopelessly outdated, Roth now had the freedom to make something more substantial.
“We had such high standards and high expectations for the movie. We wanted to make a great modern slasher film. I remember the first time I saw Scream in the theatre and you just go, ‘Holy shit. That was amazing!’ That’s what I want, to do that for the next generation,” Roth told SFX magazine.
Judging from the almost universal acclaim and largely respectable box office thus far, Thanksgiving is likely going to be a new horror staple that fans enjoy every single November going forward. While the film is far from reaching the heights of the original debut of Ghostface in Wes Craven’s meta-slasher classic, Thanksgiving still ranks as one of the better entries in the Scream series now that the long-running franchise is starting to show its age.
When Ghostface first burst onto the scene in the unforgettable opening of Scream, the killer (or killers) felt dangerous. Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) were simultaneously horror movie aficionados and two maniacs who were intent on destroying what came before. Even though a master of horror was at the helm to direct Scream, Kevin Williamson’s script felt punk rock. After five sequels, the copycat killers and loose connections to Sidney Prescott’s family history are starting to become an overused trope in a series that used to lampoon overused tropes.
John Carver, the axe-wielding, revenge-seeking killer in Thanksgiving, manages to poke fun at the slashers of the past while also giving audiences a legitimate contender for the throne. Carver feels like a breath of fresh air and a walking parody of masked killers all at the same time. Thanksgiving may not have a better cast than any of the Scream movies to date (apologies to TikTok personality Addison Rae), but John Carver re-energizes the slasher genre at a crucial time when Ghostface has become more of a museum attraction and Art the Clown’s grotesque antics have suddenly become mainstream.
Not only does John Carver appear more menacing than Ghostface in the last couple of Scream movies, but the actual kills in Thanksgiving are more crowd-pleasing. Taking a cue from the more intensely graphic knife stabs in 2022’s Scream, the blood splatter hitting the screen in Roth’s semi-serious slasher parody raises the bar completely. The scene where Carver literally cooks one victim is genuinely disturbing, only to be followed up by a laugh-out-loud face impalement during a holiday parade on Main Street.
Thanksgiving is absolutely paying homage to the heyday of practical effects during the 1980’s, but the violence also seems incredibly current considering that mainstream audiences are suddenly embracing gore in a way they didn’t when Scream changed the game back in December of 1996 (just in time for the Christmas holiday, coincidentally). At the end of 2022’s Scream when Amber (Mikey Madison) and Ritchie (Jack Quaid) reveal themselves as the “requel” killers, they still want to be the stars in their favorite franchise. At a time when Ghostface has become more of a means to an end and a prop costume for teenage malcontents, a straightforward villain like John Carver is a welcomed guest.
Thanksgiving also makes better use of Patrick Dempsey than Scream 3 ever did. Smartly, by casting Dempsey in another slasher film, Roth and Rendell play off our own suspicions and our memories of what happened to Dempsey’s cop character Mark Kincaid in Scream 3. The round-robin whodunnit structure that Scream is famous for points to Kincaid more than once, only to exonerate him at the end. That works to Thanksgiving‘s advantage because we never actually suspect Dempsey’s Sheriff Newlon to be the killer, even though it’s intentionally designed to be fairly obvious. Newlon’s villain monologue is meant to parody other predictable slashers of the 1980s where any mystery surrounding the killer’s identity is upstaged by the actual kills.
In a clever connection, Scream 3 is still the only film in the franchise with only one killer, Sydney’s half-brother Roman Bridger (Scott Foley). When Sheriff Newlon in Thanksgiving gets unmasked, it’s not nearly as convoluted as Roman faking his own death and delivering his Scooby-Doo speech. A fully devoted Dempsey appears to be having way too much fun as “John Carver”, and 2023’s Sexiest Man Alive finally gets to relish being the bad guy in a way that he never fully could in Scream 3.
Of course, Mark Kincaid has managed to survive the events of Scream 3 and Scream 4, and is presumably married to Sidney after a quick mention of his name in 2022’s Scream. It’s unlikely that Kincaid will ever return to the Scream universe, but he may, in fact, be back as John Carver. There was a mysterious firefighter leaving the scene at the end of Thanksgiving, after all, in a quick moment that could have been a nod to Adam Wingard’s Halloween-set thriller The Guest.
The original fake trailer for Thanksgiving is now part of the legend of a lost film made somewhere in between Halloween and The Prowler. The Thanksgiving of 2023 clearly exists in a post-Scream world, and this iteration of Roth’s original idea wouldn’t be getting comparisons to Craven’s quadrilogy and Radio Silence’s two sequels without good reason. Arguably, 2022’s Scream and Scream VI are overly serious, but Thanksgiving is satirizing horror just like Scream did without directly making fun of it.
Roth takes a shot at making a slasher in the vein of Carpenter and Craven’s classics and largely succeeds, remarkably. After the horror-comedy balancing act of Thanksgiving, if Roth was ever offered a shot to direct a Scream movie, that might be something to be thankful for. Mirroring 1978’s Halloween, the fact that the opening POV shot in Thanksgiving turns out to really be from the killer’s perspective shows that Roth definitely still knows what he’s doing.