The list of truly great horror-comedy movies is surprisingly short. Making something funny that’s also convincingly tense and satisfyingly gory takes a delicate touch, which is probably why Wes Craven’s Scream movies are the finest examples we have of hilarious slashers. While the most recent Scream movies have certainly dabbled in bits and pieces of Craven inspiration, they’ve never quite been able to capture the combination of fright and fun that makes the original four movies great. Thankfully, Eli Roth’s goofy, genuinely creepy new slasher Thanksgiving (which originally started as a joke trailer within the Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino double feature Grindhouse) is here to give Scream and its immediate sequels the follow-up they truly deserve.
Just as with the original Scream, most of Thanksgiving takes place one year after a deadly tragedy. But in this case, instead of a single murder, it’s a Black Friday stampede that killed three people. Unlike Scream, however, Roth’s movie actually opens with the event, showing us the chaos. The panic begins when a Walmart-like store in Plymouth, Massachusetts, promises that the first 100 shoppers who arrive on Thanksgiving Eve will get a free waffle iron. Droves of people show up, desperate for their prize.
Roth channels his native New Englander in Thanksgiving, giving these throngs of deal-crazed shoppers the thickest accents and most specifically derogatory Massachusetts dialogue since The Departed. The crowd screams at the store’s security guards and jeers at our squad of teenage main characters, who are allowed into the store early because one of their dads owns the place.
Amid the comical insults and the horde losing its collective mind at the thought of fresh waffles, Roth slowly ratchets up the tension of the mob until the whole scene becomes unnerving and funny in equal measure. The tension finally breaks when the crowd breaks through the store’s meager security barriers and almost immediately tramples a guard to death, all while a sign for doorbuster sales lingers in the background.
The whole thing is undeniably silly, but it also serves as an excellent tone-setter for the movie to come. Roth is comfortable blurring the lines between his horror and comedy, and letting the movie’s generous splatters of gore earn laughs and gasps in equal measure.
Thanksgiving doesn’t lose a step of momentum when it flashes forward to a year after the massacres and reveals that a mysterious person masked as Plymouth colony governor John Carver has been murdering people involved in the tragedy. He’s specifically targeting the group of teenagers who got in early and filmed the whole ordeal. Of course, there’s a helpful sheriff investigating the murders, a suspicious new cop in town, and plenty of local weirdos to add to the suspect list — including a particularly hilarious arms dealer played by Joe Delfin (The Expanse).
The movie’s exposition is breezy and peppered with surprisingly funny jokes, dancing around high school movie tropes and archetypes, as well as topics like land acknowledgments, all without letting them bog down the flow of blood. In true Scream fashion, the solid central mystery plays more like a teen sleuth farce than a meticulous detective movie. The main characters (all lovable in a jerky, popular-kid way) jump to conclusions, throw accusations in entirely wrong directions, and get picked off one by one in increasingly gruesome ways that always manage to be Thanksgiving-themed.
The gore is one place where Thanksgiving outdoes even Scream. Roth takes every opportunity to disembowel and maim his cast of sometimes-sympathetic teens. Thanksgiving never reaches the stomach-churning fever pitch of gore of Roth’s splatterhouse movies like Hostel or The Green Inferno, but there are still enough entrails and bisected bodies to make most other slashers look tame by comparison.
Outside of his trademark gore, what makes Roth’s movie so impressive and entertaining is how deftly he handles its tone. The tightrope he treads in the opening Black Friday brawl, equal parts funny, silly, gross, and scary, is a delicate balance he maintains for the entire movie. Roth uses the slew of silly one-liners and gags in Jeff Rendell’s script to add to the tension of his horror scenes rather than undercut it, like when the John Carver killer prepares a very special Thanksgiving bird for cooking, or when the movie’s final girl poses as a mannequin head while the killer stalks around her high school.
Comedic slashers where both halves complement each other are rare, even among the genre’s most entertaining offerings. Movies like Totally Killer or Happy Death Day are too funny and lighthearted to ever really earn a genuine scare, while a movie like House of 1000 Corpses is so dark and gross that the humor isn’t likely to land on a first viewing. Few movies have ever struck that balance quite as well as Craven’s four Scream movies. Thanksgiving doesn’t quite reach that series’ meteoric heights, but it comes far closer than anything else in recent years — including the Scream franchise itself.
Thanksgiving opens in theaters on Nov. 17.