“What are you afraid of? It’s just Thanksgiving.”
A handful of the all-time best horror movies are holiday-themed, from Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and John Carpenter’s Halloween to Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat. Holidays and horror, for whatever reason, tend to go hand-in-hand, and the slasher sub-genre in particular worked overtime back in the 1980s to ensure that every holiday had its own batch of horror movies to choose from. But one holiday that has gotten very little respect on the horror front over the years is Thanksgiving, a largely overlooked source of holiday terror.
Sure, films like Blood Rage, Home Sweet Home, ThanksKilling and Kristy allow websites like this one to at least write up annual lists of Thanksgiving-themed horror movies to watch, but there’s a reason fans have spent the past 10+ years begging Eli Roth to turn his faux Thanksgiving trailer into a feature film. And the reason we’re all so eager for that dream project to become reality is because we’re all desperately hungry for that one great Thanksgiving horror movie that we can count on to be there for us each and every November.
Hell, even the 2016 horror anthology Holidays, which literally existed to put sinister spins on as many different holidays as possible, left Thanksgiving out in the cold. Go figure.
Enter Blumhouse, a production company that understands the relationship between horror and holidays better than any other. In recent years, Blumhouse has smartly tied several of their films to specific holidays, and they’ve enjoyed incredible box office success as a result. Additionally, they joined forces with Hulu last year for “Into the Dark,” an anthology project dedicated to releasing brand new holiday-themed horror films every single month. They’ve truly mastered the art of the holiday horror tie-in, and yes, they’ve even now brought us *two* Thanksgiving horror movies as part of the “Into the Dark” project, now in its second season.
But while last November’s film Flesh & Blood was highly underwhelming, this year’s Pilgrim is arguably the very best Thanksgiving horror movie we’ve gotten to date.
Written by Noah Feinberg and Feast, Saw IV-VII, The Collector and The Collection duo Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, and directed by Dunstan, Pilgrim isn’t merely a horror story that happens to be set during Thanksgiving but rather it’s a film steeped in Thanksgiving history and tradition – all of which, of course, is perversely twisted for our enjoyment.
In Pilgrim, a woman invites Pilgrim re-enactors into her home to give her family an authentic recreation of the first Thanksgiving, all in the hopes that they’ll put down their phones, cast their differences aside, and learn to truly appreciate one another – if only for a couple days. But when the actors refuse to ever break character and their behavior becomes increasingly concerning, well, let’s just say the lessons they bring may come at a deadly cost.
Reign Edwards stars as Cody in Pilgrim, the only member of the family who’s immediately unsettled by the period-authentic home invaders that the rest of the family welcomes with open arms. The teenage Cody, after all, is keenly aware that there’s an unspoken dark side to the idyllically presented tales of the “first Thanksgiving,” equating the Pilgrims to Nazis and questioning why we spend one day every year celebrating the early English settlers; “Oh great, let’s honor the whitewashed history of the Native American genocide,” Cody remarks.
Not long after Cody wishes on a turkey wishbone that her step-mother’s Thanksgiving plans backfire in her face, Pilgrims Ethan (Peter Giles) and Patience (Elyse Levesque) arrive at the family’s home and her fears (and wishes) come true. Ethan and Patience represent Puritanical extremism at its most frightening, and both Giles and Levesque are quite chilling as true believers who aren’t afraid to get a whole lot of blood on their hands in the process of spreading their message. Their mission is simple: make the family appreciate what they’ve got. And if they can’t convert them to their ways, well, they’re not long for this world.
Like many of Blumhouse’s films, Pilgrim is rife with social commentary, and it’s the first Thanksgiving-themed horror movie to really bring the dark origins of the holiday to the forefront and explore those historical truths in a way that it’s surprising no other horror movie really has before. Many have argued over the years that the reason there aren’t that many Thanksgiving horror movies is because there’s not all that much that can be done with the iconography and traditions of the holiday, but Pilgrim smartly dips into the distant past and plucks out a horror story that was right in front of our eyes the whole time.
Interesting social commentary aside, what really makes Pilgrim a standout slice of Thanksgiving horror is the absolutely bonkers final act, which pays off the slow-burn creepiness of the first half with a blood-soaked Thanksgiving dinner you won’t soon forget. And the icing on top of the whole cake is the excellent score from Douglas Pipes, who composed the scores for both Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus and continues to establish himself as a master of holiday horrors with his take on spooky Thanksgiving sounds.
I realize the bar for Thanksgiving horror was hardly high heading into November 2019, but nevertheless, Pilgrim is the very best that particular sub-genre has offered us to date.
And we’re thankful for that this holiday season.