Of the various fake trailers to be found in Grindhouse, it’s Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving that makes the most impression. A Thanksgiving slasher throwback, it had just enough shades of Roth’s signature torture porn to make this horror weenie feel sick to her stomach.
The trailer is memorable because it feels like nobody’s ever really given Thanksgiving the same horror movie treatment that Halloween and Christmas get. Even the 2016 horror anthology Holidays, which provides gruesome riffs on Father’s Day and New Year’s Eve, skips neatly over Thanksgiving.
The list of Thanksgiving horror films is a short one; numbers fluctuate once you try to determine the true meaning of a Thanksgiving movie (does it have to be about Thanksgiving overtly or merely cover a Thanksgiving in its characters’ lives?), but we’re looking at a margin of error that puts us at 13 or 14. Compared to Christmas’ 80, including iconic films like Gremlins, it feels sparse.
That small library’s saving grace is that it boasts one of the rare holiday horror movies directed by a woman, which means it’s the only Thanksgiving horror film directed by a woman.
Home Sweet Home is a 1981 independent slasher film directed by Nettie Peña. Harold Bradley’s casual Thanksgiving festivities are crashed by the mononymous Jay, an escaped mental patient who takes PCP and human lives with equal glee. One by one, Harold’s guests are picked off, their own only crime being in the wrong place at the wrong time…
I wish I could tell that you Home Sweet Home is an underrated gem, a real hidden classic well worth the effort seeking out. I’ll be honest with you: it isn’t. But it is a more or less competent '80s slasher film that manages to wring some emotion out of each character’s final moments in a way that I wasn’t expecting. It’s the kind of journeyman work I’d expect out of a director’s earlier films, a foundation to build a solid career with, but it was Peña’s only directing credit for decades until a 2009 documentary.
Its true appeal lies in its own scarce charms, best enjoyed post-Thanksgiving feast with a drink or two in hand, and Peña herself. Oh, and also the fact that it stars '90s fitness guru "Body by Jake" Steinfeld as the maniac picking off the Bradleys and their guests in a role I’m sure he’d all rather us forget. No dice, Jake!
Home Sweet Home wastes no time in getting to the action… at first. Jay is introduced to us immediately, as he murders a motorist whose only crime was offering him a beer and proceeds to run over a little old lady at a crosswalk, cackling all the while.
But once we reach Harold Bradley’s ranch, things slow way down as we assemble our players: Harold, his girlfriend Linda, Harold’s children Mistake (no, seriously, that’s the only thing they call him during the entire movie) and Angel, Linda’s friend Gail, Harold’s friend Wayne, Wayne’s girlfriend Maria, Harold’s tenant Scott, and Scott’s girlfriend Jennifer.
That’s right, Scott takes his girlfriend to his landlord’s Thanksgiving festivities. Pro-tip: never take your girlfriend to the first Thanksgiving after you start dating (too soon, dude!) and the holidays are an AWFUL time to schedule a sexy little staycation. At least wait until New Year’s.
I know that’s a lot of people, but remember, they’re cannon fodder. You can forget about every man on that list except for Mistake, who is a lot. He’s introduced wailing on his electric guitar in makeup that’s meant to be KISS but lands on mime. His very existence infuriates every other character to the degree that they constantly threaten to kill him.
Probably doesn’t help that he’ll happily burst in on his own father and Linda having sex and that he also does… magic tricks. Mistake sucks.
The women fare mildly better, mostly because the actresses are more charismatic and make more of what little they have to work with. Linda and Gail abandon ship to go on a wine run, and Maria, the only person of color in the film, is beautiful, childlike, and doesn’t speak a word of English. It’s not exactly startling to see a Latina actress being asked to play a stereotypical role in the '80s, but it nonetheless remains blergh.
It takes a moment (and a lot of car trouble!) for everything to get started, but once night falls and Jay begins his assault against the ranch in earnest, Home Sweet Home reveals its one strength: its death scenes.
Home Sweet Home, despite the amounts of blood, the implied (but never realized) danger Jay poses to little Angel (the film debut of Vinessa Shaw, better known from Hocus Pocus), and Mistake’s death by electrocution via his own guitar, is not a particularly gory movie. Rather, the chills come from the moments where characters realize they are helpless against Jay, a grinning maniac that cannot be reasoned with or stopped, and try to resist anyway.
For instance, after Jay dispatches Gail on the wine run (worst wine run ever), a traumatized Linda stumbles through the dark woods in silence, every crunched leaf deafening. She jumps at shadows and tries to move carefully, and almost seems to think she can make it—until she bumps into Jay and has a breakdown. Mistake and Maria have a particularly touching death scene; Mistake, besotted with Maria, begs and pleads for Jay to take him instead as Maria desperately tries not to panic. And Jennifer, who becomes the de facto Final Girl? The most chilling scene in the film is the surviving Jennifer, leaving a house full of corpses in the morning to escape, being surprised by Jay in broad daylight.
It’s these little flourishes—like a cut to Angel’s Raggedy Ann doll after Jennifer stabs Jay—that made me sit up and wonder about the woman behind the film.
The coverage of Home Sweet Home I’ve seen relegates Peña to a footnote—not necessarily in a sexist way, but rather because there’s precious little information out there. Most people who even hear of this film are either horror completionists or eighties completionists with working VCRs (my DVD/VCR combo is one of my most prized possessions.)
But I find Peña fascinating. Directing one of the very few Thanksgiving horror films actually falls quite low on her list of accomplishments. As a film student at UCLA, she earned the William Morris Scholarship for Outstanding Film Directing and spent time photographing some of her friends in their band—a little band called, oh, The Doors. In fact, she’s the person who captured the earliest known live recording of The Doors at the London Fog; without her, it would have been lost to the sands of time. Her adventures in horror—she also worked as an editor on the adult horror film Dracula Sucks—seem to be an adventure away from her documentary filmmaking, which she did professionally for the SGI Buddhist Organization for years. These days, her focus is on her still photography, where she’s found great success.
In fact, despite Home Sweet Home using Thanksgiving more as a way to trap people indoors than examine the holiday, discovering Peña's life outside of this film kind of reminded me of being at a Thanksgiving table and learning something wild and new about a distant aunt you’ve rarely spoken to. Maybe the true meaning of Thanksgiving—or any holiday where we break bread with our nearest and dearest—is that even the people most familiar to us contain multitudes.
Or that if you forget the wine, just leave it. Just leave it. You wanna end up like Gail?