As this Thomas Ligotti short story collection of a year winds down, we find ourselves at the beginning of the always-cheerful winter holiday season. And while we might find ourselves sheltered together, it’s all the more reason to be together with either those you love, or movies about when being together with loved ones turns murderous. There’s just something cathartic about watching the jerks in someone’s family end up in terrifying situations, especially when it means you don’t have to get up from the table. So with that in mind, here are seven terrifying films about family gatherings to make you appreciate the time you spend with your own flesh and blood.
You’re Next (2011)
A perfect “family dinner” film for horror buffs to watch around Thanksgiving (while it’s not explicitly set on Thanksgiving, it’s still the best Thanksgiving movie since Planes, Trains, and Automobiles), You’re Next sets its tone very early on when a low-key family drama is suddenly and violently interrupted by several crossbow bolts. The ensuing chaos flips back and forth between a dark slapstick horror-comedy and one of the better deconstructions of a home-invasion thriller, as the dinner guests are pitted against a crew of masked killers with a flair for the dramatic, with the life-or-death struggle brutally ratcheted up in violence by a female lead who’s a lot more familiar with this sort of thing than she lets on. While tonally it sounds like a mess, Adam Wingard keeps the line between tension and incredibly dark comedy very tight, creating a brutal and brutally funny movie about exactly how bad a family dinner can sometimes get.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was considered a groundbreaking work of horror when first released due to its gritty approach to filmmaking, brutal kills, and creepy, desolate scenery. No one (least of all his producers) expected Tobe Hooper to make his next entry into the series an over-the-top comedy resplendent with cartoonish villains, a lavish villain’s lair, and a scene that takes the Freudian symbolism of a chainsaw way, way further than anyone ever wanted it to go. But at its core, it’s a film about family, as it follows the ghoulish Sawyer family through their kidnappings of radio show hosts who played a tape of their murders live, their surefire win at a Texas chili cook-off (don’t ask what the secret ingredient is), and their eventual confrontation with Dennis Hopper’s gospel-shouting chainsaw-wielding family-dinner-interrupting Sheriff Frank Hardesty, hellbent on revenge for what the Sawyers did to his niece and nephew in the first movie. It’s also a lot more entertaining than it has any right to be, playing out like a gory cartoon and then flipping the switch just at the right moment from cartoonish to disturbing in a way that Rob Zombie has spent large parts of his career trying and failing to replicate.
Jordan Peele’s much-anticipated followup to Get Out definitely delivers, beginning with a creepy scene in a funhouse and blending in elements of American pop culture, an eerie visual motif, and some deeply upsetting kills. Us tells the story of Adelaide, a writer whose family is confronted in their beach house by a group of scissor-wielding doppelgangers in red coveralls, chased through the night by these strangers who have a strange connection to Adelaide. In Peele’s hands, the home invasion/survive the night premise becomes slick, stylish, and expressionistic, with the horror subtly building in a series of long takes and a darkening atmosphere before exploding into a series of brutal, gory fights against the doubles. But lest this be seen as relentless, Peele manages to break up the tension with subdued scenes, some very dark comedy, and a genuine sense of who this family is, something mimicked perfectly in their doubles.
Ready Or Not (2019)
Grace has just married the man of her dreams and is about to celebrate her wedding at the Le Domas family’s vast gothic estate. Her new family is welcoming (except for the old, severe, and incredibly starey aunt), the family board game empire is thriving, and the one wrinkle in all of this is that every time someone new is married into the family, they are bound by tradition to play a game chosen at random. When Grace draws the card for “hide and seek,” she is forced to run and hide around the mansion as she is hunted by her new in-laws. But unlike most “hunted human” movies, the humor and horror is obvious from the outset, as the family is inexperienced with their weapons (including, in a hilarious bit of irony, Wynonna Earp‘s Melanie Scrofano repeatedly misusing a revolver), the family maids keep dying in gruesome ways as they try to waylay Grace, and apart from some absolutely brutal kills and a scene with a pierced hand, the entire thing is gruesome, deconstructive fun. It’s fast, wicked, and full of interesting setpieces, making this definitely one to watch.
Await Further Instructions (2018)
One fine Christmas Eve as they sit down to dinner (I know I’m furthering the war between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but stay with me, people), the Milgram family finds that their doors are locked, their windows are covered with some kind of odd black rubber mats, and the family television is giving emergency broadcast instructions. But what starts as an odd, tense lockdown slowly spirals into violence as the situation continues to escalate and family patriarch Tony gets more and more unhinged, trying to control the situation more and more to follow the TV’s commands. While what’s going on becomes clearer and clearer as the movie goes on, the real horror comes not from the ominous atmosphere and the slow reveal of the house’s messages, but from the Milgrams and their fights over the relatively neutral instructions on the TV. It’s a nasty little stripped-down film about exactly how far people can go when given the proper justification.
The Invitation (2015)
Okay, this one’s a stretch because it’s more about a gathering of incredibly close-knit friends, but I’ll count it because it’s a movie more people should watch (Karyn Kusama’s a brilliant director and this one feels a little overlooked). In this unusual and tense thriller, a man and his girlfriend go to a party hosted by his ex-wife, where she reveals that she’s joined a cult known as “The Invitation.” Right away from that premise and the fact that the movie was marketed as a suspense film, the audience’s radar will be up, but Kusama and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfriedi do a good job creating a complex cast of characters and enough ambiguity that the plot will keep viewers guessing until the final scenes lay everything out in perfect detail. It’s a slow-burner, but the general feeling that there’s something going on and the excellent portrayal of people processing trauma are more than enough to keep the viewer hooked.
Brian Yuzna’s… let’s just call it unique neonoir stars Billy Warlock as Bill, a young, hip, rich member of the Beverly Hills elite. His life suddenly takes a turn for the sinister when his sister’s ex-boyfriend plays him an audio recording of her society coming-out party, a wild sexual orgy that ends in Bill’s family brutally murdering someone. When the ex later turns up dead in a mysterious car accident, Bill finds himself the target of a conspiracy that might include his parents, his therapist, his stuck-up school rivals, and a mysterious young femme fatale with a mother on loan from a John Waters movie. But as people go missing, the tape vanishes only to turn up as a recording of a totally normal coming-out party, a major society event looms on the horizon, and Bill starts to doubt his own mind. Is the conspiracy real, or is it just that Bill’s life is quickly coming undone? While it would be a reach to call Society a classic, it’s a very strange, disturbing movie that is best experienced when you don’t know all the twists and turns it throws at you. If this sounds like your kind of movie, give it a watch. It’s definitely worth the ride you’ll take. Trust me.