Finally, a Gruesome ‘Thanksgiving’ Slasher Movie to Feast On
After a decade away from big-screen horror, director Eli Roth (Hostel, The Green Inferno) returns to his favorite stomping grounds with Thanksgiving, a feature-length expansion of the 2007 faux-trailer that he contributed to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse. That mock promo played like a sick joke and so too does Roth’s latest, even as it operates in the straightforward slasher vein of Black Christmas and My Bloody Valentine.
Thanksgiving pits a group of innocent Massachusetts residents against a fiend in appropriate holiday attire: a pilgrim outfit comprised of a wide-brimmed hat and a John Carver mask. Harkening back to its ’70s and ’80s ancestors, it’s a sturdily formulaic affair that taps into the strengths of its splatterhouse-aficionado helmer, and it should satiate genre fans hungry for a cinematic feast of guessing-game mystery and gnarly gruesomeness.
Thanksgiving (in theaters Nov. 17) rehashes the best sequences of its coming-attraction source material, so those ignorant of that predecessor would be wise to avoid catching up with it until after seeing this horrorshow. The setting is Plymouth, fabled site of the Mayflower colony and the first Thanksgiving meal, and now home to Jessica (Nell Verlaque), a high schooler whose dad (Suits’ Rick Hoffman) owns retail store Right Mart, which per tradition opens on Thanksgiving night to customers eager to get an early jump on Black Friday sales.
This year, the throngs that gather are a particularly rowdy bunch of Massholes, all of whom primarily speak in expletives and are frothing at the mouth over the opportunity to be one of the establishment’s first 100 customers, since that will nab them a free waffle iron. Working from a screenplay by Jeff Rendell, Roth wittily caricatures both his native state’s inhabitants and American consumerism run amok, culminating in a tragedy born from warfare-grade shopping.
Jessica finds herself in the middle of this calamity alongside her star-pitcher boyfriend Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), aggro-prick football player Evan (Tomaso Sanelli), his girlfriend Gabby (Addison Rae), teammate Scuba (Gabriel Davenport), and his paramour Yulia (Jenna Warren)—not to mention a family friend (Gina Gershon) and her store manager spouse. Throw in Ryan (Milo Manheim), a clean-cut competitor for Jessica’s affections, and it’s a cavalcade of colorful characters who, one year later, become targets of a homicidal maniac in a John Carver costume who’s intent on punishing them and other Right Mart survivors for their greed and selfishness.
Tasked with solving the case is Sheriff Newlon (Patrick Dempsey), who was also at Right Mart when things went to hell, and who’s adjusting to single life following the end of his marriage. It’s a whodunit set-up in which any one of them could be the masked murderer, who never speaks (until the finale), is adept with an ax, and exhibits a fondness for offing his victims in Thanksgiving-themed ways.
In just about every respect, Thanksgiving teeters on the precipice of parody. Yet despite a premise that fits neatly into the Scream mold, Roth and Rendell refuse to succumb to lazy wink-wink self-referentiality. Instead, they use goofy comedy as a means of eliciting engagement and amplifying suspense. From Evan’s insensitive dudebro viral video of the Right Mart massacre, to Bobby and Ryan’s puffed-chest rivalry for Jessica’s heart, the film leans into stereotypes and conventional narrative dynamics without constantly elbowing audiences in the proverbial ribs. They infuse their familiar characters and clichéd plot mechanics with effusive love, and moreover, they understand why such devices are entertainingly effective and, consequently, employ them to satisfying ends.
Roth’s few jump scares are solid, yet Thanksgiving is less a cheap rollercoaster ride than a faithfully grisly throwback, complete with more than a few subtle (and not-so-subtle) shout-outs to Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th. John Carver is a silent but deadly marauder with a personal grudge against everyone who was involved with (and, to his mind, helped cause) the prior year’s commercialized carnage, and he looks and behaves like an iconic slasher baddie, appearing and disappearing at will, and using a variety of implements—blades, hammers, an electric carving knife, and a stove that would make the witch from Hansel and Gretel green with envy—to carry out his vengeance.
Even with a stoic visage, he’s got personality, and that can also thankfully be said about most of the men and women whom he stalks, as well as one he doesn’t: McCarty (Joe Delfin), a delinquent rabble-rouser whose dad owns a gun store (convenient!) and who hosts an annual shindig where he gets underage kids drunk for a price—provided they aren’t clownish enough to admit that they’ve never heard of Black Sabbath.
As with Hostel and its follow-up, Roth indulges in as much nastiness as an R-rating will allow, and though Thanksgiving still pulls its punches relative to the trailer that inspired it, gorehounds won’t have many complaints, what with its bevy of smashed limbs, decapitations, disembowelments, and wanton bloodshed. The film is not for the squeamish, but it offsets its more macabre elements with a giddy sense of humor and a playful interest in keeping one guessing about the identity of its old-school slayer.
Rendell’s script doesn’t look down on its protagonists with off-putting condescension, regardless of the fact that some of them—such as a cowardly security guard (Tim Dillon), a snarky diner waitress (Amanda Barker) and Jessica’s loathed stepmom-to-be Kathleen (Karen Cliche)—have been designed to elicit disgust, the better to make their over-the-top demises go down amusingly. He treats everyone as an equally two-dimensional pawn capable of committing, or suffering, the unendurable, and his set pieces boast an escalating-in-intensity giddiness—at least, until the proceedings climax a bit prematurely.
To his credit, Roth declines to trade in political timeliness—or, for that matter, in subtlety or depth. From its final girl and central love triangle to its return-of-the-repressed villain and fiery denouement, Thanksgiving covers the hits without outright mimicking (given that, as one character notes, “Plagiarism is serious”). In doing so, it earns its place alongside its hallowed B-movie brethren, right up to a coda that refutes John Carver’s closing pronouncement—“There will be no leftovers!”—by leaving plentiful wiggle room for slice-and-dice sequels.
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