Roth’s Thanksgiving Serves Up a Deliciously Gory Holiday Buffet
Eli Roth’s original concept for Thanksgiving was outlined in his faux trailer for the exploitation slasher found in the 2007 Robert Rodriguez–Quentin Tarantino double-feature throwback Grindhouse. It was an early ’80s-style bit of down-and-dirty hack-and-slash, its signature scene featuring a minimally clad cheerleader bouncing up and down on a trampoline, doing the splits, and landing on the pointy end of a butcher’s knife you know where.
Fast-forward 16 years, and Roth — working with screenwriter Jeff Rendell — has transformed Thanksgiving into a feature-length film. But instead of drawing inspiration from the gruesome drive-in staples of the 1970s and ’80s, this time he’s turned his attention to the post-Scream world of the late 1990s and early 2000s. This expanded take on the concept would fit perfectly in a marathon with the likes of I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, or Valentine, and personally I think the concept was made all the better because of it.
It’s Thanksgiving Day, and the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, is preparing for an event no resident, past or present, has ever experienced: the local Right Mart will be opening early for Black Friday, on Thursday evening, with blockbuster sales and a free waffle iron for the first hundred shoppers to enter the store. But things go off the rails, especially after high schooler Jessica (Nell Verlaque), daughter of store owner Thomas Wright (Rick Hoffman), lets her friends in early to grab some snacks and the crowd outside goes angrily crackers.
Now it’s been almost a year since that holiday tragedy. All of the violence from that evening was ruled “accidental,” and every lawsuit was thrown out for lack of evidence, as all of the security camera footage mysteriously disappeared. With Right Mart preparing to once again open on Thanksgiving evening, an avenging masked psychopath dressed like Puritan town father John Carver plans to stage a bloody dinner party Plymouth residents will never forget. Jessica, her father Thomas, and all of those deemed responsible for the misdeeds from the previous year have been sent invitations. Living or dead, they are expected to attend.
Part of me can’t believe I’m saying this, but — born from a fake trailer, inspired by grindhouse exploitation flicks that saw their heyday almost a half-century ago, and taking notes from the post-Scream era of slasher filmmaking that some (not I) feel is substandard — it’s possible that Thanksgiving is Roth’s best film as a director. Push comes to shove, I’d probably rank 2018’s family-friendly The House with the Clock in its Walls ahead of it, but not by much. This is a fun, well-written lark filled with clever kills, pitch-black humor, and enough smartly planted red herrings that it almost doesn’t matter that the killer’s identity is relatively obvious right from the start.
I also liked that, other than Jessica, the majority of the characters being stalked by the masked killer aren’t entirely likable. In fact, it could be argued that some of them even deserve their fate. Not all, of course, as the audience does have to have at least a minimal rooting interest that a few of the victims will survive so they can appear in the inevitable sequel. But the ax-wielding psycho has a legitimate gripe, and while the dinner plans do cross a violent line on the serving platter, it’s hard not to admit that more than a few of the targets are entitled, self-possessed brats.
It’s also great to see Patrick Dempsey sink his teeth back into this genre for the first time since 2000’s Scream 3. He plays devoted town sheriff Eric Newlon, and he gives all the crazy events a solid human foundation that helps make even the more outlandishly surreal elements feel unexpectedly grounded. There is a nice emotional complexity to his performance that’s a terrific counterpoint to all the gore and violence, and it’s clear the veteran actor is having a blast traipsing around this overnourished horror-comedy buffet.
Roth orchestrates key scenes from the fake trailer he made for Grindhouse into the actual film rather seamlessly, changing them in relatively minor ways so they’re more appropriate for this take on the material. That does mean, though, that anyone who has seen that Rodriguez-Tarantino riff knows what is coming in a handful of key shock sequences, and while they don’t play out exactly as expected, their effectiveness is somewhat diminished.
Also, while I did allude to this earlier, figuring out the killer’s identity takes about five minutes once the first victim meets their amusingly grizzly end. Rendell’s script tries to conceal who they are as best they can, but there are so many obvious misdirects that, at a certain point, it becomes plainly obvious that the individual least likely to have picked up John Carver’s ax is the one who almost certainly has been wielding it.
Thankfully, Verlaque is a divine final girl who is well worth rooting for. Roth also stages several standout set pieces, including a Thanksgiving Day parade so deliciously gnarly that when the film comes out on Blu-ray, I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll watch it multiple times all on its own. Thanksgiving serves up the gorily delicious goods. Heck, I may even return to the theater for seconds.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)