Similar to how Robert Rodriguez expanded his faux trailer Machete into a feature-length exploitation action movie following its positive reception ahead of his and Quentin Tarantino’s joint B-movie double feature Grindhouse (2007), Eli Roth has finally made good on his mock trailer and turned in Thanksgiving, a self-aware slasher that embraces its R-rated bad taste with a sick sense of humour.
Like so many horror efforts of the slasher subsect genre – this has a certain I Know What You Did Last Summer-ness about it all – Thanksgiving checks off two of the major narrative points by setting the film around a holiday and opening it up with a disaster of sorts that rightfully fuels the future killer figure’s revenge plan.
Here it’s Black Friday, where in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a mass sale ends in violent tragedy as the locals succumb to mob mentality. Security guards are crushed under people’s running feet, shoppers’ necks are unintentionally sliced open on the remaining shards of the broken doors, and for one unfortunate bystander it proves to be their final sale when their head meets a rogue trolley; this quite shocking opening more than securing the film’s adults-only rating.
For reasons that are ultimately explained in the standard killer-reveals-themselves-and-explains-their-reasonings-for-their-killing-spree, certain key survivors of the riot are targeted the following year. We aren’t really rooting for the survival of the inept security guard or the bitchy waitress who spearheaded the start of the riot itself – she, in particular, gets a grand death sequence that takes the phrase “50% off” to literal heart – so their involvement is mere padding for Jeff Rendell‘s bloody script, but the film does a satisfactory job of setting up a group of teenagers as our lead victims-in-waiting; their involvement stemming from the fact that they garnered early access into the shop, seemingly mocking the rumbling crowd outside.
Nell Verlaque‘s Jessica is built up as this film’s “final girl” archetype, and as we see from the very beginning that she’s one of the more level-headed of her group, she’s someone we easily root for. Her father (Rick Hoffman) is the store’s manager and his new partner (Karen Cliche) fits the quintessentially bitchy-ish new step-parent figure, so their fate seems practically sealed (I won’t spoil, but there is some nasty kitchen play involved for one of them), but we mostly care for her and her friends (Addison Rae, Jenna Warren, Jalen Thomas Brooks, Gabriel Davenport and Tomaso Sanelli) so that when they are individually (or, sometimes, grouply) attacked, we are invested in the outcome.
That’s not to say though that we don’t enjoy the set-pieces some of these characters find themselves in – there’s one sequence involving puncturing one’s ears that truly hurts – and for the hoard of secondary players that are collateral damage, Rendell’s script takes a lot of wicked delight in ending their screen-time; the footage that featured in the original Thanksgiving trailer of a young girl jumping on a trampoline and landing on a large knife is recreated here, but with a slightly different payoff than audiences may be expecting.
Ultimately it’s the audience that Roth is playing to – or, at least, a specific type of audience – that will carve up Thanksgiving and happily digest it for the ridiculous slasher that it is. It doesn’t pretend to be smart in any manner, but it’s not trying to be, so when the killer happily announces that “There will be no leftovers” we respond with an eye-rolling glee about all that is taking place.
In leaning into its 2000s slasher temperament, Roth does lose a little of his way towards the end of the film with a quick wrap-up that screams “sequel”. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when so much of the film seems to own its footing, it’s disappointing to see it come undone in a finale that threatens batshit insanity, but, surprisingly, feels safer than all the carnage that has preceded it.
Ending woes aside, Thanksgiving sits comfortably in Roth’s horror wheelhouse. Whilst it could have benefitted from the grungy, 80s-like aesthetic the faux trailer adhered to, this sick, darkly funny slasher is another genre treat for the older crowds and hard-stomached viewers who want to remember the unashamed hey-day of when horror movies didn’t forego their personality to pander to younger crowds. Sharpen your cutlery and dig in, Roth’s meal is rightly tasty for those that like their like meals bloody.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Thanksgiving is now screening in Australian theatres.