Throughout the 16 (!) years since GRINDHOUSE, there’s been talk about Eli Roth turning his fake trailer THANKSGIVING into a real movie. Now it’s finally here and the unexpected thing about it that might not have happened if he’d made it earlier (like when he was talking about it as a double feature with Edgar Wright’s DON’T) is that he didn’t repeat the grimy faux-‘80s style of the trailer. Instead he took the premise, a couple of kills and the climax and adapted them into a straight-faced, contemporary horror movie, almost like it’s the modern remake of the movie in the original trailer. And I’m thankful for that it’s sweeter than pumpkin pie How do you like them sweet potatoes? I think it was a good choice.

It’s a holiday slasher movie in the year 2023, obviously it knows you know it’s silly, but it’s acting in good faith. It’s less of a comedy than JACK FROST or MACHETE. There’s kind of a post-SCREAM feel to it but it’s ‘80s in its construction. It asks okay, if this is the slasher movie for Thanksgiving then what are the things we gotta do? Pilgrims, turkeys, corn on the cob, potato mashers? As in the trailer, it’s set in Plymouth Massachusetts, there’s a killer in a pilgrim hat, there’s a parade where a guy in a turkey costume gets beheaded, people are tied up at a table and served a human cooked like a turkey. But now there’s also a story and characters and what not.

Following a hallowed horror tradition it opens on the night of the holiday, when something goes horribly wrong, then it skips to a year later. The prelude involves a feast at the home of Thomas Wright (Rick Hoffman, HOSTEL), locally famous owner of the Right Mart department store, whose new wife Kathleen (Karen Cliche, SAW VI, TURKEY DROP) convinced him to start the Black Friday sale on Thanksgiving this year, even though it takes their employees away from their families. In fact their friend Mitch (Ty Olsson, “Jock,” VALENTINE, “Trucker,” DECK THE HALLS) has to leave before dinner with them for last minute shift-coverage.

The Right Mart parking lot is filled with rowdy shoppers waiting for the doors to open, swearing at each other in their thick accents. (Like many people from Massachusetts, Roth is very proud of his people allegedly being a bunch of foul-mouthed assholes.) Thomas’ daughter Jessica (Nell Verlaque, Big Shot) stops by with her friends, who convince her to let them in through the employee entrance, which provokes the crowd to push over the metal barrier and become literal doorbusters, trampling a security guard (Chris Sandiford, MOONFALL), who will be only the first casualty.

This cold open is a pretty good summary of what’s fun about THANKSGIVING. First, it’s a clever idea to lump the ridiculousness of Black Friday riots into the Thanksgiving slasher movie. I hadn’t expected that. Second, Roth is so enthusiastic about old school slasher movie kills that even scenes that have nothing to do with the masked killer can cause spectacular mutilation. I didn’t know Gina Gershon (BEST OF THE BEST 3: NO TURNING BACK) was gonna be in this movie, though I did know from Chucky that she’s down to die horribly in a horror tale. Here she gets knocked over, her hair gets caught in the wheel of a shopping cart and part of her scalp is ripped off. Imaginative stuff!

And third, immediately after I was laughing about that gore gag, I was still saddened to see Mitch embrace and cry over his dead wife. She came to bring him some of the Thanksgiving dinner he missed – it’s terrible. It’s not all a joke. This part we’re allowed to take seriously. Or at least I do.

One year after the tragedy, everyone’s trying to get things back to normal in Plymouth, which to Thomas means just go ahead and do the Black Friday sale again with a little more security. Jessica’s boyfriend at the time, Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks, Walker), got his pitching arm fucked up in the riot, left town and ghosted her, so now she’s with Ryan (Milo Manheim, PROM PACT). When Bobby shows up in town again at the same time as a killer wearing a pilgrim hat and plastic mask starts killing people involved in the riot, the movie acts like we’re gonna believe it could be Bobby, even though he’s like a foot and a half shorter than the killer. But maybe it’s an attempted rope-a-dope to make us think it’s Ryan, because he’s slim enough and a prick.

The killer steals the name and ax of John Carver, the actual historical Mayflower pilgrim and Plymouth Colony governor who happens to have a perfect name for a Turkey Day slasher. He taunts his intended victims through social media and posts photos of a dinner table with name cards for each of them. As he kills them he adds their bodies or parts to the table. Jessica and her friends, including Gabby (Addison Rae, HE’S ALL THAT), Yulia (Jenna Warren, My Little Pony), Scuba (Gabriel Davenport, HOTEL FOR THE HOLIDAYS, MISTLETOE TIME MACHINE), and Evan (Tomaso Sanelli, DARK WEB: CICADA 3301) worry and join forces and get chased and murdered and what not. An older dirtbag named McCarty (Joe Delfin, POLAR), known for selling alcohol to minors, sells Scuba a gun. Current People’s Sexiest Man Alive Patrick Dempsey (VALENTINE’S DAY) plays Sheriff Eric Newlon, who investigates. There are some red herrings and some misdirects, the killer and motive are revealed, the actor gets to do some enjoyable hamming it up. It stays very true to the sort of thing you imagine when you think “Thanksgiving slasher movie,” in a good way.

When I see Christmas horror movies I like them to be loaded with specific seasonal imagery and gimmicks. That’s why BLACK CHRISTMAS might be the best slasher movie set at Christmas, but BLACK X-MAS is a better Christmas slasher. (Sorry. That’s final.) With the exception of a puzzling part where (mild spoiler?) the killer wears an evil clown mask, Roth does a good job of staying on theme. You’ve got families getting together (and not getting along), the department store sales, people having to work, a parade, lots of pilgrim imagery, lots of turkey imagery, evil place settings, humans basted and baked, the killer telling everyone to say what they’re most thankful for, etc.

Like the Black Friday sale, the parade results in an accidental, extremely over-the-top gore incident that’s a highlight. An MPAA-approved movie can’t really compete with unrated TERRIFIER 2 on the gore front, but I wonder if they were trying. Lots of intestines, lots of heavy bleeding, lots of imaginatively disgusting things that make you wince in sympathy but also laugh because it’s cranked up so far past reasonable. My favorite gore joke is when (favorite gore joke spoiler) half a body is found hanging from the Right Mart next to a sign for the 50% off sale. Hats off to that joke and to prosthetics designer Adrien Morot (MARTYRS, RHYMES FOR YOUNG GHOULS, SICARIO, THE LIGHTHOUSE, THE WHALE, M3GAN).

But it’s not all laffs. When Jessica’s hated stepmother Kathleen is abducted and tries to escape it’s an interesting scene because she’s been set up like a jerk character whose death would be played for comedy, but then she puts up a good fight, it’s an intense scene, you can’t help but root for her. It’s a good showcase for the genre’s unlikely power of creating empathy. I don’t think Roth is a master controller of tone or anything, but at his best he’s good at mixing these different flavors in an interesting way.

The script is credited to Jeff Rendell, who also wrote and played the pilgrim in the original trailer. He was Roth’s childhood best friend, and they had often joked about a Thanksgiving slasher while growing up, so they put those ideas into the trailer. According to Entertainment Weekly they thought for a while that they didn’t need to do a movie because they put it all in the trailer, but the Black Friday riot idea changed their minds. This also fits into Roth’s previous interest in making fun of what young people do with social media, and there’s a pretty good joke about how Evan takes video of the riot and exploits it for online clout.

Roth has been directing for 21 years now, though surprisingly this is only his eighth narrative feature as a director (he also did a documentary about sharks). To me he tends to seem a little full of shit in his interviews, or at least like a little too polished of a salesman to be relatable, and he has kind of a dumbass provacateur side to him he may never grow out of, plus I hear he’s currently supporting a horrible war that’s going on, which I will never understand. But I’d still have to say I’m a fan of him as a director because I’ve gotten something out of all of his movies. Here’s the full recap: I really liked CABIN FEVER at the time but I don’t think I’ve ever rewatched it. I kind of liked HOSTEL. I think HOSTEL: PART II is actually really good, his best, especially on a rewatch. I think I enjoyed THE GREEN INFERNO at the time. I liked KNOCK KNOCK quite a bit. DEATH WISH is his most middle of the road, but has its moments. THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS was cute. And I appreciate him producing and co-writing THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS even if he’s the idiot who told RZA that fight scenes need to be short so people don’t get bored. He really shouldn’t be walking around a free man after a heinous crime like that, but he made the movie possible, so I’m sure that’s why the judge was so lenient.

Anyway I think THANKSGIVING is one of his best. If there’s a sequel I’m not sure what the story would be but I think he left some Thanksgiving theming untouched just in case. We’re definitely gonna have to see somebody stuffed. And I think a cranberry sauce can should punch a hole through somebody. Maybe some kind of turkey pardoning reference. Battering somebody with a bag of sweet potatoes. Or cooking them in brown sugar and marshmallows. I’m sure there’s some stuff left to work with.

This entry was posted on Monday, November 20th, 2023 at 7:25 am and is filed under Reviews, Horror. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

11 Responses to “Thanksgiving”

  1. This is pretty right on the money, as far as I’m concerned. The film is “good” or “very good,” not superlative or face-melting or Roth’s magnum opus or anything else hyperbolic like that. For me, it’s stature and significance are substantially elevated by historical and cultural context, by which I mean: This movie comes out in 1995 or 2003, and it’s no big whoop. What is a big whoop, and what gives me a lot more appreciate for Roth, is that he got it made as a major studio wide release, only-in-theatre’s type of joint in 2023 without it being post-, meta-, a soft reboot or any other kind of trend chasing. The only trend it is chasing is the minor resurgence in legacy remakes and reboots, but this is not a legacy film. So, I do think it’s a minor miracle it got made, got a wide release, etc. And I think it will maintain or grow in esteem with time.

    The other thing Vern nails here is how it really does a nice job of understanding its place in slasher history and honoring its forerunners. It looks and feels like a late-90s/2000s major studio slasher and it looks like it has hte budget and production values of a SCREAM, KNOW WHAT YOU DID, or VALENTINE. But the core holiday themed premise is very much an homage to the cheesy holiday schlock of the 80s (e.g., SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT). There’s also a solid HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME homage element.

    Finally, this brings in some Roth themes and distinctives — cannibalism, cringe violence, the ability to alternate between comedy and camp and cringe and actually emotionally affecting stuff in reasonably deft ways that your average slasher film doesn’t even try much less accomplish.

    So, at the end of the day, it’s fun, competent, original, knows the tradition(s) in stands in, and it exists in 2023.

  2. Yeah, I think this hit the sweet spot for what you want in a slasher. It’s not too retro, but not trying too hard to be modern/postmodern/postpostmodern. It’s not a yukfest, but it’s not out to punish the audience either. It’s like everyone involved collectively decided to make a real movie instead of “ha ha, can you believe we actually spent 90 minutes on this?”

  3. This was lots of fun. Great to see a B movie at the studio level like they used to make, and I got to see it in 35mm too.

    I agree it’s better he just made a straight movie and not another Grindhouse. We don’t need any more Machetes.

  4. Finances mean I have to wait for this to hit streaming, but I was hoping it would be good and this review is increasing my optimism. Like you I have some mixed feelings and questions about Roth and his work, but mostly err on the side of enjoying his movies despite their flaws. I also think you are exactly right, if this had been made closer to Grindhouse it surely would have been done in the faux-period style, and would have been worse for it. Making a modern slasher that is informed by old school movies is more interesting and probably has more longevity than just slavishly imitating the style of the old flicks.

    For anyone interested, Death Game (the movie Roth remade as Knock Knock) is streaming on Shudder. It looks much better than the muddy ass version I have seen online from old DVDs. The structure and story are almost exactly the same as the remake (which I saw first), but I think I liked the original more. The differences are interesting enough to examine, both in terms of the time period and the filmmakers. I expected the 70s movie to have more nudity and sex than a 2010s studio movie, and the big sex scene in Death Game literally has goofy ass porn music playing, but its much more bodies writhing and edits and combining/fading footage in art-y ways. It doesn’t really have the clear shots of nudity or sexy moments to signify it as jerk-off material, whereas Roth obviously can’t resist ogling his stars with the camera (not a judgement from me, just an observation). At first I wondered if the editing and framing was because Colleen Camp didn’t want to do frontal nudity, but a brief moment in the sex scene and another non-sex scene did show her, so that made me think it was the director trying to make it less titillating by not showing to much of her prodigious curves. Camp and Locke are also much more convincing in the roles, it feels grimier and more real (and them being hippy-ish chicks within a decade of the Manson murders adds some potency). The “final form” of Locke and Camp’s make-up and outfits would make an AMAZING lesbian couples costume for Halloween, I wonder someone has dressed up the characters that way in a Ryan Murphy show or something.

    The death they cause in the original is not gory, but it is intentional and MUCH nastier and upsetting than the Looney Tunes kill in Knock Knock. This also necessitates a darker ending, as the Roth version seemed to mostly forget/forgive the death they caused, whereas in Death Game there is no way any audience is going to forget. But the original ALSO ends with a dark gag, which made me laugh with its abruptness and audacity, then made me burst out laughing again 30 minutes later at the ironic humor of the moment that I had not grasped until it had turned over in my head a few times.

    Even bigger shock than the ending: Death Game’s credits roll and I see among the Set Dressers… Bill Paxton and Sissy Spacek! I knew Paxton used to do that stuff, I had no idea it was also one of Spacek’s many talents. This was shot the year before Carrie and released the year after! The set dressing is actually pretty great too, it has a great cluttered family home feel but they also had to basically create a playground for these girls to rampage through and they provided great options for them to trash the place (and the most odd/noticeable bit of the set plays a role in the death scene!).

  5. This felt … Competent? I don’t know, the main gist of this seems to be about Black Friday, and capitalism overall, than Thanksgiving. Before you know the real m.o. of the killer, it feels like his viewpoint is that Black Friday is evil, so I’ll punish those responsible with Thanksgiving-themed horrors. It feels like things are being conflated here, like a Christmas killer who might also stab someone with a dreidel?

    Also, let’s be fair… As gnarly as some of the hacking and slashing are, it really ends on a shrug, no?

    This was also the second time after Death Wish that Eli Roth ignored an opportunity to say something, anything, about guns. The one sleezebag trying to sell guns (and booz) to kids ends up helping out with a loaner, at a house party where his room is adorned by “Krull” posters? Either too much, or not enough, going on there.

  6. FWIW, though I’m personally for gun control, I don’t see the problem with Eli Roth or this movie ignoring the opportunity to say something about guns. A slasher film seems predisposed toward the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” side of that debate anyway. I think that side of the debate is bullshit, but in a movie where the whole point is people doing maximum damage to other people all over the place without guns (indeed, with everything but guns!), it’s hard for me to envision this film pulling off a pro-gun control message that doesn’t come out at least a little bit muddled. That said, I’m open to hear it. I guess that one guy could’ve shot himself in the dick on accident (like he’s warned about) or something??, but, I dunno. I’m personally put off when a slasher movie falls over itself offering social commentary, especially in our present social media brainworms era where everything seems to become either regular politicized or meta-politicized for not being sufficiently political. This is a movie about a guy who tries to cook a human like a turkey is the message.

    The other thing with Roth, which I think Vern has mentioned a lot and that I agree with, is that his politics in these films are always pretty confused and sort of vaguely Rogan-esque, never really getting past the “we live in a society” meme. In my view, the Black Friday angle is just a convenient hook that has all of the penetrating cultural analysis of: “Hmm. Hmm. What else? What else? Um. Fuck. Um. Wait!! No. Fuck. Um. Wait! Wait! Black Friday. Black Friday is right after Thanksgiving. We can do something with that, right? Maybe?”

    Having said all that, I agree that the whodunit payoff is pretty much trash, the teens are non-descript and only tolerable — no Nancy or Sidney Prescott or Amy Steel here. The characters, plotting, pacing, and dialogue are all in the weak-to-competent range. But it’s got good visual and sonic filmatism, it mostly doesn’t overstay its welcome, some great kills, great set pieces, good laughs, the older adult cast is solid, the killer concept and commitment to the Thanksgiving motive are pretty great, and it offers a kind of Gen X-er and older millenial nostalgia / cozyness “porn” that this Gen X-er has been looking for. There also are some surprisingly dumb lay-ups that work on me pretty reliably, like belligerent guys with thick Boston accents taunting people.

    But what do I know, I like VALENTINE and think APRIL FOOL’S DAY is more entertaining than any of the SCREAM movies, so, you’re clearly dealing with a sick puppy who has escaped from the hospital for the criminally insane and is living in your attic. Speaking of which, shoutout to BLACK XMAS, which Vern mentioned: I like THANKSGIVING on the same grading curve that I like HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME and BLACK XMAS. A certain amount of stupidity or shagginess is priced in and might even make the film more endearing, so, long as it delivers enough of the good stuff.

    Apologies for my extra shitty typos and word salad in the earlier post. Excessive even by my standards

  7. This fulfilled its responsibility of being an entertaining, gory, and thematically thorough slasher movie for a woefully neglected redhead stepchild of a holiday. Pretty much all bases were covered, except, as Vern mentioned, corpse-stuffing and maybe a cornucopeia full of body parts or a football-related kill of some kind, since everybody in my family seems to view the meal as mere preamble to watching a game played by oppressed employees forced by their fat-cat bosses to work on a holiday. Maybe a basic bitch in Uggs getting pumpkin spiced to death. I don’t know.

    I could nitpick. Roth might have to turn in his edgelord card, since there’s no way in hell the Eli of 16 years ago would have let the turkey corpse wear clothes. What, does he have a daughter now or something? The dialogue had a distinct “Aging Gen Xer trying to write for Gen Z” vibe to it, though I suppose that is consistent with all the classic slashers, which were written by Boomers trying to relate to Gen X, what with their ripped jeans and cool dude slang. There’s also the outrageous notion that there’s a single Zoomer in the entire world who is familiar with the Pharcyde’s “Oh Shit,” let alone an entire car of them. This carries on the grand tradition of all those teens in 80s movies who had an inexplicable fondness for 1950s rock & roll.

    Also not really sure what they’re filling those parade balloons with in Plymouth but here in the rest of the world we use helium, not anything explodable. IMPLIED SPOILERS But I appreciate that this Hindenberg-esque fireball left the door open for future DTV directors who will presumably have to continue the adventures of John Carver without the expensive marquee star who played him in this one. Just throw some burn makeup on Johnathon Schaech and we got instant THANKSGIVING 2: ACTUALLY, IT TURNS OUT THERE WERE A FEW LEFTOVERS AFTER ALL.

    I kid. This was as solid a slasher as one could expect in 2023 and I will probably watch it most Thanksgivings from here on out. “It’s no turkey!”–Leonard Maltin

  8. Speaking of Jonathan Schaech in unwanted horror sequels, he’s actually really good as a zombie in the otherwise shitty Day Of The Dead: Bloodline.

  9. Jonath Schaech. This also brings to mind the PROM NIGHT remake. I ignored that for about 14 years and finally caught up to it around this time last year, and it’s one of those cases where I would’ve been better served following my instincts. Just awful — a complete dead fish. Makes THANKSGIVING look like CITIZEN KANE.

  10. Legit surprised by how much I enjoyed this. I only marginally enjoyed Hostel 2, felt 1, Knock Knock, Green Inferno and Cabin Fever* were good premises with lazy executions and nowhere to go after the premise. (Also the few encounters I had with him, he came off super frat-bro douche)

    But this was well crafted, thought out, and a blast! Pretty much everything Vern said I agree with! Plus I love the Massholes as the heroes and victims. Worth checking out and it would be great if it inspired similar low budget, non meta/self-aware fun horror flicks.

    *I blame Harry @ AICN for overhyping me on Cabin Fever 20+ years ago, expecting something revolutionary and just getting a gross mess.

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