Back in 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez attempted to cash in on their cultural cache and reinvigorate the multiplex with Grindhouse, a double feature event that promised to be a throwback to the cinema of the 1970s, an era when moviegoers could plunk down a small fee and hang out at the theater all day for hours of grimy, exploitative entertainment. The result was a mixed bag. On the one hand, the individual movies were generally well-received by fans and critics. On the other, the box office numbers were lacking enough to call it a failure — enough so that the double feature was split into individual releases for some markets.
Even so, the influence of this project reverberates to this day, most explicitly in the expansion of the faux-trailers that were cut into the larger Grindhouse experience. So far we’ve seen both Hobo With a Shotgun and Machete made into full-length features, and now, just in time for its namesake holiday, Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving has gotten the same treatment. No news yet on expansions of Don’t and Werewolf Women of the SS (and really, the former uses trailer conventions to make its point — it’s probably not expandable by design), but maybe one day…
Eli Roth’s original trailer advertised a scummy slasher complete with nudity, gore, and any of a number of clever, gruesomely realized, holiday-adjacent kills. The promise was one of brazen, low-class pleasures, the likes of which would give many modern audiences pause, or at least a reason to roll their eyes about how tasteless things used to be. Here in 2023, while it would indeed be possible to release a wantonly crass throwback to a time when slashers were made by porn directors in an effort to hide money, it’s no way to fill a mainstream cinema. So instead of going back 50 years, Eli Roth and screenwriter Jeff Rendell (who penned the original trailer) travel back a mere 30 years to fantastic effect. That’s right: Thanksgiving has all the vibes of a ‘90s era slasher! Don’t worry, it’s plenty crass and gruesome to boot. See it opening weekend for your best shot at enjoying it with a game crowd — a staple grindhouse experience if there ever was one.
Let’s get into it.
The town of Plymouth is understandably big into Thanksgiving. Their founder, John Carver, was one of the OG pilgrims, and he doubles as a sort of folk hero for the locals. It’s why the diner is giving out elastic-banded John Carver masks to anyone who stops in for a cup of coffee or a slice of pie. Because what else are you going to wear to the big parade? The film opens just as everyone in Plymouth is about to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner. Well, not everyone. The more intrepid folks are all lining up outside the local big box store to get started on Black Friday shopping. And “lining up” is probably a stretch. It’s less a line than a heaving crowd of greedy consumers, all of whom are about to trample each other in the hopes of getting big ticket items at a discounted price. Naturally, things don’t go well and a handful of people end up dead. It’s an insane sequence filled with surprising moments of cruel (and practical) gore.
Fast forward a year and Plymouth is preparing for the worst. No one wants a repeat of the deadly riot, but few preventative measures have been taken. After a footage from last year’s tragedy suddenly goes viral, townsfolk who appear in it start turning up dead. Very dead. Dismembered and displayed in very public ways dead. It’s fucking great. Security footage shows that the man behind the slayings is none other than John Carver himself (well, a dude in a John Carver mask).
Much like the slashers of the ‘90s, Thanksgiving adds a whodunit angle to the parade of excellently staged carnage, which is fueled by uncommonly compelling characters. Sure, they’re still just a bunch of teenagers like in any other stab-a-thon, but the script mechanics create realistic situations that eschew the contrivances that so often place similar casts into danger (there’s very little by way of “don’t go in there!”). There’s a love triangle, some family drama, and even a bit of a police procedural (led by newly crowned Sexiest Man Alive, Patrick Dempsey).
Eli Roth is no stranger to goofiness or brutality, and he brings forth a heaping helping of both. The kills are brutal, but always with a cheeky wit. And the characters themselves are keyed up to hilarious levels. A horny cheerleader, a jock, a bitchy stepmom — there are plenty of tropes to choose from, but they are employed knowingly in order to evoke big laughs that go along with the bloodletting like turkey and gravy (and cranberry sauce and stuffing — delicious, wonderful stuffing).
Weve had plenty of solid slashers come down the pipeline in the past few years, but this feels like the first “proper” slasher in quite some time. Much in the same way that Grindhouse was clearly out together by people who understood the source material, Thanksgiving is clearly made by a filmmaking team who have studied the form. It’s clear that Roth and crew were having an absolute blast with this, which is always the mark of a good genre flick. It’s easy to fall into being too goofy or too serious when it comes to movies about masked killers. For my money, the best of the bunch ride that middle line as tightly as possible. Thanksgiving does it flawlessly and immediately cements itself as a seasonal classic. Sure, you’ve got Blood Rage, Thankskilling, Blood Freak, and (googles “Thanksgiving horror movies”)…Amityville Thanksgiving, but Roth’s blood and gravy soaked extravaganza pushes the rest to the back of the line when it comes to Feast Day frights. It’s already a guaranteed annual rewatch in my household, a new tradition for which I am thankful.
Directed by Eli Roth
Written by Jeff Rendell, Eli Roth
Starring Sexiest Man Alive Patrick Dempsey, Rick Hoffman, Gina Gershon, Nell Verlaque
Rated R, 107 minutes