Thanksgiving (2023, dir. Eli Roth)

by | Nov 23, 2023

Certificate: 18

Running Time: 106 mins

UK Distributor: Sony Pictures

UK Release Date: 17 November 2023

WHO’S IN THANKSGIVING?

Patrick Dempsey, Nell Verlaque, Addison Rae, Milo Manheim, Jalen Thomas Brooks, Rick Hoffman, Gina Gershon, Tim Dillon, Gabriel Davenport, Tomaso Sanelli, Jenna Warren, Amanda Barker

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Eli Roth (director, producer), Jeff Rendell (writer, producer), Roger Birnbaum (producer), Brandon Roberts (composer), Milan Chadima (cinematographer), Michel Aller and Michele Conroy (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A masked killer causes havoc in a small town during the lead-up to Thanksgiving…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THANKSGIVING?

In between the two feature films that made up 2007’s throwback double-bill Grindhouse, were a set of fake trailers for other B-movie schlock that were very much in the same realm of exploitation as the features themselves. One of them was for a slasher named Thanksgiving, in which the trailer’s creator Eli Roth showcased many tropes of the subgenre within the aesthetic of the titular American holiday, including the beheading of a turkey mascot during a parade, a topless cheerleader getting stuck by a knife through a trampoline, and the less said about what they end up doing with the actual turkey dinner, the better.

Though it was an amusing fake trailer, it’s taken Roth more than fifteen years to finally make the actual feature, and while there is a fair bit to appreciate about the feature-length version of Thanksgiving, part of me can’t help but feel that there was much more to enjoy within that original three-minute promo.

Set during the lead-up to the Thanksgiving holiday in the historic town of Plymouth, Massachusetts (which is directly linked to the holiday’s pilgrim origins), the residents are still shaken by a deadly Black Friday riot from the previous year, which is shown during an intensely gruesome prologue. Some are calling for a boycott of the store where the carnage took place, while others such as the store’s owner Thomas Wright (Rick Hoffman), his teenage daughter Jessica (Nell Verlaque), and the town’s sheriff Eric Newlon (Patrick Dempsey) are keen to move on and celebrate as normal. However, a serial killer donning a pilgrim costume, including a plastic John Carver mask, begins slaughtering a number of the residents, sending everyone into a state of panic as Newlon leads the search for whoever is responsible, before he is able to complete his deadly ritual.

While Eli Roth is often considered to be an acquired taste, with some of his films like Cabin Fever and Hostel leaning into an unhealthy mix of over-the-top gore and irritating characters, Thanksgiving is one of the few times where he manages to make that mixture just about work. That’s because they all fit nicely within that classic slasher movie template, which Roth is clearly a huge fan of, especially the more holiday-centric ones (such as Black Christmas, My Bloody Valentine, Terror Train and more). Here, the filmmaker delivers an all-encompassing homage to the subgenre and its numerous conventions, while still stuffing his own brand of horror entertainment into the carcass, which will sound either enthralling or terrifying depending on your opinion of Eli Roth as a storyteller.

Personally, I do find his style to be more obnoxious than entertaining, primarily because he picks the most insufferable characters to lead his films which can make empathising with them much more difficult. Thanksgiving is no different, as it features people that we’re clearly supposed to be rooting for, including the group of teens who the killer seems to be targeting the most, or numerous townsfolk like a gun-toting lunatic and even members of the local police force, but more often than not they act like such aggressive douchebags that it’s hard to feel bad for them when some of them do start being killed. Admittedly, the characters in this movie aren’t nearly as annoying or unlikeable as they were in Roth’s previous films, but you still don’t really care about most of them because they still find plenty other avenues to rub you the wrong way, to where you genuinely start rooting for the killer at times.

That being said, when one looks at it as a straightforward slasher – albeit one with some of Roth’s least desirable qualities – Thanksgiving is a good time. There are kills in this that are not only memorable, but often extremely gory, with some impressive practical effects adding to the gnarly over-the-top nature wherein peoples’ guts dangle out of people’s bodies like wind chimes, someone is stabbed to death whilst bouncing on a trampoline, and people are beheaded in swift fashion (including, yes, that poor turkey mascot). Roth keeps it all within the Thanksgiving theme, playing into plenty of holiday iconography for a few effective scares, some of which can be legitimately disturbing, and while the filmmaker’s often juvenile sense of humour tends to get in the way of those moments landing as effectively as they should, it’s still entertaining enough to cautiously allow a free pass.

While the feature certainly has its moments, I do still feel that the fake trailer that Roth created for that Grindhouse double-feature is more enjoyable. For one, since it is just a trailer, the characters aren’t quite as obnoxious (and they’re killed off quickly too), and the humour is much more tongue-in-cheek whilst keeping itself from going into too juvenile a direction. While I appreciate the need for turning the trailer into an actual movie, and it’s honestly a miracle that it’s a little better than it had any right to be, the Eli Roth Thanksgiving that I would personally go for is still the one that clocks in at just under three minutes.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Thanksgiving sees Eli Roth expand on his fake Grindhouse trailer with an enjoyably old-fashioned slasher with plenty of over-the-top gore, but the filmmaker’s penchant for inserting obnoxious characters left and right ultimately leaves you rooting more for the masked killer than anyone else.

Three out of five stars

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