Whatever one thinks of his filmography thus far, there is no denying Eli Roth can make a horror movie. A member of the unfairly dubbed “Splat Pack” (due to the extreme gore found in his films), Roth is an avid disciple of 80s slasher pictures, where victims were inventively sliced and diced and the carnage was created by true makeup artists using practical effects. Armed with the lessons learned from his time spent watching these films, Roth offers up the entertainingly gruesome November treat, “Thanksgiving”.
Born from his faux retro trailer found in the middle of 2007’s undervalued genre classic “Grindhouse”, this is Roth’s love letter to the low budget slasher classics from the VHS era. Throughout this blood-splattered thrill ride, horror fans can find homages to 1981’s “The Prowler”, Juan Piquer Simon’s 1982 gore fest “Pieces” (which Roth has named his favorite slasher), and even a nod to a pivotal moment from Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece “Taxi Driver”.
From the school performances and public parades, to the day’s whitewashed history, and the past sins that birthed this unholy holiday, the screenplay (from Roth and childhood friend Jeff Rendell) incorporates everything that surrounds the Thanksgiving traditions, allowing the film an authentic seasonal feel.
Set in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the picture opens with a maniacal Black Friday shopping frenzy that becomes an orgy of vicious and violent chaos. In these first moments, the commentary on the madness of holiday shoppers is worthy of George A. Romero and his attacks on consumerism in his 1978 classic “Dawn of the Dead”. The pre-credit deaths caused because of a store opening on Thanksgiving night become the catalyst for a masked killer’s revenge that takes place one year later. Attention class, Slasher Horror 101 is in session.
Dressed in a black jumpsuit and wearing a pilgrim hat and a John Carver mask (the Mayflower passenger who became governor of the Plymouth Colony), Roth’s killer unleashes his savage spree, making his victims part of his own Thanksgiving meal. Carver uses many tools to “off” his prey. Butcher knives, an axe, a meat tenderizer, dart guns, corn cob holders, and even an oven are all put to gruesome use. The kill scenes will have horror audiences cheering, as Roth puts thought and creativity into each one.
When the people involved in the RightMart incident (the store where the opening “shoppers gone wild” insanity took place) begin to show up dead and in pieces, the local sheriff (Patrick Dempsey) investigates. As with all slasher movies, the film focuses on a group of high schoolers who were in the store the night of the havoc. The teens are tagged in a series of mysterious social media posts from the killer. Jessica (Nell Verlaque) is the film’s star (Final Girl?) whose father (Rick Hoffman) owns RightMart. Adding to her already stressful life, Jessica is caught between her current boyfriend (Milo Manheim) and her ex (Jalen Thomas Brooks), who has returned after leaving town one year ago. Along with the town’s new deputy and a few others, let the suspect list begin.
Roth is all in here, making just about everything work. The kills are wicked fun and there is some real suspense found in the presence of the killer and how he stalks his victims. The director even makes the annoying “jump scare” work very well, using the tired tactic only once and to great effect. Michele Conroy and Michel Aller’s editing keeps things moving while Roth’s direction is some of his tightest yet. It is only in the final 15 minutes (when the film becomes a bit too “Scream”) that the screenplay runs out of steam, but it doesn’t hurt all that came before.
Returning to the terror genre head-on, and entering the “Holiday Horror” arena, Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving” is a banquet of ingenuity and a grisly good time.
Written by Jeff Rendell & Eli Roth
Directed by Eli Roth
Starring Patrick Dempsey, Rick Hoffman, Nell Verlaque, Gina Gershon
R 107 Minutes, Spyglass Media Group/TriStar Pictures/Cream Productions