'Thanksgiving' Is Basted in Blood

Directed by Eli Roth

Starring Patrick Dempsey, Addison Rae, Milo Manheim, Jalen Thomas Brooks, Nell Verlaque, Rick Hoffman, Gina Gershon

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

BY Alisha MughalPublished Nov 17, 2023

In 2007, Eli Roth and Jeff Rendell wrote a short film called Thanksgiving, with Roth directing what was effectively a two-minute-long spoof trailer for a B-slasher about a serial killer dressed as a pilgrim indiscriminately murdering townsfolk in Plymouth, MA, where Thanksgiving began. It's overwrought in the best way and deliriously gory, delivering a slew of impossibly creative kills in a hilarious send-up of classic slashers. It left many wondering when Roth would deliver on a full-length feature. "You'll come home for the holidays…in a body bag," the narrator, with his obviously forced gravelly tone, says steadily and deliciously.

With the feature-length Thanksgiving, Roth and Rendell have not only answered horror fans' prayers, but they have done so with a film that does triumphant justice to the giddy cheek the faux trailer conveyed. Just as overwrought as the short, Thanksgiving is a love letter to slashers like Scream and Roth's own Hostel series — which sounds cliché, and that's the point. This is a film that understands the paradox at the core of early-aughts slashers. It understands what made them work — a meaningfully meaningless goriness — and revels in it with a joyously campy irreverence.

The film begins moments before a Black Friday sale at a local superstore on Thanksgiving night. The crowd outside Right Mart is surging, becoming more violent, mean and unruly as the clock nears opening time. When teen Jessica Wright (Nell Verlaque), daughter of the store's owner Thomas Wright (Rick Hoffman), shepherds her friends (all popular kids, jocks and beauty queens, mind you) into the store before anyone else is allowed in, the roiling crowd outside sees this. Remarking on the unfairness of it all, they riot and smash through the locked front doors. Many people die in the flurry. 

Fast forward to a year after this riot and a masked killer haunts Plymouth, seemingly targeting those who inadvertently caused deaths in the melee. It's a straightforward plot, not at all over-ambitious as it anchors the narrative in Jessica, who works with Sheriff Eric Newlon (Patrick Dempsey) to figure out who the killer could be.

Thanksgiving, thankfully, is much too intelligent a film and avoids the pitfall of having a labyrinthine plot, which allows its squelching gore and ironic melodrama to take centre stage. The film doesn't seem to care if audiences can spot the killer on the film's first beat — it's more concerned with having a bloody good time.

Accordingly, Thanksgiving's kills have an intentionality that's not annoyingly self-aware — the end of one kill is only the occasion for the next one to begin. Wes Craven showed us with Scream that it's only possible to break or subvert horror's rules — to spoof the genre — if he and the audience are aware of the rules to begin with. Throughout his directing career, Roth has demonstrated to us that he is very aware of the genre's rules.

With horror's blueprint in hand, Roth jubilantly defiles it in a way that's at once clever, gross and fun. Bodies break so easily in Thanksgiving, reminding us of how delicate we are in ways gloriously reminiscent of Final Destination 2. The most mundane objects and appliances — the wall of a freezer, a trampoline, an electric carving knife, an inflatable turkey, a friggin' shopping cart — are turned into deadly weapons that remind us that we're just sacks of meat and blood.

No great moral pronouncement is lorded over us in this film; we aren't pounded over the head with any massive message about the dangers of over-consumption. Rather, Thanksgiving is simply more concerned with having fun at this hypocritical holiday's expense. Without getting pedagogical or ideological, the film rebukes meaning and chooses to rejoice in its own moment and visual feast.

Many of the best slashers contain deeply hatable characters in an effort to reflect our tendency to be shitty to others and ourselves, to warrant the violence hurled upon them; it's no different here. Each of the characters are lovable and loathsome in equal measure, stupid and hammy and therefore always up for suspicion of being the killer. Characterization here is delivered in perfect measure — no character is over- or under-written, in the way that the plot is neither too complex nor boringly simple. Rather, the script stands stolidly on the sweet middle ground of delivering us scared and angry people within a fearsome situation. Roth clearly understands that homing in on a distinct emotion and mood, and using it to colour the rest of the film, is how the slasher works — and he shrewdly bakes this understanding into the film to create a campy delight.

Compared to the kind of high-brow and rarefied horrors we get today, in which each death needs to be narratively and ideologically justified to hell and back, with their intricacies and metaphorical ghosts returning throughout the film like a relentlessly misfiring Chekhovian gun, Thanksgiving is definitely anything-goes.

It's evident the love and admiration Roth and Rendell have for the slasher sub-genre in the way in which they baste the mode's celebration and depiction of all that is gross, base and absurd in human nature into this film. Practical effects are used stunningly as bodies bake, cartoonishly snap and burst, and are literally carved; long Prom Night-esque chase scenes through a high school abound; teens make the most aggravatingly stupid choices, much to our delight.

Thanksgiving is over-the-top and silly — people get gutted, beheaded and cleaved in half, all because of a Black Friday sale. But rather than seeming to make judgment over the ways in which we become insane for the sake of a good deal, Roth and Rendell's film celebrates it. It's hard not to love Thanksgiving for all the ways in which it intentionally and goofily recalls a kind of film we thought we might never see again on a landscape saturated with stuffy prestige horror. It's tough not to lose your head over it.
(Sony Pictures)

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