By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
In 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez oversaw the release of Grindhouse. Designed as a tribute to B-movies and exploitation cinema of the 1970s, Grindhouse featured two full-length films – Planet Terror, directed by Robert Rodriguez, and Death Proof, directed by Quentin Tarantino. Both movies were serviceable, but what really made the experience of Grindhouse so unique was its inclusion of movie trailers. These weren’t trailers for actual movies though; instead, they were fake trailers for fake movies. One trailer was for Machete, which was eventually expanded into a full film starring Danny Trejo. This was the case with another fake trailer in Grindhouse titled Hobo with a Shotgun. And now this is the case again with Thanksgiving, a feature film based on Eli Roth’s fictitious Grindhouse trailer.
Thanksgiving takes place in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a town with great prominence that was the home of the very first Thanksgiving feast. The film opens with a disastrous Black Friday at a Plymouth store, which led to the deaths of a number of customers, employees, and more. One year later, a mysterious slasher has not forgotten about the deaths of last Thanksgiving and seeks revenge against those they deem responsible.
There have been a few forays into Thanksgiving horror, but none as momentous as Eli Roth’s effort here. Thanksgiving does to the holiday Thanksgiving what John Carpenter’s Halloween did for the Halloween holiday (both films even start out with a POV tracking shot). Although flawed in a number of ways and perhaps not living up to its lofty potential, Thanksgiving brilliantly captures a cozy autumnal atmosphere in a slasher that will likely become an annual Thanksgiving tradition for many.
Roth’s film can most aptly be compared to Wes Craven’s Scream. Both films pay homage to iconic slasher films and aren’t afraid to show it. Both films also have a masked killer at the heart of the film and a sizable cast to serve as suspects before the climatic big reveal. Both films also center around a group of high school students, who try to stay alive while uncovering the identity of the killer. And, as will be discussed, both films effectively blend horror and humor.
Thanksgiving and Scream diverge, however, in a number of important ways. While Scream features intelligent commentary about horror films, media consumption, and larger pop culture, Thanksgiving is disappointingly devoid of substantive commentary. This is a particularly frustrating missed opportunity given the wealth of intriguing ways in which the filmmakers could have added more thematic depth to their film.
Thanksgiving also falls short of the high standards established by Scream with a less than compelling main cast. Slashers are obviously not known for rich character development, but there are the rare ones (i.e., Halloween, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street) that actually manage to have interesting characters to root for. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with Thanksgiving. Nell Verlaque does a serviceable job as the main character Jessica, as do Addison Rae, Jalen Thomas Brooks, Milo Manhein, Gabriel Davenport, Tomaso Sanelli, and Jenna Warren as the other teenagers. But there is little depth to the massive number of characters.
This speaks to a larger problem with Thanksgiving in that the film features a cast of characters far too sizable. Slashers and murder mysteries necessarily need to fill out their cast in order to have plenty of suspects and plenty of victims. Thanksgiving, however, errs with far too many characters, none of whom are particularly interesting. Due to the sheer number of characters the film tries to manage, characters seemingly move in and out of the story throughout. It all becomes a little too much, with a tighter and more intimate cast of characters likely proving more wieldy for the filmmakers.
Despite these issues, however, Thanksgiving is still a lot of fun. The killer, aptly termed John Carver after one of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower voyage, proves to be a frightening antagonist, sporting a creepy mask and wielding a daunting axe. Carver is responsible for some extremely violent and over-the-top kills, which makes the film more reminiscent to the recent Evil Dead Rise or Roth’s own Hostel than far tamer slashes like Scream or Halloween. Although Thanksgiving features a solid killer in Carver, the ultimate identity reveal is disappointingly predictable and unsatisfying. The unfolding of the mystery is comprehensible and avoids taking any convoluted turns. And yet anyone paying even fleeting attention will likely identify who the killer is fairly early on.
The film also finds success with its humor. There are a number of witty one-liners and funny references that nicely complement the film’s penchant for extreme violence. It never delves into parody territory or adopts too heightened of an atmosphere, instead remaining fairly grounded throughout.
Inspired by the fake trailer in 2007’s Grindhouse of the same name, Thanksgiving is an old-fashioned slasher flick that will undoubtedly become an annual tradition for many. Capturing the cozy autumnal atmosphere of Thanksgiving akin to how John Carpenter evoked the spooky season atmosphere in Halloween, Eli Roth’s film excels as an unrelentingly fun movie that never slows down. With too many characters and a disappointingly predictable resolution to the mystery, Thanksgiving stumbles in a number of key areas. Fortunately though, these issues are offset by a great killer, some delightfully over-the-top kills, and a decent sense of humor. If you’re looking for an entertaining horror movie to accompany your turkey dinner this year, Thanksgiving is a fine selection.