THE STORY – An axe-wielding maniac terrorizes residents of Plymouth, Mass., after a Black Friday riot ends in tragedy. Picking off victims one by one, the seemingly random revenge killings soon become part of a larger, sinister plan.
THE CAST – Patrick Dempsey, Addison Rae, Milo Manheim, Jalen Thomas Brooks, Nell Verlaque, Rick Hoffman & Gina Gershon
THE TEAM – Eli Roth (Director) & Jeff Rendell (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 106 Minutes
Fans have long waited for Eli Roth’s feature-length film “Thanksgiving.” Specifically, they’ve been waiting since 2007, when Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse” double feature unleashed several trailers for fake movies directed by horror up-and-comers. Roth’s trailer for a slasher flick focused on Thanksgiving was an instant favorite thanks to its flawlessly scuzzy seventies B-movie styling and hilariously gross kills. Roth has teased a full feature for years, but only now, over a decade later, has it finally come to fruition. Thankfully, it’s quite a tasty treat.
In the town of Plymouth, MA, where the pilgrims on the Mayflower landed in America many years ago, Thanksgiving is an institution. Even the good residents of Plymouth are susceptible to the greed brought on by a good Black Friday sale, though, and a riot at the local department store Right Mart ends in casualties. One year later, Jessica (Nell Verlaque), the daughter of Right Mart’s owner, and her friends, who snuck into the store early on that fateful day, get tagged in an Instagram post with an ominous-looking Thanksgiving spread. Someone wearing the town’s ubiquitous John Carver mask starts killing those connected to the Right Mart tragedy in brutal fashion. Will Jessica and her friends survive the holiday with their insides still inside them?
Whereas the original “Grindhouse” trailer was an explicit 70s throwback, the feature-length “Thanksgiving” does away with the period trappings, giving the audience a slick modern slasher instead. While Roth may not go all in on the grindhouse aesthetic this time around, he does keep the tongue-in-cheek humor firmly in place and thank God. The knowingly corny dialogue features many purposely groan-worthy Thanksgiving puns, but the visual gags take the cake. The kills are brilliantly bloody; each shot through with a cleverness most slashers lack. The gore effects alone are worth the price of admission, equally gut-busting and gut-wrenching.
When not following John Carver and his victims, “Thanksgiving” feels less sure of itself. The film falls into all the biggest traps of slasher films – the teenage victim group members are thinly-written, tough-to-root-for caricatures; the mystery of the killer’s identity ends up not very mysterious at all; and the pacing has difficulty keeping up. The film’s pitch-black sense of humor does not extend to meta jokes about slasher films, so you just have to accept these faults as part and parcel of the genre the film is working in.
At least the performers do their best to make the characters watchable, if not entirely relatable. While no one gives a bad performance, the standouts are mostly the smaller character parts like Amanda Barker’s folksy waitress who practically turns into a barbarian at the Black Friday sale and Joe Delfin as the friendly local gun-and-alcohol dealer. Verlaque makes for an appealing lead, even though the character retains the blandness and stupidity required by genre conventions. Rick Hoffman is perfectly venal as the owner of Right Mart, and Patrick Dempsey is entertaining as the town Sheriff whose Boston accent comes and goes as his emotions get heightened.
“Thanksgiving” doesn’t have any loftier goals than giving genre fans something they can enjoy: a slice of home-cooked holiday horror with a bit of a nasty kick to it. Roth succeeds at that goal exceedingly well, crafting some tense sequences that nearly always end on a note of laughter – like when John Carver feeds a victim’s pet cat after attending to his slasher duties. The makeup effects are skin-crawlingly icky and often hilariously executed (a moment with a dumpster absolutely kills in every sense of the word), giving the kills real thrills. Roth even manages a couple of genuine jump scares to prove he’s still one of the best horror directors around. While fans of the original trailer may miss some of their favorite bits, the full-length feature version of “Thanksgiving” still offers enough fun to be hungry for seconds.