Eli Roth’s long awaited Thanksgiving is the type of raucous, go-for-broke, whodunnit slasher film that doesn’t get made much these days outside of the ongoing Scream franchise. Come to think of it, Thanksgiving is actually a better Scream movie than Scream VI was earlier this year. Gleefully gory, pointedly satirical, and viscerally entertaining, this latest adaptation of one of the fake trailers from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse double feature experiment (following Machete and Hobo with a Shotgun) is the best thing Roth has produced to date, which considering his status as a genre heavyweight for the past two decades constitutes quite the accomplishment.
Last year on Thanksgiving night, tragedy struck the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, a place where the holiday holds a sacred meaning. Spurred on by angry teens, lax security, and the promise of free waffle irons, a frenzied, angry mob of shoppers amassed for an early Black Friday sale at a big box reatailer started a deadly riot. This year, the teens who antagonized rioters and filmed the entire debacle without doing anything and all others responsible for the melee are finding themselves mortally punished by an axe wielding serial killer in full on Pilgrim garb with a John Carver mask. (He was the first governor of the Plymouth colony, dontcha know?)
Thanksgiving boasts a classic set-up for a slasher movie, but if anyone knows how to pull off the obvious with flair and panache it’s Roth and his writing partner Jeff Rendell. Unafraid of coming across as snide or uncouth, Roth stages the film’s inciting incident with equal layers of cynicism, criticism, and pitch black humour, something the filmmaker maintains throughout the main course of Thanksgiving. As a metaphor for the crass, capitalist nature of the holiday season, Thanksgiving might not be subtle, but it never loses sight of the target. Roth and Rendell know it’s not about coming up with the most original material here, but how to frame it in such a way that the jokes are refreshing and the horror beats convey a point the rest of the story can build from as it switches gears and moves into standard slasher movie territory.
That territory has been mined pretty well in the past by the likes of Scream, My Bloody Valentine, and perhaps most obviously, I Know What You Did Last Summer, but there’s always fun to be had in a thriller that moves quickly and keeps the viewer guessing. Roth offers up plenty of obvious suspects (a former store manager who lost their wife, a star pitcher on the high school baseball team who’ll never play again due to injuries sustained in the riot), jerks who deserve their comeuppance (the teen who helped stoke the riot, a woman who feels that getting a free waffle iron is her right), and all the sympathetic people caught in the middle (the local sheriff, played by newly crowned Sexiest Man Alive Patrick Dempsey, the kindhearted daughter of the store owner, a black football player who has more sense than any of his teammates). It’s a wide array of characters, any one of which could turn out to be the killer, that is, until they’re potentially knocked off in some ridiculous holiday themed murder.
Once Thanksgiving gets going, the momentum never lets up, with Roth moving confidently between set pieces without giving the viewer a chance to catch their breath. Thanksgiving might not be the scariest slasher, but it’s certainly disorienting and relentless in the same way as a theme park ride. The stalk and slash action is elegantly composed, and the gore, when it arrives is both grotesquely over the top and hardcore bloody. Thanksgiving is never afraid of seeming silly, weird, or off-putting, but viewers should expect something a lot more polished, modernist, and streamlined than the original Grindhouse trailer suggests. But most pleasingly of all, the whodunnit aspect of Rendell’s script works with clocklike efficiency, full of clever misdirects, clues that aren’t actually helpful in the end, and a big reveal that I honestly couldn’t unravel until about two minutes before it arrived (which by the standards of the genre puts this thing in rarified air for me).
Thanksgiving isn’t anything new, but it’s presented with such energy and consideration for the audience experience that it hits like a blast of fresh air. The funny bits are funny, the thrilling bits are thrilling, and the script works overtime balancing an ensemble cast of potential suspects and villains played by performers who look like they’re having the time of their lives playing an acting game and trying to see who can put on a thicker New England accent. It’s kind of like a party movie: the kind of thing you’ll watch after hanging out and having drinks with friends who are back in town around the holidays. Whodunit slashers are something most viewers know by know if they’re into it or not, and if they are, they couldn’t do much better than Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, November 17, 2023.
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