One of the best movies writer-director Eli Roth ever made was only 3 minutes long. Thanksgiving started as a fake trailer sandwiched between Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof as part of their Grindhouse double feature back in 2007. The trailer was chock full of beheadings, blood spurts, sleazy sex and goofy narration (“This year, there will be no leftovers”), and it even ended with the killer defiling a turkey in seriously upsetting fashion. It was also Roth’s last gasp of greatness before he descended into a string of forgettable features over the next 10 years.
So it’s something of a holiday miracle that, 16 years after Grindhouse bombed at the box office, Roth’s real adaptation of his fake trailer has finally seen the light of day. That it’s his best work since 2007’s Hostel: Part II is just the gravy on top of this delectable slasher confection.
In the wake of the original Halloween’s success, a massive influx of holiday- or superstition-themed slashers started in the late 1970s and dominated horror throughout the 1980s. Friday the 13th; Silent Night, Deadly Night; New Year’s Evil; April Fool’s Day… there were enough to create their own subgenre. However, the definitive Thanksgiving slasher remained a conspicuous oversight until now. Sure, there are a few that take place during Thanksgiving (the fantastic Blood Rage, for example), but none really leverage that holiday’s iconography in the same way Roth’s Thanksgiving does.
In grand slasher tradition, the movie begins with a small-town tragedy that serves as the origin for our masked maniac. In this case, a mob of early Black Friday shoppers bust through a local superstore one night to claim their free waffle iron, and horrific violence ensues almost immediately. Anyone who’s seen one of Roth’s horror movies knows the guy doesn’t hold back on bloodshed, and neither do the rabid shoppers as scalps are ripped, throats are gashed and limbs are splintered in the name of capitalism.
Anyone who’s seen Roth’s horror movies also knows that he fancies himself a bit of a satirist, which he sometimes nails (Hostel and Hostel: Part II) and sometimes… doesn’t (Death Wish, The Green Inferno). In this instance, the anti-consumerist messaging in Thanksgiving is broad enough for your average first-grader to grasp. When a woman yanks a waffle iron from the hands of a man choking on his own blood, it’s not hard to get the point. Luckily, the movie never for a moment takes itself seriously, and the playful stabs at social commentary are simply there to set up the next gross-out gag.
A year later, the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, is haunted by the harrowing events of that night as the next Thanksgiving draws near. To make matters worse, an axe-wielding maniac dressed as a pilgrim is brutally dispatching people involved in the Black Friday massacre, including high-school friends Jessica (Nell Verlaque), her ex, Bobby (Jalen Brooks), her new beau, Ryan (Milo Manheim), and two of her best friends, Gabby (Addison Rae) and Yulia (Jenna Warren).
That doesn’t even cover their parents and the town sheriff, all of whom suffered deep losses the year before. If that sounds like way too many characters … it is. Thanksgiving is pretty overstuffed in that regard, and a few central relationships come across as half-baked as a result. For instance, there’s a burgeoning love triangle between Jessica, Bobby and Ryan that seems like it’s going to be a driving conflict before it’s dropped entirely, and several characters exist solely to be carved up by our pilgrim baddie.
Are these valid complaints? Absolutely. Do they ultimately matter? Not at all. With Thanksgiving, Eli Roth has emulated the ’80s slasher warts and all, and those movies aren’t remembered for their characters, either. So naturally, the kills keep coming at a brisk clip, and reader, let me tell you, those kills are delightful. It isn’t a dull stab-a-thon like this year’s dispiriting Scream VI. Here, each death ends with an unexpected flair — a spill of intestines here, an outrageous face impaling there. Roth never settles for mediocrity in the carnage department.
All of this is good and well, but it’s the third act where things become unhinged in the best possible way. Slasher purists might complain that this is where Thanksgiving goes full Hostel, with some genuinely upsetting deaths that recall the torture-porn boom of the aughts. However, it’s also when the movie pulls a gear shift from gory fun to serious suspense. There’s a stretch at the killer’s hideout that starts as an extended cat-and-mouse chase and suddenly turns into what must be the most disturbing Thanksgiving dinner ever put to film.
It remains to be seen how an unreconstructed genre exercise like this will play to people who aren’t already slasher devotees. Even with its presumably small budget, TriStar Pictures definitely took a gamble putting Thanksgiving in theaters over streaming, but I couldn’t be happier they took the risk. It’s rare when we get an original slasher not based on an existing property and rarer still when we get a great one. In keeping with holiday-horror tradition, it would only be right for us to get at least a half-dozen sequels to Thanksgiving.