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Thanksgiving (18)

Director: Eli Roth
Screenplay: Eli Roth, Jeff Rendell

Starring: Ty Olsen, Nell Verlaque, Patrick Dempsey

Review: David Stephens

Like the bonkers Machete movies and Hobo with a Shotgun, Thanksgiving originates from the fake trailers that were filmed as part of Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” double-bill (16 years ago!). Eli Roth’s mickey-take teaser was a direct riff on 70s/80s calendar-based exploitation films that bred like bunnies after the original Halloween and Black Christmas. But let’s be honest, we all love a good holiday-horror and seasonal slasher when it’s done right. Also, it’s not the first one to be based on the US November celebration. Remember the delirious Blood Rage in 1987? (“It’s not cranberry sauce!”). Not to mention Bruce Campbell in the wacky alien-zombie flick Black Friday from a couple of years ago and the obscure (in the UK) “Thankskilling” films. But we digress… what actually is Thanksgiving? It’s an old-fashioned slasher that uses a central (and seasonal) MacGuffin event to send someone in the cast off-the-rails and over-the-top, killing large chunks of the cast off in the grisliest manner possible. Directed by Roth and starring some well-known US character actors (Patrick Dempsey, Gina Gershon, Rick Hoffman), it’s got a bang-on release date (for the US anyway… we’re indifferent in the UK) and is spraying red juice all over screens across the globe right now. So let’s gobble it up.


The film starts in 2022 with a late-night Black Friday sale in  Plymouth, Massachusetts about to open at the “Rightmart” superstore. It’s owned by wealthy entrepreneur Thomas Wright (Hoffman), who’s enjoying a luxury feast with his family whilst his employees are forcibly dragged away from theirs. Of course, the baying crowd go loopy for free waffle ovens and bargain prices. This boils over into a riot which would be farcical… if it weren’t so damned close to real life. Injuries and fatalities ensue. One year later, after months of disingenuous charity work, Wright feels empowered to have another Black Friday sale. Bad idea. His daughter (Nell Verlaque as Jessica) and her buddies start to receive anonymous messages inviting them to a Thanksgiving dinner. Coming from a “John Carver” (historic 1st Governor of the Plymouth colony) they seem to be driven by revenge and based on their involvement in the dark events 12 months prior. Sure enough, a Pilgrim-attired figure soon appears and starts to carve up the populace with gusto. But who is JC? Is it Jessica’s ex-boyfriend? The current one? The disgruntled employee? Old man Jenkins in a mask? Will there be anyone left over? Not according to the movie strapline…


Apart from the Terrifier movies and Ti West’s films, it genuinely feels like aeons since we’ve had tough, gory, no-nonsense slashers on the big screen that aren’t reboots or remakes. The best ones from the 70s/80s/90s were basically Murder, She Wrote or Midsomer Murders whodunnits, only with fountains of fake blood, Tom Savini-inspired prosthetics, and mean tongue-in-cheek humour. That’s why this is so welcome. Like a canny mix of My Bloody Valentine and Happy Birthday to Me, Roth uses his genre nous to deliver something that taps into the elements that the Scream franchise has gradually lost sight of. Bereft of the baggage that comes with long-running arcs and legacy fan-pleasing, it’s a simple slasher that just hits the right notes most of the time. And when it hits the wrong ones, it’s usually intentional and smacks of the director just having fun with the material.


For instance, there’s a clunky bit of exposition where a character takes the time to explain that they are skilled with a certain type of weapon. Now, there’s no way that Roth would have made that unintentional jar in the narrative, given his knowledge of horror tropes and his love of so-terrible-they’re-great films like Pieces. This is where much of the charm of the film comes from, as it is multi-purposed to a certain degree. Sure, it works for the casual horror fan as a much-needed November-based shocker. But more devoted horror fans will see moments like that and have a chuckle. Not to mention the quick Halloween riff at the beginning and callbacks to his original trailer. (Hello, Mr Turkey Mascot. Greetings, trampoline sexy-time.). Like Saw X, this approach seems to have curried favour with the majority of mainstream critics, with press such as The Guardian and The New York Times giving it plaudits! It’s also doing well on Rotten Tomatoes. Colour us surprised!


Much of this also has to do with the film reclaiming a lost art. That of the effective jump-scare. As familiar as we are with cinematic shocks, it comes as a welcome surprise to find ourselves occasionally lift off the seat with some excellently timed fake-outs and sudden deaths. This is abetted by the frenetic and ferocious mannerisms of “John Carver”, who really means this shit! With furious axe swings and a penchant for gruesome head trauma, this is a slasher villain who doesn’t mess around. There’s some invention to the (many) kills and expect to see viscera flop about on a frequent basis. Add the “ick” factor with punctured eardrums, cooked skin, and meat-tenderisers and you’ve got yourself a hard R-rated flick that spits on PG-13 genre coyness.


Neat little asides enter the plot and make it fun to spot little details and sub-stories. Watch out for the background class jock that gets a date with two classmates after reading a sensitive essay and dabbing his eyes with his shirt (showing off his six-pack). One character can’t use their phone after being attacked as blood smears and injuries mean that their facial recognition app won’t unlock it! Dialogue and narrative are nothing to write home about, but that’s kind of the point. Jessica might as well have a name badge with “Final Girl” typed on it, but she’s easy to like as a character and her sparring boyfriends provide some Scream-like tension with her suspicions raised. Verlaque is actually quite good in the Sydney-lite role, nicely showing fear and ingenuity at the right times and venting frustrations accordingly. Another member of the cast (who remains nameless for obvious reasons) also revels in the opportunity to carve some thick cinematic (turkey) ham at the denouement and repeat the pointless one-liners/movie straplines with some gravitas. However, it has to be said that most of the other characters are thinly written and barely get a look-in. Gershon and Addison Rae have practically no screen time considering their arcs in the narrative.


Along with the gratuitous gore, which is gleefully practical for the most part, you’ll get a side order of unobtrusive social commentary with class differences, human greed, capitalism, social media, and gun culture (magnum in the boom-box, “Have you any human-sized weapons?”) get a kicking. As mentioned before, the “Black Friday massacre” at the start would be laughable if not for the fact that it directly mirrors events in recent years. It all helps give the concept more relevance than just being a straightforward pastiche that the original trailer was geared towards. Even the “bad” lines, left-field motives, convenient weaponry, and dopey alibis are clever rip-offs of “Giallo” thrillers and exploitation classics. (“I was just there to score addies!”). Director Roth has strayed from the horror path with “reality” TV shows and misguided projects like the Death Wish remake, it’s genuinely nice to see this return to form from the Cabin Fever and Hostel filmmaker. It’s unlikely to make big bucks, but it will surely recoup its $15m budget and then some, which will make it a critical and commercial success for a change. Now all we need to do is convince Edgar Wright to make his Don’t! film and Rob Zombie to shoot Werewolf Women of the SS, and all will be right with the world … apart from the obvious of course.

Although it gets extra marks for the knowing treatment of horror tropes and winks to the core audience, this is just bloody good fun and that’s why it gets marked highly. Free from franchise baggage but playing up expectations from the fake trailer, Roth manages to meld knowing humour with gratuitous gore. It’s sure to be loved by most slasher aficionados and is certainly no terror-turkey.
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