2007’s Grindhouse has always been a fun double feature worth revisiting, but it’s turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving in one other way too. The two exploitation throwbacks were originally packaged with a handful of “grindhouse” trailers in between, new trailers by Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, and Rob Zombie for movies that don’t actually exist. Roth’s entry is for a gruesome, old school holiday slasher, and sixteen years later that trailer has finally gotten a film to match. Thanksgiving loses the T&A aspect highlighted by the trailer, but it delivers elsewhere with gory kills, some loving nods to past horror classics, and a terrifically entertaining modern slasher.
Jessica (Nell Verlaque), her boyfriend Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), and their friends are out on Thanksgiving night and decide to stop at the department store her father (Rick Hoffman) owns, but the rowdy teens accidentally trigger a deadly riot among the Black Friday sale-hungry crowd. One year later, the town of Plymouth, MA is still feeling the sting of that night. Bobby, who was injured during the riot, disappeared immediately afterward, Jessica’s dad is planning another big sale, and someone in a John Carver mask — the man credited with founding the town of Plymouth — has started slaughtering everyone associated with the carnage from one year ago. Can the teens, the townsfolk, and the sheriff (Patrick Dempsey) stop the killer before Plymouth becomes a ghost town?
Some will loudly lament the loss of the aforementioned T&A and the sleazy grindhouse feel that Roth gave to that initial trailer, but that grieving should end once you see the film. Thanksgiving might be absent of that explicitness, but it’s absolutely stuffed with treats for horror fans in the form of bloody deaths, some genuine scares, and a clear love for the slasher subgenre. Roth and writer Jeff Rendell pack their movie with all manner of goodies ensuring it will become both a holiday horror staple and a film that leaves fans clamoring for leftovers (even if the villain claims there will be none).
It sits comfortably among the best of the 21st century slashers, in part because the script wisely avoids the trendy need for meta elements and/or a commentary of some sort. This is an old school slasher executed with modern proficiencies, and fans of 2009’s triple slasher punch of My Bloody Valentine, Friday the 13th, and Sorority Row will be happy campers indeed. If there’s a bone to pick with Thanksgiving, it’s in the relative ease with which some viewers will identify the killer(s) well before the actual reveal. The script tosses in more than a few red herrings to bloody the waters, but certain choices leave things pretty clear for slasher fans who are paying attention.
That’s a quibble, though, as Thanksgiving is a fun time destined to hold up on repeat viewings. The pre-title sequence turns the nightmare of real-world Black Friday crowds into a legitimate horror short as greed and chaos leave battered and broken bodies in their wake. It’s a grimly comical setpiece, but as with the rest of the film, Roth keeps that darkly humorous vein running through it all without overtaking his prioritizing of the horror. The kills do come with a knowing wink at times, though, as they utilize Thanksgiving elements from corn cob holders to one poor soul who’s basted, cooked, and served up for dinner. You’re smiling at the humor, but you’re also happily devouring the horror thrills that the film is dropping dollops of onto your plate. To that end, he even executes a few jump scares that work beautifully as they come out of nowhere instead of arriving after the expected setup.
The cast does solid work between both the familiar faces (Dempsey, Hoffman, Gina Gerson) and the relative newcomers with Verlaque making for a charismatic and compelling lead. The teens — including Gabriel Davenport, Milo Manheim, Addison Rae, and Jenna Warren — keep their characters grounded and avoid coming across as complete dolts. It may seem like a minor thing in a slasher, but it’s always a plus when you’re not actively rooting for the main characters to all get gutted. That Roth and friends succeed on that count while also making us “enjoy” those kills anyway is no small thing.
All of this is to say that Thanksgiving might just be Roth’s best effort to date. While his other horror films (Cabin Fever, 2002; Hostel, 2005; Hostel: Part II, 2007; The Green inferno, 2013) have their individual charms, they ultimately feel like a filmmaker more concerned with being noticed than being memorable for the right reasons. There’s always room for gross-out visuals and sadistic acts of violence, but the true magic is finding those moments while also delivering a truly entertaining movie. Thanksgiving is that magic trick (the “turkey” cooking scene alone qualifies as both gross and mean!), and here’s us hoping Roth has many more to show us down the road.