Eli Roth’s eagerly anticipated slasher “Thanksgiving” serves up precisely what the horror holiday season promised, and it’s delicious!
From its chilling cold open — with its minimalist introduction, belabored breathing, and popular killer POV — one might remind themselves that something like director Eli Roth’s holiday horror film Thanksgiving probably shouldn’t work so well.
Just like the holiday that shares its name, nothing so closely linked to family should.
But what started as a prankster’s movie trailer during the 2007 grindhouse marriage of Planet Terror and Death Proof (directed by Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino, respectively) may just be the secret [cranberry] sauce that genre fans need this holiday season.
Since that tongue-in-cheek trailer, now more than 15 years old, fans have clamored — nay, demanded — that the filmmaker bring the Turkey Day-stuffed slasher film to the big screen. And now, reeling from those just deserts, the audience can demand seconds.
The film tells the story of a group of friends who, fortunately, survive a Black Friday shopping tragedy in the small town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, not everyone in the community is so lucky to survive, nor will they likely survive the anniversary, when an axe-wielding killer – masked Halloween-style as the town’s founder John Carver – picks off the survivors of that terrible night’s bloody events.
The picture’s premise remains novel enough, but in the hands of director Eli Roth, a feast awaits.
While famous for dipping his toe into varied depths of the filmmaking pool, the very specific niche of the slasher film has largely gone overlooked by Roth.
Instead, he has explored body horror (Cabin Fever, 2002), satirical blends of class-conscientious “torture porn” (Hostel, 2005), ecological horror (The Green Inferno, 2013), home invasion (Knock Knock, 2015), and more. But he hasn’t fully immersed himself into that oftentimes clichéd playground of the slasher film until now.
Still, it would appear that Roth may have been spending his free time studying the slasher subgenre.
To be certain, his research and scrutiny do not go unnoticed here, especially when he adds his own flourishes – alongside co-storyteller & screenwriter Jeff Rendell – to what has otherwise been characterized as an otherwise tired, if amusing, display of filmmaking.
A number of misused ingredients contributed to slasher films “turning sour” in the late 80s and 90s as a whole.
The raw simplicity of films like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) was perverted by mythologies that became too complicated or unbelievable or altogether overshadowed by dependence on more and more creatively gory kills and body counts. Freddy Krueger’s overwrought origin story turned his franchise into a true nightmare. Jason Voorhees’ unexplained age left fans scratching their heads, and no one has ever been skilled enough to cut to the heart of Leatherface.
But with Thanksgiving, the sins of the father have turned into lessons to be learned.
No longer populated by anonymous teens who will do little more than raise the film’s body count, Thanksgiving possesses a cast of diverse would-be heroes (and – let’s face it – victims) just as varied as the kill shots that follow.
The players themselves, relatively unrecognizable on the big screen, include TV mainstay Rick Hoffman (also of Hostel, 2005) and social media star Addison Rae (2021’s He’s All That). They star alongside familiar faces like Patrick Dempsey (TV’s Grey’s Anatomy & 2000’s Scream 3) and the unforgettable Gina Gershon (Face/Off, 1997).
Rendell’s characterization provides a dimensionality that makes them more than corpses waiting to happen.
Developed as they are, the characters never foreshadow their fates. Despite all of the film’s use of its characters, anyone can die in Thanksgiving, just as anyone can live, and therein lies much of the film’s irresistible unpredictability, unlike previous genre films of its kind.
Yet in light of the horrific kills that color the picture – perhaps even despite them – Roth’s movie lurks in those corners of the slasher hallways because it also exists as a compelling Whodunnit from startling start to fiendish finish.
Just as Psycho (1960), Friday the 13th (1980), April Fool’s Day (1986), Sleepaway Camp (1987), and more propelled their plots through their use of circuitous storytelling, Thanksgiving lays out a smorgasbord of portentous peril as a means to always keep the audience guessing as to the identity of the killer’s true identity.
In the film’s first 20 minutes, no less than ten possible suspects are identified – each one as probable as the one identified before it – so long as the audience absorbs all of the clues leading to the movie’s fiery conclusion.
Thanksgiving is as much a love letter to slasher films as it is a murder mystery that will keep the audience rapt until the film’s terrifying third act.
And that’s what makes Roth’s motion picture so unique, placed as it is on such a familiar field of horror.
Too many moments of Thanksgiving put the minutiae of slasher film history on full display here, both to the delight of hardened – even skeptical – fans and to those brand new to the genre filmmaking potential. Audiences close enough to genre tropes will likely contend that the movie could reinvigorate the slasher film just as assuredly as Wes Craven‘s Scream did in 1999.
The movie will strike a chord just as perfectly as it cuts the throats of its victims, and that is not cornbread dressing, meant only to accentuate a dish that should stand on its own as a holiday staple. Rather, Thanksgiving is the new meat & potatoes of holiday horror.
Not since Ghostface set his sights on Sidney Prescott will audiences exclaim, “And now we want more!”
There are no better words for Thanksgiving: neither the holiday nor Eli Roth’s new slasher film.
Decadently stuffing oneself to the point of a natural coma with everything on the menu shouldn’t work so well. But here, it does.