Grindhouse, the joint venture between Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, came out in 2007. While that double feature didn’t set the world on fire, the B-movie trailers by directors Edgar Wright, Eli Roth, and Rob Zombie turned out to be more popular than anyone could have imagined. Of the five spots, three went on to become full-length features—though I still hope to see Wright’s Don’t do the same. Machete was released in 2010, Hobo with a Shotgun in 2011, and now, Thanksgiving. Eli Roth is in a different place in his career in 2023 than he was almost 20 years ago. The provocateur behind Hostel and Cabin Fever was riding the rise of what critics called “torture porn.” Audiences have moved away from that particular sub-genre and grindhouse homages, so what will Roth bring to the table now that he didn’t 16 years ago?
I hesitate to call Thanksgiving his magnum opus, but it’s definitely his most accessible film outside of The House with a Clock in Its Walls.
With the landscape shift to elevated horror, the Thanksgiving team’s approach was to pretend the Grindhouse trailer was for a film lost to time, and that they were remaking it for today’s audience. But before you concern yourself with Roth course correcting too much, don’t worry. His film is the splatterfest that you’d expect. It’s still a B-movie slasher, just not the raunchy one you might have gotten in 2008. Notice that I said not as raunchy because Thanksgiving will be the most violent movie you see this year, as the director revealed in interviews when he said his film will push the limits of “the hard-R spectrum.”
The film takes place in Plymouth. Yes, Plymouth, Massachusetts, birthplace of Thanksgiving. But the holiday isn’t living up to its roots as a time for familial gathering. Now, it’s a table-setter for the consumptive proceedings of Christmas. Much like Violent Night critiqued the subversion of Christmas, Eli Roth skewers the rabid consumption of the holiday. But where George A. Romero critiqued consumerism with zombies running roughshod over a mall, Roth makes the villains clear-eyed citizens who must have stuff and are willing to trample people to get it. The film opens with RiteMart shoppers rushing the store like the fast swarms of 28 Days Later, leaving just as many bodies in their wake. A year later, a masked killer christened John Carver begins his campaign of terror in Plymouth. But John Carver’s no ordinary slasher. Once he finishes slashing his victims, he turns them into a literal feast.
And now he’s targeting Jessica (Nell Verlaque) and her friends, who, unbeknownst to everyone, kick-started the Black Friday massacre.
With no leads and a panicking town, Sheriff Newlon (Patrick Dempsey) has his hands full with the investigation. Newlon is far from the hapless sheriffs that plague slasher films. His presence is crucial as the whodunit of Thanksgiving isn’t just lip service. The mystery is as important here as it is in Scream. So when character actors like Rick Hoffman and Gina Gershon embed seeds of doubt in the audience, you aren’t sure if they’re hamming it up or carving people up. The veteran cast shines. And even the new actors hold up respectably despite their inexperience. Nell Verlaque is okay as a Scream Queen. Addison Rae (who plays Gabby) comes from TikTok, but her inclusion isn’t Paris Hilton in House of Wax redux. Roth allows her to be an actor. Yet the film drags when it relies solely on the younger cast (featuring Jalen Thomas Brooks and Milo Manheim).
Where Thanksgiving differentiates itself from Roth’s previous oeuvre is the glee. Hostel and Cabin Fever forced you to suffer along with characters you bonded with. Yes, it’s just as violent as those films, but the satirical elements allow audiences to judge passively while also going, “Why would anyone do that?!” More of the inspired bloodshed in this film happens to people you could say had it coming. As an homage to Grindhouse films, that choice makes sense. But the presence of stars (newly minted Sexiest Man Alive, Patrick Dempsey) and polished aesthetic contradicts some attempts to be a B-movie.
This breakdown continues in the staging of the kills. Carver’s axe attacks are vicious, yet the violence often veers into camp territory. I applaud the ingenuity of using corn cob holders for a death scene, but it makes it difficult to take the events seriously later on. Roth wants to have the sheen of a large-budget horror while relishing the campier kills of ’80s slashers. It’s not necessarily fair, but you can’t always have it both ways as a filmmaker.
Credit to Roth and writer Jeff Rendell for pouring energy into the story to keep the film compelling between set pieces. While most assumed the story wouldn’t be a priority, it holds up to scrutiny. Roth mustered all his energy into this effort. Armed with everything he learned over his career, Roth’s positioned to make the next great holiday horror classic. And if the reception to this is as positive as it was to with my screening group, he absolutely did.
Thanksgiving opens in theatres today, November 17.