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Thanksgiving Review: Director Eli Roth Proves His Mastery of Horror with a Solidly Subversive Slasher

In 2007, filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were at the top of their game, and they decided to use their clout at Miramax/Dimension Films to put together the anthology genre film, Grindhouse, a tribute to the joy and inspiration they got out of watching ‘70s grindhouse films. It was made up of two films, Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof, but in between them, there were a number of short, obviously fake trailers. One of those was Eli Roth‘s Thanksgiving, essentially a spoof of the many slasher horror films that take place around specific holidays.

That has now been expanded into a full-blown feature that takes place in Plymouth, Massachusetts where a post-Thanksgiving Black Friday sale turns into a frantic stampede where multiple people die. A group of teenagers, including the store owner’s daughter Jessica (Nell Verlaque), are blamed for the riot, having used her connections to get into the store before the mob, but a year later, anyone thought to be responsible start being murdered in horrific ways by a killer dressed as pilgrim John Carver.

Considering how many horror-driven movies Eli Roth has made over his 20+ year career, it’s surprising that slasher films isn’t something he’s explored before. Thanksgiving is based around such a simple premise, it’s an interesting idea to see how he might approach the tried-and-true horror subgenre, fully realizing that holiday-based horror can sometimes get silly.

A scene from Thanksgiving (Sony/TriStar Pictures)

Sure, many of the characters are archetypes –- the tough black jock, the moody loner, the perky cheerleader, etc. etc. – but Roth is constantly subverting expectations throughout the movie even if it’s just by casting Rick Hoffman, who has made a career playing an asshole (including in Roth’s Hostel), in the role of the store owner, who surely would be the first to get killed, but who surprisingly ends up showing a conscience.

Patrick Dempsey continues his renaissance by playing Plymouth’s sheriff, and it’s quite nice seeing him in a role that doesn’t seem particularly significant at first, but gets more interesting as it goes along. Probably the most entertaining of the characters, though, is Joe Delfin‘s McCarty, a gun-carrying rocker who keeps showing up and delivering some of the funniest laughs, which is perfect, since a movie like Thanksgiving really shouldn’t be played too seriously.

At times, Thanksgiving is more of a mystery movie in which the main characters need to figure out who the killer is to stop them, and that helps give it a bit of an edge over other movies where it’s just people getting killed, and there are enough interesting possibilities, including the arrogant bro Ryan, as played by Milo Manheim.

A scene from Thanksgiving (Sony/TriStar)

Still, you don’t go see a movie like Thanksgiving for the acting performances, and maybe not so much for the writing either, but those aspects are sufficient enough to tell the story. Like the fake trailer, it’s more about the brutal kills and how and when the killer might strike next.

Roth has never skimped on his gore, and with Thanksgiving, he takes that aspect to a whole new level with some of the most horrific kills you can imagine, coming very close to the Damien Leone level of splatter he’s delivered in his Terrifier movies. The recent PG-13 Five Nights at Freddy’s aside, moviegoers have become so inured to less gory kills and lighter scares, that upping the blood and guts is really the only way to keep them even remotely interested. Even diehard horror fans with strong stomachs might be in utter shock by some of the kills in Thanksgiving. (And I will say that at least one of them rubbed me the wrong, since it was someone so undeserving.)

Thanksgiving is an interesting bit of risk-taking from Lionsgate, since horror movies are rarely released after Oct. 31, probably for good reason. Roth’s topical holiday horror could end up acting as counter-programming to other holiday fare, in a similar way as Bad Santa did two decades ago. The question is whether those who might be amused by the film’s premise rush out to see it this coming weekend or possibly wait until next week. Either way, it’s not the type of movie that families might necessarily go see together over the holiday week, ala Rian Johnson‘s Knives Out a few years back.

Even so, Roth has successfully subverted the slasher genre while maintaining enough of its tropes that those who love seeing stupid people being murdered (and a few not so bad ones that just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time), should have a fun time at Thanksgiving.

Talent: B
Story: B
Crafts: B+
Awards Potential: N/A
Box Office Potential: $25 to 30 million
Renewability: Doesn’t really set up any sort of sequel, although no one has made an Arbor Day horror movie yet.
Overall Score: B

Thanksgiving will be released in theaters nationwide on Friday, Nov. 17. (You can also read an interview with Roth here.)

Studio: Sony/Tristar Pictures
Cast: Nell Verlasque, Jalen Thomas Brooks, Patrick Dempsey, Rick Hoffman, Addison Rae, Milo Manheim, Karen Cliche, Gabriel Davenport, Joe Delfin
Director: Eli Roth
Screenwriter: Eli Roth, Jeff Rendell
Producers: Roger Birnbaum
DP: Milan Chadima
Production Design: Peter Mihaichuk
Costume Design: Leslie Kavanagh
Editor: Michele Conroy
Score by: Brandon Roberts

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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