At present, the world can be easily divided into four distinct camps: Those who know and appreciate Eli Roth (Knock Knock, Hostel I and II, Cabin Fever); those who know and simply don’t appreciate Eli Roth or anything in his filmography; those who’ve never heard of Eli Roth but might be moved to catch his latest directing gig on a big-, medium-, or small-sized screen (depending on interest, budget, or availability); and those who’ve never heard of Eli Roth and simply can’t be bothered one way or another.
Assuming you’re either camp one (1) or camp three (3), then Roth’s sixteen-years-in-the-making slasher, Thanksgiving, a long-promised, semi-anticipated expansion of the faux trailer Roth directed in 2007 for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double-feature, Grindhouse, just might be the anti-holiday treat you’ll need to get you and other like-minded moviegoers through the last two weeks of November. Then again, a great deal depends on (a) your love of the slasher sub-genre and its tried-and-true tropes and (b) your stomach’s tolerance for literally gut-churning practical effects as the masked slasher slices and dices his way through a small Massachusetts community.
Setting those questions aside temporarily, Thanksgiving opens somewhere around the present (i.e., last year or the year before) as Thomas Wright (Rick Hoffman), the greedy, atavistic owner of a Walmart-inspired chain, Right Mart, decides to keep his flagship store (and others too, presumably) for Black Friday sales. With a roaring, rapacious crowd, turned by capitalistic excess into unthinking, zombified shoppers and only two security guards on hand, it’s only a matter of time before the police barriers fall and an uncontrollable stampede breaks doors and bodies in equal measures.
Fast forward twelve months to the next Thanksgiving and everyone involved has moved on, leaving memories and traumas behind to once again celebrate overstuffing themselves with too much food after exchanging thanks, then starting the Black Friday cycle of heedless consumerism all over again. There’s one exception, of course: The masked killer, dressed all in black, wearing a gurning, off-the-shelf John Carver mask and a Pilgrim’s hat. He’s also fond of carrying around a sharply honed ax and a grudge against those directly and indirectly involved in the previous year’s fatalities.
It’s an old-school, giallo-influenced mystery, though Roth and his writer, Jeff Rendell, put only the barest effort into the “who” or even the “why” behind the masked killer. It’s enough that he (or she) has a grudge and with Thanksgiving fast approaching, he’s checking his list and slashing with extreme prejudice. Everyone from an obnoxious waitress to a cowardly security guard shows up on the killer’s hack-and-slash list, but he saves the worst for last, the teens who, through the usual mix of narcissism, self-entitlement, and self-indulgence, inadvertently started the stampede and once it began, did next to nothing to save everyone. At least one teen recorded it all and, of course, posted it to social media.
The cast of characters includes Wright’s daughter, Jessica (Nell Verlaque), and her tight-knit high-school posse, a posse that includes Gabby (Addison Rae), Evan (Tomaso Sanelli), Yulia (Jenna Warren), and Scuba (Gabriel Davenport), Jessica’s current boyfriend, Ryan (Milo Manheim), a drip by any definition, and her ex, Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), a onetime baseball star recovering from a potential career-ending injury, round out the pool of potential victims and/or the slasher hiding in plain sight.
Typical for the slasher sub-genre, local law enforcement’s onscreen presence, this time led by an ineffectual, if well-meaning, sheriff, Newlon (Patrick Dempsey), rarely does anything to help, always arriving too late to save the killer’s latest victim(s). The police’s uselessness usually isn’t perceived as some kind of real-world moral or political judgment, but it’s hard not to come to that conclusion, especially as the dwindling survivor pool realizes the killer can strike at any time and they need to take their safety and security into their own hands.
By the time Thanksgiving gets to its climactic showdown between the killer and the final survivor(s), Roth and his team of practical effects magicians have delivered a handful of memorable kills. They’re as gnarly, grisly, and grisly as expected for a contemporary slasher, though Roth’s decision to go as extreme as an R-rating gives audiences equipped with cast-iron stomachs the chance to laugh and gasp rather than recoil in terror or disgust. It’s a lesson Roth’s fellow Grindhouse filmmaker, Edgar Wright, has long understood (the more extreme the violence, the more absurd and thus, the more likely to accept as unreal/fantastical).
The cast of relatively unknown twenty-somethings mostly make for credible, serviceable, not particularly sympathetic teens. That, of course, makes their individual exits or potential exits from Thanksgiving before the end credits roll, if not entirely deserved (i.e., the punishment fitting the “crime”), then at least plausible in the grand scheme of slasher film conventions. No one really stands out positively or negatively, but at least that means a bad performance here or there doesn’t undercut the audience’s overall enjoyment of what, by default, qualifies as Roth’s best film in years, possibly even his entire career as a filmmaker.
Thanksgiving opens theatrically on Friday, November 17th.