Thanksgiving is the most entertaining film Eli Roth has made since his debut Cabin Fever. What that’s worth depends on your taste for juvenile humor and gleefully splatterrific violence. It goes without saying that your mileage will vary. I ran out of mileage for Roth’s frat boy antics around Hostel Part ll. Either I haven’t matured as much as I thought I had, or I watched Thanksgiving at the right time, because I found it to be pretty amusing.
Following in the footsteps of Hobo With a Shotgun and Machete, Thanksgiving is the third feature born from a fake trailer made for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse. In expanding the trailer to feature length, Roth and credited writer Jeff Rendell drop the pastiche 80’s aesthetics in favor of a sleek modern slasher. It’s a change that probably needed to happen, but it feels like it saps some of the personality of the trailer.
The movie opens with an anxiety-inducing riot at a Black Friday sale that leaves multiple people dead. A year later a Pilgrim-attired killer stalks survivors of the riot and picks them off. Those survivors include Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), Gabby (Addison Rae), Ryan (Milo Manheim), Scuba (Gabriel Davenport), and Jessica (Nell Verlaine), the daughter of the owner of the store where the riot takes place. Patrick Dempsey is the local Sheriff tasked with stopping Carver before he makes a full meal of the town’s inhabitants.
The setup is about as simplistic as possible, sturdy enough to set the plot in motion, but flimsy enough to make it clear the plot isn’t the main course. The whodunit aspect of the story is arguably the least interesting, and the big reveal is a bit too obvious. It feels perfunctory. The real engine of the film is the dispatching of the victims. As the 2007 trailer promised, “white meat, dark meat, all will be carved.” That’s the ethos that fuels the film’s best moments. Roth channels a Looney Toons ethos, with kills landing with cartoonish delight.
Thanksgiving is a fascinating little time capsule. It channels the raucous energy that once upon a time marked Roth as one of horror’s Next Big Things. At the same time it’s easy to see where the edge to Roth’s humor has been sanded down over time. His earlier films relished chances to insult and offend. There’s a racially charged joke in Cabin Fever so brazen in its tastelessness that it leaves you gobsmacked. Thanksgiving is relatively tame in comparison, with the most memorable jokes being visual gags. There’s a 50%-off joke that still has me laughing the morning after seeing the film. Perhaps the clearest sign in the shift of Roth’s sensibilities lies in the comparison of Thanksgiving to the trailer that spawned it. Roth recreates nearly all of the big moments from the trailer and tones down the more puerile parts. Not necessarily a bad or good choice, it’s just something that’s noticeable. After a fall of underwhelming theatrical horror releases, Thanksgiving lands like a plate of apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.