The idea for Eli Roth to make a horror movie about Thanksgiving was originally a joke. Several holidays are synonymous with Hollywood horror. Halloween, of course. Christmas has a few movies. Valentine’s Day too. But Thanksgiving? That’s so silly. Or is it?
While every frame of Thanksgiving, which is now in theaters, has the zest of self-awareness sprinkled on top, Roth (who co-wrote and directs) plays things super seriously. It’s like everyone involved was told, “Yes, this idea is dumb, but if we pretend it’s not dumb, everything will fall into place.” And so, the film has the best of both worlds. We enjoy the absurdity of the premise but are sucked in by everyone’s commitment to it. There is plenty of humor throughout, but it comes almost exclusively from Roth’s penchant for gag-inducing horror. You laugh because you’re revolted, not because you don’t care. All of which carves Thanksgiving into a very sharp, very fun slasher flick that feels more familiar than not, but still delivers on the sick, silly promise that came from that fake trailer almost 20 years ago.
All of this comes together right at the start of the film with its completely mental opening sequence. While the Thanksgiving holiday is filled with recognizable iconography, most of which is well-represented in the movie, Roth takes a sharp turn right at the start, kicking things off in a whole other place entirely. Another huge facet of modern Thanksgiving is the idea of Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when holiday shopping begins with lots of unmissable discounts. It’s an idea that’s evolved over the years and, in some unfortunate cases, gotten out of hand with violence and mayhem..
Thanksgiving starts there, with a Black Friday scene taken out of your darkest nightmares. Selfish, cartoonish Americans yelling, screaming, and eventually rioting and hurting one another. It’s a disturbing, hilarious, and also all too believable scene that gets Thanksgiving off to a high-octane start. The event sends shockwaves through the town (Plymouth, Massachusets, of course) and things pick up one year later when a killer who dresses like the former governor of Plymouth Colony, Mayflower passenger John Carver (great horror name by the way), decides to get back at the people who turned Black Friday into a tragedy.
Most of that centers around Jessica (Big Shot’s Nell Verlaque) and her friend group. Jessica is a high school senior whose father (Rick Hoffman) owns the WalMart-like store where the Black Friday massacre took place. After it becomes clear Carver is targeting people who were part of the Black Friday event, Jessica and her friends team up with the local sheriff (Patrick Dempsey) to attempt to find and stop the killer.
As entertaining as Thanksgiving is throughout, it never gets better than that first scene. Roth captures the Black Friday carnage with an energy and absurdity the rest of the movie never quite matches. And yet, as Carver makes his way across Plymouth, Roth does flex his considerable horror muscles. Each kill is sillier and grosser than the next. Some are slow and methodical. Others punch you in the face unexpectedly. Plus, many of them use classic Thanksgiving items, including things found in and around the kitchen.
With the mostly unknown cast getting picked off one by one, Roth does his best Scream impression too, offering up several red herrings about who may be behind the mask. And while the mystery isn’t instantly obvious, once it’s finally revealed at the end, it’s more obvious than one may have hoped. That lack of imagination cuts Thanksgiving back a bit but, overall, it still provides more than enough satisfaction when all is said and done.
It’s simply a blast to watch these mostly disposable characters run around terrified and discover how the killer is going to get each and every one of them. Roast a person in the oven? Sure. Stab someone with elaborate kitchen utensils? Fine. Freeze a face to the wall? Of course! It’s all handled like it’s just another day in the slasher horror genre—which, ultimately, is what makes it work.
With its unique origins, Thanksgiving could’ve very easily been one of those wink-wink horror movies. Something that’s too cool or smart for the room. It’s not that at all. There’s no super meta level to it; this is just the guy who made Hostel trying to invent a new slasher horror icon with gory kills and dense mythology to boot. That they happen to be centered around a familiar yet unconventional holiday is just a bonus because it means every year, people can see what John Carver is up to, and have a great time. Thanksgiving doesn’t reinvent the slasher genre, but it adds some nice new fixings to the table.
Thanksgiving is now in theaters.
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