Over a decade ago, Grindhouse teased horror fans with the delightfully messy and nostalgic mock trailer for what is now Eli Roth’s 2023 holiday slasher, Thanksgiving. The full-length feature is a shadow of what the 15-year-old trailer initially promised: an over-the-top exploitation flick with the moral subtlety of a jackhammer and a slasher vibe akin to John Carpenter’s genre-defining opus, Halloween. Instead, Thanksgiving draws on elements of other successful slashers and satirizes modern consumerism within a straightforward visual framework and half-baked screenplay. Still, the movie makes the most of its clever concept to deliver a wholly entertaining big-screen horror experience that will undoubtedly satisfy most genre lovers.
Thanksgiving begins with a bleak and exaggerated Black Friday store riot at a fictional supermarket, Right Mart, in the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, which brutally takes the lives of several people. One year later, Right Mart owner Thomas Wright (Rick Hoffman) decides to keep the store open for Thanksgiving and merely beef up security despite public protests over the previous massacre.
Thomas’s daughter, Jess (Nell Verlaque), unwittingly led her friends into the store that fateful year ago, triggering the angry, impatient rioters outside, and she still suffers from the guilt. Enter “John Carver,” the movie’s masked killer who dons the face of the eponymous first governor of Plymouth Colony; Carver seeks vengeance against the Wright family for their role in the tragedy and some of the unsympathetic consumers who caused the deaths, which initiates the core murder mystery of Roth’s newest endeavor.
The contemporary whodunnit aspect of Thanksgiving is well-established and engaging despite differentiating the feature from the exploitation film or fundamental slasher audiences likely expected it to be. Instead, Roth’s now-realized vision harkens to the late ’90s and early 2000s style of meta-slasher, emphasizing the vengeful, unknown killer and the paranoia surrounding its central group of characters, any of whom could be the villain. How ironic that the continuous success of Scream preceded this movie earlier this year, but there is an apparent reason behind that: people enjoy unraveling the web of clues, deceptions, and betrayals behind it all.
Roth and co-writer Jeff Rendell offer enough clues and red herrings to keep the story interesting, even if the pacing hits lightspeed in the third act to hurriedly try to fit everything together and provide a meaningful conclusion. And while the killer’s motivations are lazy, the reveal is surprising and enjoyable. Unfortunately, other aspects of the script are weak and clumsy without many positive considerations.
Besides the characters of Sherriff Eric Newlon (Patrick Dempsey), Thomas, and even the stereotypically clueless and aggressive star athlete Evan (Tomaso Sanelli), nobody else has much of a personality, background, or aura that generates interest. The movie repeatedly introduces seemingly important characters only to relegate them to bit players and then practically forget about them entirely, including Jess’s new boyfriend, Ryan, a missed opportunity if there ever was one. And Thanksgiving’s lead herself, the would-be final girl, is possibly one of the most lifeless in horror history. Bland and stuck in a helpless state of dumbfoundedness, Jess is the unmistakably rich teen who receives special attention because of her looks and status and does very little with it.
Fortunately, the John Carver killer provides moments of levity that outshine the various pointless characters and their dull interactions, and the occasional humor is appreciated and even respectable. Most importantly, in true Eli Roth fashion, the slasher movie’s gore and quintessential kills are disturbing and excruciating in the best ways, and many resemble those from the 2007 mock trailer—clever Easter Eggs for the knowledgeable fan.
The violence is the crux of Thanksgiving, making the uninspired production style and somewhat middling writing forgivable. The kills are incredibly face-forward, unforgiving, and relatively creative in adapting thematically Thanksgiving-themed items and traditions for nefarious purposes. It is what prospective viewers likely care about above anything and will not be disappointed with, as evidenced by the movie’s high critical scores that prioritize this all-important slasher element.
Ultimately, Thanksgiving accomplishes what any well-meaning whodunnit type of slasher desires, crafting an intriguing central mystery and integrating stimulating kill scenes with nauseating gore, even if it does not break any molds while doing so. Fans looking for a rudimentary slasher with all the traditional fixings will relish Roth’s latest effort, which boasts franchise prospects based on its finale and could improve its first film’s relatively poor worldbuilding and character efforts while amping up the unrelenting carnage. However, one has to wonder if this entry has already exhausted its holiday-specific shtick in one go, however entertaining it may be.
Thanksgiving is now playing in theaters nationwide.