‘Thanksgiving’ Review: Eli Roth’s Holiday Horror Is a Gory Blast
The Big Picture
- Thanksgiving has been overlooked in the horror genre, but Eli Roth’s film Thanksgiving brings the holiday into the slasher genre in bloody fashion.
- The film uses the backdrop of a Black Friday riot to set up the gruesome murders that follow, offering some commentary on capitalism and consumerism.
- While the script is basic and the twist is predictable, Thanksgiving delivers on its promise of creative kills and plenty of gore, making it a satisfying slasher film.
There is a horror movie for just about every major holiday. I don’t need to reel off the endless examples for Halloween. There’s April Fool’s Day, My Bloody Valentine, Silent Night, Deadly Night… the list goes on. However, Thanksgiving has gone mostly untouched by horror cinema. There are a multitude of reasons to explain this. Thanksgiving is specific to North America and a movie based on it may not attract international audiences. People associate Thanksgiving more with autumnal leaves, happy family gatherings, and delicious food; why ruin it with some blood and guts? (But couldn’t you say that about any holiday?)
After a Black Friday riot ends in tragedy, a mysterious Thanksgiving-inspired killer terrorizes Plymouth, Massachusetts – the birthplace of the infamous holiday.
- Release Date
- November 17, 2023
- Eli Roth
- Rick Hoffman, Gina Gershon, Patrick Dempsey, Milo Manheim, Addison Rae
- 107 minutes
- Main Genre
- Jeff Rendell, Eli Roth
Whatever the reason, the holiday has been crying out for a scary adaptation, and who stepped up to the task? Torture horror aficionado, Eli Roth. Roth came on the scene with a gory bang in the early 2000s, submitting one of the cornerstone examples of the torture trend: Hostel. Almost two decades later, he takes his gory tendencies to the slasher genre, expanding on his trailer from the 2007 film, Grindhouse. Thanksgiving puts a mean, nasty, and gory twist on the slasher genre, but still retains all the murder mystery fun you can expect from a Scream film. Is it perfect? It’s Eli Roth here, of course it’s not. You best believe Roth is still sexualizing teenage girls, and its script is nothing groundbreaking, Still, it’s one of the best slashers in years, taking the beloved genre to places other directors would never with its creative kills and visceral gore.
What Is Eli Roth’s ‘Thanksgiving’ About?
The first act of Thanksgiving is surprisingly effective and deeply upsetting. It does a great job of introducing its ensemble of Plymouth, Massachusetts, from the adults to the group of teenagers at its center to the town’s sheriff (Patrick Dempsey playing another slasher police officer after Scream 3). It’s Thanksgiving, but everyone knows that Black Friday starts on a Thursday now, so there are crowds (riots would be a more accurate word) waiting for the doors of the local superstore to open so they can get the best deal on waffle irons and other objects companies make you think you’d die without. For an array of reasons, mainly the central group of teenagers getting early access because Jessica’s (Nell Verlaque) wealthy father (Rick Hoffman) owns the store, the mob gets out of control and a bloody disaster ensues. Three lives are claimed and many more are injured. The film then cuts to a year later and the small town is haunted by this tragedy. No arrests were made because the security cameras were conveniently not working that night. However, footage from one of the teenager’s phones was uploaded. There are many people who seek revenge for that night, but one is taking matters into their own hands. One by one, those involved in the tragedy are picked off by a killer dressed as a pilgrim. Happy Thanksgiving!
Within the first few minutes, when the action really gets going, there is no doubt that this is an Eli Roth film. You’re tricked into thinking that you’re safe; this is a cozy small-town slasher, and gallons of obviously fake blood are the worst thing you’ll see. Oh, no. People are scalped, stabbed, and crushed. Bones are twisted and, more than that, the physical suffering of people is honed in on. The scene at the store is truly unsettling to watch because the killer hasn’t even shown up yet. Horror is no stranger to using ubiquitous concepts such as patriarchy, grief, and gentrification to drive its themes and fear factor. Here, Roth uses capitalism and consumerism as the jumping-off point for his serial killer plot. You’re so haunted by what you’ve seen these everyday folks doing to each other that the line between killer and victims starts to blur. Again, using capitalism as an undertone for horror is nothing new, but Thanksgiving goes further and asks the question, “Are we all capable of heinous acts when there’s a 50% sale on iPhones?”
‘Thanksgiving’ Puts the Gore Back in the Slasher Genre
The script is pretty straightforward as it’s the kills that are the star of the show here. While you might not be able to go as far as to say there’s body horror here (especially if you’re a Cronenberg fan), Roth brilliantly makes every stomping, stabbing, severing, and shooting painstakingly visceral. People’s intestines are on show, victims are sawed in half, and a scene with a very large oven is particularly hard to stomach. This genre isn’t known for its gore, and full-on splatter movies might be too much for some people, so Thanksgiving is that perfect meeting point for people who love a side of gnarliness with their cozy slasher. And how fun to see a slasher get (and undoubtedly earn) an R rating! So many horror studios (looking at you, Blumhouse) are obsessed with reaching as wide an audience as they can, so PG-13 is the highest they’ll go. For fans who have been yearning for nastiness in mainstream horror but may not be quick to turn on the likes of Hostel II, Thanksgiving should satisfy that thirst.
Slashers of recent years have tried to expand the scope to offer a fresh take, blending the genre with a well-known concept from another film. Happy Death Day is a bloody Groundhog Day, Freaky is Freaky Friday but with a serial killer, and The Final Girls gave us a slasher movie Inception. These are all fun and enjoyable films (particularly The Final Girls), but this trend of needing to put a drastic spin on the slasher genre is getting a little tired. Just give us some teenagers and a masked killer, that’s all we really need if it’s executed well. Slashers, unlike other subgenres, have never been known for their complex narratives or powerful explorations of human themes. So why force them to be something they’re not supposed to be? Yes, Thanksgiving’s script is quite basic and the twist reveal of the killer may not be that surprising. But it knows exactly what type of film it wants to be. It doesn’t waste time by shoving in a high-concept B-plot or going out of its way to make a slasher like no other. Thanksgiving could be seen as derivative of so many that have gone before it, but it doesn’t seem to care. It’s too busy mocking American consumerism, putting the bottom half of a severed body on top of a superstore’s sign, and just having a whole lotta gory fun.
Unless you’re a Scream film, the acting usually takes a backseat to the kills and plot. Everyone in Thanksgiving fills their role just fine without anyone majorly standing out, mainly because character development is in no way this film’s strong point. However, relative newcomer Nell Verlaque makes Jessica a welcome addition to the final girl repertoire. She’s no Sidney Prescott or Laurie Strode, but Jessica has enough of a moral conscience for you to root for her while still being flawed and layered. Despite being caught in a love triangle, she isn’t reduced to her male relationships and makes for a force to be reckoned with, even for a killer who, as with so many slashers, seems unkillable.
Does Eli Roth still love needless ass shots of teenage girls? Yes. Can you guess the identity of the killer 30 minutes in? Maybe. But is Thanksgiving a good time? Undoubtedly. It seems in recent years all we’ve been getting is moody Blumhouse remakes of classics or brilliant but somber examples of psychological or grief horror. With Thanksgiving, Roth brings horror back to basics and reminds us that it can be nasty, gory, gnarly, and a ton of fun all at once.
Thanksgiving comes to theaters in the U.S. on November 17. Click here for showtimes near you.