Eli Roth has tried his hands at a few genres since becoming the maestro of torture porn. He made an erotic thriller, a Death Wish remake (which we all like to forget about), and even a kids’ fantasy movie. His return to the horror genre, Thanksgiving, harkens back to before that, though. It shares more in common with his debut on the scene, Cabin Fever, than it does any of his work since — and the result is an utter blast.
The film is set in a town that is terrorized by a Pilgrim-dressed killer a year after a Black Friday riot ends in tragedy. The third of Grindhouse’s fake trailers to be realized as an actual movie, there’s enough here to delight fans of the cult favorite double feature, but it’s also just a great horror flick in its own right.
Like any great slasher movie, part of the fun of Thanksgiving is trying to guess who the killer is. And while Jeff Rendell’s screenplay does play it by the book, it uses the tropes in an effective enough way to take viewers by surprise every now and again. Interestingly, the influences here are much more modern than one might expect from a Roth film — especially one spun off from Grindhouse. It owes just as much — if not more — to ‘90s horror like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream as it does to the giants of the slasher genre, like Halloween.
Thanksgiving is one of the best horror-comedies in years
Rendell and Roth also manage to create one of the most enjoyable horror-comedies in quite a while. Like most of Roth’s work, the sense of humor here is pitch black and maybe even a bit cruel. You’re laughing at the misery of these people as they are maimed and brutalized. Yet, Rendell does a great job of striking an essential balance with the characters. They’re likable enough for you to root for them, but they do enough bad things that you’re not entirely upset to see them go.
It’s clear that everyone in this cast — especially Patrick Dempsey — is having the time of their life. Dempsey really hams it up as the town sheriff, putting on an aggressive Massachusetts accent and bringing a perfect charm to the role. As for the main cast of young actors, they understand the assignment, acting in the over-the-top way the movie calls for. The legendary Gina Gershon also gets a cameo that is quite memorable.
There are some interesting ideas brewing on the surface in terms of messaging. There’s the obvious anti-capitalist messaging — particularly in the extremely effective opening sequence — but the film doesn’t add anything to the conversation that hasn’t been said before. Some of the stuff about social media also is intriguing, but mostly feels like an afterthought.
Of course, one of the main reasons to go to an Eli Roth picture is the gore. And while Thanksgiving hardly reaches the gross-out levels of some of his torture porn pictures, there are plenty of scenes that will have viewers squirming. Yes, many of the kills are ridiculous, over the top, and campy — but isn’t that exactly what viewers want to see?
The effects in Thanksgiving are mostly very strong, with some gore make-up that’s quite good. In a few scenes, it’s clear that they’re using CGI to accent the practical work or add some blood, but Roth makes the wise decision to come back to the aftermath later, at which point there’s more practical effects. The one thing that is disappointing about Roth’s approach is that it does feel very modern. Outside of a few flourishes, like the credits and titles, it doesn’t have the exploitation-influenced look of the Grindhouse fake trailer. Still, if you don’t look at it in the light of a throwback, it’s well-done.
Thanksgiving is a ton of fun, serving as a fantastic return to form for Eli Roth. It’s funny, gory, and exciting, delivering exactly the type of thrills anyone would hope for from a movie with this premise. The sickos who love Eli Roth (this writer included) now have a new movie to add to our holiday rotation — not that there are many great Thanksgiving-themed films in the first place.
Thanksgiving hits theaters on November 17.