With Thanksgiving, Eli Roth finally makes good on the promise of the holiday-themed slasher that first appeared as as a fake trailer in 2007’s Grindhouse. That original trailer concept was very much a riff on Carpenter and Halloween with the Thanksgiving setting being the big joke. Of course, expanding that into a feature entails taking that one-note joke and making something well-rounded enough to work as a slasher film that still riffs on its own premise and does enough interesting things with it to fill out a feature length.
In this sense, Roth mostly delivers. Thanksgiving is an enjoyable, and at times wonderfully insane, slasher that makes good use of the holiday and its Massachusetts setting. And though it gets mired in some of the issues that often plague modern slasher films of this ilk, its moments of charm and insanity mostly overshadow its weaknesses.
Thanksgiving takes place in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the sight of the original settlement of Plymouth and the supposed birthplace of Thanksgiving in America. Nell Verlaque stars as Jessica, the daughter of the owner of the largest department store in Plymouth. A year after crazed Black Friday shoppers storm the store and get multiple people killed, a serial killer dressed up as a pilgrim and wielding an antique axe starts killing those involved
None of the characters are written with much to do: most are rather one-note with little personality or simply not in the film for long enough to flesh themselves out. A lot rests on the shoulders of Verlaque’s Jessica as the lead, but Roth and fellow writer Jeff Rendell fail to really give the character much dimensionality for Verlaque to chew on.
Still, Jessica has a lot going on in her life, dealing with her rude step mother, her father being consumed in his work at her expense, and a budding love triangle, but she doesn’t seem to change or react to them. Midway through the film, she and her father have a short, terse conversation that warrants a major emotional beat and turning point in their relationship, and then quite literally nothing comes of it. It was such a distraction that it should have been cut from the film.
Patrick Dempsey as the affable Sheriff Newlon, Addison Rae as Jessica’s friend Gabby, and Tomaso Sanelli as Gabby’s boyfriend Evan are able to shine in their own small ways. Now, like the rest of the cast, none of their characters are particularly well-rounded, but Dempsey’s sheriff is more reserved for the majority of the film and is charming in his own way; Rae fits into Gabby’s personality well and the character fits into Rae’s own public image; and Sanelli stands out in particular, playing Evan as perpetually angry and misanthropic, always getting worked up. These characters fit into the typical archetypes of slashers like this one, but the actors’ work helps make the characters more than just mere molds.
But of course the character work in Thanksgiving is an afterthought. This is a film about a man dressed up as a pilgrim who wants to bake a person in an oven. And the violence that Thanksgiving inflicts on the people of Plymouth is at times astounding. It is not new to have slashers deal with their victims in elaborate way but they can become truly, cruelly, inspired when they take just that one extra step into violence and gore beyond what you expected or are comfortable with.
Thanksgiving has much of that. It delights in characters getting their skin torn off, stabbed in unholy places, and the like. There are moments in Thanksgiving that truly feel surprising and uncomfortable. Indeed, there are scenes where the film’s violence doesn’t even stem from the mystery killer, but Massholes nonetheless find themselves dying in gruesome and unfortunate ways. It’s during these moments that Thanksgiving can almost be read as a farce about the entire dimwitted community, although this usually doesn’t last.
Roth is a Massachusetts native himself, and does bring some charming New England-isms to Thanksgiving‘s fictional version of Plymouth. The f-bombs and accents are, of course, key, and actors like Dempsey and Amanda Barker (who plays a small part as one of the crazed shoppers), themselves New Englanders, nail them. The script also peppers in the occasional reference to the odd New England town or chain. This can often feel kind of hackneyed, like winking just a bit too hard at the audience, complete with short pause for expected laughter. I’m a Masshole myself; referencing Massachusetts towns is like dangling keys in front of my face, which is to say that if there is an audience for the work those parts of the script does, I am in it. But Thanksgiving is a feast of excess: though clearly made with a lot of love for the region, it sometimes feels like it wants to reflect its setting more than it wants its characters to make any sense.
There’s also an element of the film tackling consumerism and the effect that Black Friday has had on the American Thanksgiving tradition. A particular scene early on involving a gruesome stampede of furious consumers storming a department store for Black Friday deals hangs over much of Thanksgiving and drives much of the film’s underlying conflict. It doesn’t really feel like Thanksgiving has much to say about how consumerism runs rampant over traditions and holidays in America, seeming as it does more interested in mining the tension apparent there for comedy and violence. The film is at its best when it delights in this juxtaposition, reveling in the silliness of its whole premise. When it revels in its zany violence, its farcical characters, and the Massachusetts-of-it-all, Thanksgiving almost becomes more than just a passable slasher, but rather a delightful, albeit slight, holiday horror with something of an identity all its own.