Directed by Eli Roth
At long last, it’s served. Over a decade and a half, after Eli Roth gave us the trailer as part of Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, it’s time to celebrate Thanksgiving. But first, it’s Black Friday, and the punters of Plymouth, Massachusetts, can’t wait to attend the local Right Mart for the hottest deals in town and a free waffle iron. Unfortunately, its a-hole manager, Thomas Wright (Hoffman), has skimped on security so the battle for price reductions turns into a violent riot. Several deaths later, it becomes another dark chapter in the town’s history. A year later, a mysterious masked killer goes on a spree, hunting down those who were connected to the carnage. Among them are Thomas Wright’s daughter Jessica and her friends, who egged on the crowd outside.
In some ways, this is exactly the sort of film fans have wanted Roth to make for his whole career: a simple back-to-basics slasher with irreverent humour and brutal kills. And at its best, this is exactly what Thanksgiving offers. He knows how to build up an atmosphere, stage a chase sequence and do a memorable death – even if the best ones are reserved for minor characters. Arguably, it peaks too early, with its extremely stressful stampede intro: an immersive, beautifully constructed set piece in which bodies are tossed around, and bones get broken. Still, once the tension sets in, Thanksgiving establishes a sense of momentum during the second act that rarely lets up. Roth is a genre savant, and creates a real sense of danger. And even if the kills never match the creative nastiness of the Terrifier films, each one is ironic, well-constructed and gory enough to make up for the director’s wilderness years. I particularly liked what he does with the annual parade.
Unlike his earlier work, it’s mostly played straight, lacking the winks or overacting many contemporary slashers lean on to excuse the ridiculousness of the subgenre. Nonetheless, Thanksgiving has a satirical edge. Like Hostel, it aims at the excesses of American capitalism and the idea that everything has a price. From the killer’s pilgrim mask and motivation to the black market, where kids can buy booze or guns, its commentary is pointed if ultimately shallow. It’s a scatter-gun approach that never quite seems to hit the target but is at least in the right direction. Curiously, while the original Thanksgiving trailer was in tribute to exploitation cinema, this is a more polished effort that, in its tone and contemporary setting, recalls the run of cynical 00s remakes. The modern-day angle works since we’re in an age where young people seem more happy to talk about the country’s colonial past or roll their eyes at national holidays. I also liked the use of Instagram as a vehicle for the slasher to warn their victims and build up suspense – with little glimpses of the dinner table preparing us for the worst.
Still, it doesn’t have much heart and lacks the goofiness or innocent idealism of the golden age, where characters were flawed but ultimately loveable losers looking for some fun as adulthood loomed. This is why people return to the big franchises decades later – the coming-of-age moments buried beneath the chaos. That’s not to say there isn’t character drama. There’s a smidge more warmth here than in Roth’s other movies, and I found myself invested in Jessica’s survival – which I couldn’t say about his usual frat boys and girls. Unfortunately, many of his worst qualities are on display, too: unlikeable supporting parts, pacing issues and far too much swearing. The latter may seem like a strange complaint – after all, it’s an adult film, and it’s refreshing to see a horror so unapologetic. At the same time, it’s every other sentence to the point it just seems childish. There’s a balancing act to these films: make everyone too nice, and you feel like a sadist, but make them too douchey, and you don’t care what happens. The problem is that the serious approach is tonally inconsistent with the idea of a holiday-themed slasher. Without this fun element, the ensemble needs to do the heavy lifting – and this one doesn’t.
This may also be why the mystery element didn’t work for me. It’s not necessarily obvious whodunit, and some good clues are peppered throughout. However, by the time it comes, our cast has been so stripped down that it passes with little dramatic impact. In that respect, the movie’s slasher and sleuth elements work against each other. The reveal itself is pretty well done, but I was disappointed that the best scene, which I won’t spoil here, gets cut short for a more generic finale. Yet when the credits rolled, with as obnoxious a song as I can think of, I felt pretty stuffed – my appetite for horror was satisfied. And in an age where we’re not really getting good slashers, that’s still good to be able to say that. It also marks a welcome return from one of the original splat pack. Roth is a director who is, in my mind, yet to make a really good film. Still, this is an admirable stab at it, even if it lacks the timely relevance of iconic quality of Hostel that a lot of us thought he’d never come close to again. In other words it’s far from a turkey, but still not his best offering.