FILM REVIEW Thanksgiving (2023)
I just saw Thanksgiving, the new slasher film by Eli Roth, and it was fun. Featuring a great cold open wherein a Black Friday sale leads to a deadly rampage of greed in a small town, we cut to one year later as a slasher in a Pilgrim hat and mask starts insisting on the real reason for the season, one mutilated corpse at a time. It therefore becomes incumbent upon Jessica (Nell Verlaque), daughter of the owner of the store where the stampede took place, to solve the mystery with help from local sheriff Eric (Patrick Dempsey) and boyfriend Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks) before they end up in the killer’s Thanksgiving spread.
The film is based on a fake trailer from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse project from 2007, where films from the Grindhouse era of crudity and spectacle were venerated with new entries in the genre. The project has already spawned a couple of films based on its fake trailers, including Hobo with a Shotgun (2011) and Machete (2010). My favourite of the fake trailers was “Don’t”, an Edgar Wright parody of the bowl cut, big glasses, and turtleneck era of British horror in the ‘70s, but Roth’s Thanksgiving, an ‘80s slasher with grainy film stock and sexually charged killings, was a close second.
Sadly the full film abandons the retro stock and frat-boyish vulgarity of the trailer, likely because studios are bizarrely wary of older shooting techniques even as they pander relentlessly to nostalgia; and also, in the case of the sexual elements, the Me Too movement came after that original trailer and suddenly knives up ladies’ privates and guys beheaded during fellatio no longer seemed funny to financial backers. (Although some of the posters for this film reference the infamous phallic knife scene.)
The more modern generic approach is a shame, but certainly doesn’t kill this film. Although Roth could have done a lot more with the satire around social media ghoulishness (certain kills are live-streamed while slackwits flood them with “likes”) as well as tightened up the pacing so that there’s less chaff between kills (the film is about 15 to 20 minutes too long), he knows his way around the slasher sub-genre probably better than most these days. He injects Thanksgiving with a vitally important strain of silly and jet-black humour, such as when a pair of legs are mounted beside a 50% off Black Friday sign. Moreover, the kills are fantastic. This is a film that was made for one of those “kill count” compilations you see on YouTube. Meanwhile, the characterisations are larded with a fierce repulsion about human nature; few here are likeable.
Roth is not one of our great storytellers, and he’s certainly no Agatha Christie. The mystery plot of Thanksgiving is fairly nonsensical in the slasher tradition, although I was delighted to see a mystery slasher in 2023. But at his best, Roth is like the jock who knows his way around a sick joke and has a childish joie de vivre when it comes to vulgarity that you can’t help but like. It ain’t high art, but it’s often a blast.