The only thing missing from the opening scene of “Thanksgiving” is John Carpenter’s “Halloween” score. There’s a mask, a POV Steadicam shot, a date-location identifying title, and a small home with a wooden-clad exterior. It’s a fitting tribute to the iconic 1979 slasher and a fun way to introduce the audience to Eli Roth’s squeamish feature that began as a fake trailer in 2007’s Tarantino-Rodriguez collaboration “Grindhouse.”
Despite all the references to horror classics including “Black Christmas” and “Silent Night Deadly Night,” Roth carves his own path into holiday horror with a Thanksgiving-themed nightmare appropriately set in Plymouth, Massachusetts stuffed with all the stomach-turning rothfoolery we’ve come to expect. Turkey becomes less appetizing thanks to Roth’s human substitute (complete with pop-up timer), however, bonus points awarded for ingenuity thanks to the usage of corn holders as a weapon.
“McDreamy” turns into “McScreamy” as Patrick Dempsey’s Sheriff Eric Newlon makes one grisly discovery after another while trying to apprehend a serial killer dressed as a pilgrim wearing a John Carver mask. The “Grey’s Anatomy” actor is the biggest name in the film alongside Gina Gershon who follows her memorable “Emily the Criminal” cameo with another small role.
Nell Verlaque (“Big Shot” on Disney+) plays Jessica, a suitable final girl candidate whose performance is reminiscent of Jennifer Love Hewitt in “I Know What You Did Last Summer” with the rest of the young cast, including TikTok celebrity Addison Rae whose 88 million followers should drum up ticket sales, playing her high school buddies. Obviously, the biggest influence here is Wes Craven’s “Scream” franchise.
Anyone who’s ever gone shopping on Black Friday can relate to the film’s First Act as holiday shoppers line up outside of RightMart (the movie’s version of Walmart) waiting for the doors to open on Thanksgiving evening 2022. The big score? Free waffle irons. Funny, but I know someone who fought another person on Black Friday over a George Foreman Grill.
These aren’t excited shoppers filled with the Christmas spirit, instead, they resemble the mob that stormed the US Capitol in 2021. Roth does an excellent job of building tension as the impatient crowd gets unruly while waiting for the doors to open. To make matters worse, they spot Jessica (whose father owns the store) and her friends shopping inside the closed store causing the mob to storm the RightMart leading to mayhem as people are trampled and worse, killed (in grueling Roth fashion).
Fast forward to Thanksgiving 2023. Despite last year’s tragedy, store owner Thomas Wright (Rick Hoffman) is once again opening the doors early to kick off Black Friday despite a group of protesters not happy with the disrespectful decision.
Simultaneously, the murderer (nicknamed “The Carver”) begins killing the locals who die in the worst possible ways as Roth turns up the gore provided by Oscar-winning prosthetic and makeup artist Adrien Morot who took home the coveted gold statuette for his work on last year’s “The Whale.” Highlights include a Pinocchio kill (no details here, why spoil the fun?), dismemberments, and a grueling trampoline scene involving a knife piercing the canvas from underneath as the victim jumps up and down.
Some of the scenes in the fake “Thanksgiving” trailer in “Grindhouse” are recreated for the film written by Roth and Jeff Rendell who have been contemplating the idea for the holiday slasher since they grew up as childhood friends in Massachusetts.
The trailer for 1981’s slasher “Happy Birthday to Me” included the warning, “Because of the bizarre nature of this birthday party, pray you’re not invited” as the camera panned over a table with place settings featuring a cake in the middle. It may have inspired Roth-Rendell who deliver a dinner table finale that should come with a similar warning.
Unlike the serial killer GEICO commercial, these teens arm themselves as guns are readily available as perhaps social commentary seeps into the plot. Of course, they don’t know how to use them, not counting Jessica who packs a mean musket. The film offers a few twists but not many surprises.
Brandon Roberts provides the amped-up score, menacing and thunderous, while the soundtrack includes The Pharcyde, a Christmas classic by The Waitresses, and Sammy Hagar’s “Three Lock Box” (nice).
Apart from the first-rate practical effects (aka gore), “Thanksgiving” amps up the comedy as Roth and company have fun using the holiday’s traditions in the darkest ways possible. “There will be no leftovers this year!” screams The Carver during the finale. It’s a blast, literally.
Should the film do well this could be the start of a new horror franchise for Roth who certainly deserves one. It may not become as traditional as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or Dallas Cowboy football, but like the holiday, seconds and thirds seem to be in order.
Now showing in theaters