Film reviews and more since 2009

Thanksgiving (2023) review

Dir. Eli Roth

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★½

After Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s experimental double-feature Grindhouse hit theaters in 2007, and two movies — Machete and Hobo with a Shotgun — based on the fake trailers made for that film followed suite, there was reason to believe a feature-length adaptation of Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving trailer would come at any point. Years passed. Rumors floated. Nothing materialized. Roth and his writing partner Jeff Rendell were busy cooking up a feast.

While he passed the time making a deftly entertaining cannibal horror film and a terribly useless Bruce Willis-led remake of Death Wish, Roth was also perfecting the ingredients for Thanksgiving, his best film to date. Just in time for the holidays, Roth and Rendell’s film is worthy of an annual viewing during turkey time. Like the perfect plate on the day itself, there’s a little bit of everything that’s made better when enjoyed with the company of friends.

The film’s opening is nastily realistic, depicting a Black Friday sale (on the night of Thanksgiving) that ends with a high body count. Roth and Rendell dial up the tension as an impatient mob gathers outside Right Mart, a department store in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It’s an apocalyptic display of callous consumerism that escalates when the angry shoppers shatter the front doors of the building, storm the aisles, and leave people trampled, scalped, and even slashed in their pursuit of free waffle irons.

One year later, a killer wearing the mask of John Carver, Plymouth’s first governor, begins targeting those who played an integral part of the tragedy. The high schoolers who snuck through the store’s employee entrance minutes before the crowd-crush — including Jessica (Nell Verlaque), Gabby (Addison Rae), Yulia (Jenna Warren) and Scuba (Gabriel Davenport) — are part of the killer’s planned Thanksgiving feast. They begin getting tagged in ominous photos from a mysterious Instagram account. Jessica, our leading protagonist, is the daughter of the Right Mart owner (Rick Hoffman), and her and her friends race to find out the killer’s identity. Also hot on his trail is the local sheriff (a committed Patrick Dempsey). Eyebrow-raising potential suspects come in the form of Jessica’s ex-boyfriend, Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), whose baseball pitching career ended after a horrific injury during that fateful Black Friday, and Ryan (Milo Manheim), her current boyfriend, who came into her life shortly after Bobby’s subsequent disappearance.

It might sound like Thanksgiving is stuffed to the gills with characters, but Roth and Rendell are Wes Craven-esque in making these teens believably youthful and goofy. The film has a lot in common with Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer insofar that while functioning as a whodunit, it doesn’t lose the opportunity to play into its slasher tendencies. Those who feel like they’ve seen it all before — or have maybe grown tired of “grief” and “trauma” being the basis of ostensibly every horror film this decade — will likely be thoroughly entertained by the film’s appetite for making each death as gnarly as the next.

While the aforementioned Grindhouse-inspired feature films Machete and Hobo with a Shotgun tried to replicate the scuzzy 70s videography of their faux trailers, Thanksgiving is much more aesthetically polished. You could almost look at this like a reboot of the (unmade) film for which we saw the trailer 16 years ago. The cinematography recalls the pristine sheen of a network TV series at times, yet it does manage to convey a personality in time, particularly during sequences set during the evening.

The comedic elements within Rendell’s screenplay are also woven in so deftly that it never distracts from the tension nor the mystery. Even the killer is loaned a bit of personality in the third act. Similar to Saw X, most of his victims more-or-less deserve their gruesome fates, which, as a curve-ball for Roth, whose torture porn series Hostel helped make him a household name, is a welcomed change of pace.

When he’s not trying to turn your stomach in on itself with weightless and gratuitous violence, Roth proves, at least with Thanksgiving, that he’s capable of making a complete horror film — one that impresses the way a no-holds barred slasher should.

NOTE: Thanksgiving is available to rent on multiple platforms.

NOTE II: I had the pleasure of interviewing Eli Roth twice in February 2024. We talked about everything from the opening scene of Thanksgiving, Roth’s writing process for the sequel, The Green Inferno, and more. Take a listen to both interviews below!

Starring: Nell Verlaque, Jalen Thomas Brooks, Addison Rae, Milo Manheim, Patrick Dempsey, Rick Hoffman, Gena Gershon, Tim Dillon, and Karen Cliche. Directed by: Eli Roth.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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