One of the more memorable aspects of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's 2007 double feature event Grindhouse is definitely the fake trailers that were made for its theatrical release. Since then, feature-length adaptations have been made for two of the trailers, those being Rodriguez's Machete in 2010, and Jason Eisener's Hobo with a Shotgun in 2011. Despite talk of adapting one of the more outrageous trailers, Thanksgiving, dating back as far as 2010, it was beginning to look like a full-length version was never going to be made. But director Eli Roth and screenwriter Jeff Rendell have finally brought Thanksgiving, a film in the tradition of other holiday-centric slashers such as My Bloody Valentine and Black Christmas to the big screen. While this version sheds the 70s exploitation influence of the original trailer, it still feels in line with Roth and Rendell's original vision. It might make some concessions to be a bit more commercially appealing, but it is still a bloody, campy, and thrilling film that seems destined to become a holiday classic with horror fans.
One year after a horrific riot on Black Friday led to multiple fatalities, the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts prepares for Thanksgiving. Most of the citizens just want to move on and have a normal holiday despite the previous year's tragedy, but a mysterious killer emerges, and starts picking off people one by one. A group of teenagers who were at the Black Friday riot soon find themselves tagged in shocking social media posts, hinting that they may be next. As the murderer continues to wreak havoc, the teens try to find out who's responsible, and begin to discover that a larger plan might be in motion.
I have somewhat of a mixed relationship with slasher films. When done right, they can be entertaining and suspenseful. When done wrong, they can be derivative and gratuitous. Thankfully, Thanksgiving falls more into the former category, and is a great homage to the slashers of the 70s and 80s. Obviously, this film is set in the present day, but it plays with the tropes and hallmarks of classic slasher movies in a way that feels fresh and well-made. I am not particularly fond of Eli Roth's other films, but if there is anyone who can deliver on bloody violence and gore, its him. And yet, the violence feels somewhat restrained coming from him. Make no mistake, there's plenty blood, guts, and brutal kills all throughout the film, but he doesn't hold on these nearly as much as he would have in his earlier work. Maybe he has grown as a filmmaker to know just how much he needs to show to get the point across, or maybe he's just adapting his penchant for extreme violence to the conventions of a traditional slasher, but I was fascinated by this nonetheless. I was a bit surprised that the eschewed the grimy, exploitative vibe of the original trailer, but it does still have the basic essence of that trailer all through it. It hits that sweet spot between being too campy and too gruesome, and makes for a relatively fun time. It's still not one for the overly squeamish, but fans of slashers can rejoice that a solid entry into the subgenre has been made in the modern age.
Roth's direction is surprisingly strong in this film, as the kills and suspense are staged rather well. The script from Jeff Rendell isn't half-bad either, but most of my criticisms of the film come from it. For starters, the teenagers are written in a way that makes it abundantly clear that a middle-aged man is behind the script. It doesn't come across as pandering, but it does feel a bit out of touch. When the film focuses more on them as characters, its not bad, but all the stuff that telegraphs to the audience that these are high schoolers feels dated and inauthentic. There are also way too many characters in this film, and we know so little about them that some of them are instantly forgettable. Typically, slasher characters fall into certain archetypes, or they are given a distinct characteristic that keeps the audience clued into who these people are. Some of the characters are able to stand apart, but others feel like complete nothings and probably could have been cut out entirely and not made much of a difference. I'm all for widening the scope of the film to include a big cast of characters, but some of the characters, namely those in the core group of teens, could have used more details to help them stand out.
Furthermore, this is definitely a film that doesn't fully stand up the more you think about it. Slashers don't always have the most sound logic, and this continues that trend. This is most glaring in the third act, which has a decent twist, but as more information related to it comes out, it feels a bit too convoluted. I'm not too mad at this, as it feels true to the genre, but it did take a little away from me. Perhaps if the film trimmed the plot a tiny bit, the ending would have sat with me better, but even still, its not the worst direction they could have taken the film. At the very least, the absolute final moment of the film is great, and is a nice nod to the many slasher films that came before it. It's definitely a smaller complaint for me, but one I had a hard time ignoring.
Slashers aren't exactly known for having great performances, and this isn't any exception. Patrick Dempsey is the one actor who I would say is doing anything remotely exceptional, but it's not necessarily awards-worthy work. Dempsey is definitely more of the seasoned pro of the cast, and that is mostly why he stands out. He knows how and when to use his natural charm to great effect, and he also knows when to underplay it. It's a decent performance, all things considered, and easily the best of the film. The rest of the cast is fine, but the actors playing the teens were a bit hit or miss for me. Tomaso Sanelli, who plays Evan, does a great job of making you hate him, as he takes on both the bully and jock archetypes well. He gets you against him from the jump, which isn't always easy to do, but he nails the more despicable aspects of the character without seeming too over the top. Nell Verlaque, on the other hand, is a bit wooden, which is unfortunate given that she's the de facto lead of the film. In her defense, she doesn't have many credits to her name, so a lot of this can be chalked up to her being green. She is okay at times, but most of her performance just didn't click with me.
At a time where a lot of mainstream horror films have kind of a similar look to them, its great to see this film break from that a little. The color grading and lighting aren't too unlike the general mainstream aesthetic, but the way that the camera is used, as well as the editing and iconography does help the film a lot. The John Carver mask and pilgrim costume that the killer wears is so simple, yet effective, and manages to be rather unsettling. It plays into the film's balance of camp and horror well, and is instantly memorable. Perhaps I am more impressed by the film's look as it was made on a $15 million budget. There are moments where that budget makes sense, but that adds to the film's charm. Generally speaking, it looks rather good for a low budget film, and I was pleasantly surprised by this aspect.
Thanksgiving is the type of film that slasher fans have been waiting for. It may falter in terms of its script, but those looking for a bloody, fun horror film will find a lot to appreciate here. Eli Roth makes a meal of this film, although certain aspects left me a bit cold. I do like how true to the slasher genre the film stays, and how entertaining the film is in general. It wouldn't surprise me if Thanksgiving becomes a new horror franchise, as I feel it will catch on with horror fans in a big way. It is a flawed film for sure, but in a time where horror is inundated with legacy sequels and reboots, I can't help but be thankful that an original horror film like Thanksgiving exists.