Thanksgiving (R) ★★½

Review Date: November 20th, 2023

In 2007, Eli Roth contributed a faux trailer to the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez production, Grindhouse. Called Thankgiving, the movie-that-didn't-exist depicted the holiday-themed slaughter caused by a maniac in a pilgrim costume. The trailer was a brilliant bit of satire - campy, funny, and full of gore, nudity, and sex. Afterwards, Roth was frequently asked if he had actually made the film and, if he hadn't, whether he planned to do so. After 15 years, the director finally decided to take the plunge (although he has referred this as a "reboot").

The end result is a perfectly acceptable retro late-1970s/early 1980s slasher film. It contains some deliciously over-the-top eviscerations, doesn't skimp on the blood and gore, and includes a little bit of social satire. Unfortunately, it's not as funny or campy as it probably should be and the sex/nudity in the original trailer has been excised. I'm not sure why Roth (once dubbed the "king of torture porn"), who has never shied away from gratuitous material, suddenly developed a puritanical streak. Maybe it's in honor of the title holiday. Regardless, the racier material in the fake trailer has either been toned down or eliminated.

Maybe the source of any disappointment lies in the story. The trailer didn't need one. The movie does, and it's not an especially interesting one. The ending in particular is problematic but that's certainly not unique to Thanksgiving. Things start out promisingly enough with a prologue set on Thanksgiving night 2022. A group of friends gather for a turkey dinner in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Seated at the table are teenager Jessica (Nell Verlaque); her father, Thomas (Rick Hoffman); her soon-to-be-stepmother, Kathleen (Karen Cliche); the vivacious Amanda (Gina Gershon) and her husband, Mitch (Ty Olsson); and the town sheriff, Eric Newton (Patrick Dempsey). Mitch has just enough time to carve the bird before heading off to work. He's the manager at the local Right Mart store, which is due to open for its Black Friday bonanza with a 6 pm blowout. He arrives to find mass chaos. Hundreds of shoppers are getting restless and things turn violent. People are killed in the stampede to get inside. A year later, as Thanksgiving 2023 approaches, the town hasn't fully recovered. One person in particular bears deep wounds and decides to take out their fury on survivors of the massacre - those who were there and either bore a measure of responsibility or didn't act to help. It isn't long before Thanksgiving 2023 has its own body count.

An argument could be made that one should not go to a slasher film expecting more than a healthy dose of the requisite elements, although movies like Wes Craven's Scream and Ty West's recent X have offered glimpses of where the genre can go when a creative director is in control. Alas, in this case, the biting wit of the best slasher movies is nowhere to be found. Oh, Roth throws out a few barbs to go along with his over-the-top killings and the opening Right Mart sequence is nicely conceived and well executed but the rest of the movie often seems to be going through the motions. Had this movie been released circa 1983, it would have been lost in the crowd. To the degree that it works in 2023 is because the horror market isn't oversaturated with this sort of fare and the pull of nostalgia for those bygone days remains strong.

To help with the nostalgia factor, Roth has recruited one-time leading man Patrick Dempsey (whose first surge of popularity as a teen heartthrob came in the late 1980s) to top the marquee. Dempsey plays the role of a sheriff who's on the track of the killer but always a few steps behind and not very good at protecting the victims. Although Dempsey may be Thanksgiving's big name, he's not the star. That role belongs to Nell Verlaque, a 23-year-old actress with a thin resume who's capable of giving a Halloween­-era Jamie Lee Curtis-type performance. The rest of the cast is a mix of newer faces and veterans (including Gina Gershon in what amounts to an extended cameo).

To date, Thanksgiving has perhaps been the only major American holiday to be spared the slasher movie treatment. Although the idea of making this ode to gluttony the centerpiece of a feast of blood and gore may have started as a joke, Roth has made it a reality. Thanksgiving may shock those who have come to equate "horror" with PG-13 jump-scares but it will fill the bellies of those yearning for inventive killings and a menu of viscera. In the 1980s, this would have been deemed generic and forgettable. In the 2020s, it stands out because of its unapologetic exhumation of a partly-dormant genre.

© 2023 James Berardinelli