Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving” is an extension of his gloriously lurid fake trailer within “Grindhouse” (2007), in which Roth took a benign holiday and gave it the “Friday the 13th” treatment.
Running two minutes but packing roughly a dozen Thanksgiving-themed murders, it was as funny as it was gleefully disreputable. It might have been the best work ever from Roth, then coming off the surprise hits of “Cabin Fever” (2003) and “Hostel” (2005).
Now, after 20 years of hit-and-miss projects, like the mainstream “The House with a Clock in its Walls” (2018) and the interesting failures of “Death Wish” (2018) and “Knock Knock” (2016), Roth has circled back to “Grindhouse.”
He turned his funny, nasty short into a full-length, gobble-gobble gore fest.
The plot: Taking place in Massachusetts during the night of Thanksgiving, a Black Friday sale goes out of control and results in multiple casualties (apparently, everyone wanted that free waffle iron).
A year later, bodies start piling up as a masked killer eliminates the high schoolers who were present at the sale and are visible in a viral YouTube video that captured the event.
Landing somewhere between a prime guilty pleasure and a slasher sleeper, “Thanksgiving” is amusing, depraved and often hilarious. Imagine a “South Park” take on teen horror films, with venom pointed in the direction of dumb millennials who point their camera phones towards tragedy and reap the glory of “likes” and followers.
Just when you think the film is settling down into formula and becoming safe, Roth unleashes another jaw-dropping sequence that pushes the R-rating a lot further than most mainstream horror films.
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Roth and co-screenwriter Jeff Rendell get a lot of narrative mileage by making this a mystery/thriller that happens to have a violent sense of humor. In the best way, this is a lot closer to “Happy Birthday to Me” (1981) than this year’s limp wristed “Scream VI.”
The original “Thanksgiving” trailer was made to look cheap, weathered and heavy on sexism. Those factors are entirely gone from the adaptation.
The film’s glossy look, elaborate effects and stunts and lack of teen exploitation make this nothing like the stuck-in-the-1980s vision the trailer offered.
Instead, we have a razor-sharp satire of American consumerism (the crass, impressively staged opening set piece is riveting), a whodunit and ensemble teen horror movie that is intermittently jolted by Roth’s tendency to go farther than expected.
Roth hates his teen characters as much as we do – note how one of the most annoying of the bunch declares his need for a cell phone battery because, in his words, “How else am I going to text during the movie?”
As in many slasher films, I rooted for the killer to rid the world of these irritating cretins.
The best acting comes from the adults, starting with a great turn by Patrick Dempsey. The “Can’t Buy Me Love” alum brings a nerdy quality to his town sheriff. There’s also the scene-stealing Rick Hoffman, sporting an awesome mustache and Karen Cliche, whose third-act scene is arguably the most unforgettable.
Roth has made several films that aimed to be the sort of taboo-pushing, should-I-even-watch-this curiosity item one could find in a mom n’ pop video store. His prior horror films (namely the first two “Hostel” entries” and “The Green Inferno”) aimed to go “too far” and garner notoriety in an overly self-conscious manner.
Here, because “Thanksgiving” is beautifully shot and has the polish of a studio film, the horror hits much harder. It seems like Roth has already topped himself but clearly is just setting up another freak show shocker.
At press time, Roth has announced that a “Thanksgiving” sequel will be out by fall of 2025. I wish him well and suspect this film’s cult following will only enhance anticipation for the follow-up. Nevertheless, I wish he would quit while he was ahead.
Roth has seemingly covered his bases and given this everything he’s got (not to mention covered every Thanksgiving-related murder possible).
“Thanksgiving” toggles between being knowingly goofy and genuinely disturbing, somehow both amusingly campy, and actually horrifying, sometimes at the same moment. No matter you slice it, Roth has carved us a new holiday classic.