IMG via Sony
Fifteen years ago, several fake trailers for would-be exploitation films were sandwiched between the two halves of the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez-directed theatrical double-feature Grindhouse. Included among these faux-trailers were Rodriguez’s own Machete (which would evolve into a feature film of its own a few short years later), Jason Eisner’s Hobo With a Shotgun (which also made the jump to theatrical feature shortly after), and perhaps most infamously of all, Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving.
A riff on holiday-themed slashers, Roth’s minutes-long Thanksgiving trailer was pure undiluted lunacy, pogoing from one gory and guffaw-inducing setpiece to the next with aplomb. Now, a decade-and-a-half later, Thanksgiving has followed in its fellow trailers’ footsteps and made the jump to a true-blue feature film. But sadly, Roth’s Thanksgiving film is hardly even a patch on that initial tantalizing Grindhouse trailer.
TOP 5 THINGS ABOUT
5. Gory Glee
If there’s one thing to be said in favor of Thanksgiving, it is that there is undeniably still a charm to watching Roth run rampant with blood and gore effects. So much of Roth’s most recent work (looking at you, Death Wish remake) has been mired in increasingly questionable creative choices, so it’s nice to see him getting back to basics here and showcasing his infamous appetite for destruction properly.
The film’s story is essentially a loose skeletal frame upon which Roth and co-writer Jeff Rendell can hang various horror setpieces. This flying-by-the-seat-of-its-pants flair brings a sense of indulgent joy to the film in its first act, and standout sequences like one involving a diner’s freezer and the later Thanksgiving Day parade setpiece cash in on this in big ways.
4. Weak Spot: Modernizing the Story
The references that Thanksgiving is pulling from stem from all across the history of slasher horror. The bones of the idea stretch back to slasher staples such as John Carpenter’s Halloween, George Mihalka’s My Bloody Valentine, and Sean S. Cunninghman’s Friday the 13th. And in its earliest incarnations as a Grindhouse trailer, it leaned all the way into being a vintage slice of fuzzed-out slasher history. But here, with a freshly modernized story, Thanksgiving, the feature film, feels much less in touch with those reference points.
If anything, it feels much more in touch with the whodunit-inspired slashers of the ‘90s like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. But the presence of these elements, alongside its more overt and harsh attempts to feel modern in the year 2023 (which include but are not limited to factors such as Instagram Live videos, copious insert shots of cell phones, and excessively toning down some of the racier and more insane elements of the initial trailer) only serve to make Thanksgiving less impactful.
I think I see what Roth is going for here: an homage to the slasher genre as a whole that is aimed more specifically at a modern generation. But the film itself is so route and often so painfully dull that it feels less like a loving ode to slasher films and more like an indictment of their weaknesses.
3. Weak Spot: An Overstuffed Cast
Slasher films, by necessity, often feature large and extensive casts. If your film’s entire production is predicated on the idea that members of the cast will be unceremoniously dispatched every few minutes-or-so, then you need to have enough cast members to fill out the runtime and still leave a core unit alive for a satisfying third act.
Thanksgiving takes this tactic at face value, introducing an outright massive cast of characters in its opening moments, but the result is that we don’t feel like we hardly even begin to get to know any of the characters. There are main characters here who are onscreen for the bulk of the film’s runtime, which I could not tell you a single thing about because they are relegated to being such set-dressing within the confines of the film itself.
This is also where some of those modernization issues bleed into the proceedings, as Roth and Rendell seem to largely view the generation of characters that they are writing with scorn or dismissal. This results in characters we don’t know hardly anything about other than their grating, one-dimensional, surface-level personalities, which is not a great recipe for making us give a shit when it comes to the horror itself.
There are hints of a more subversive embracing of the old slasher standby of outright forcing the audience to root for the killer, dispatching these unlikeable characters, but Thanksgiving proves entirely incapable of committing to this idea in any meaningful fashion.
2. Weak Spot: The Editing
If Thanksgiving was seeking to emulate the harsh, dissonant, and poor editing choices of some of the lower-rung slashers of the ‘80s, then it succeeds. However, that’s not what the film is doing. If it were, it could have kept the VHS-infused aesthetic of the original trailer or even the grimy faux-projected visuals of Grindhouse itself. Instead, in modernizing the story, Roth elects to modernize all of the filmmaking craft around it as well. This leaves little options left beyond surmising that Thanksgiving just features some truly atrocious editing.
There are numerous sequences in which the construction of suspense and/or tension is fumbled completely by a jarring cut, haphazard fade-to-blacks before the actual conclusion of a given scene, and even horribly noticeable ADR lines (including the line spoken by the protagonist during the big climactic moment!).
One of the greatest appeals of the slasher genre is the way in which filmmaking and craft can take center stage. Halloween became so iconic because of John Carpenter’s concentrated and monolithic craft. So the fact that Thanksgiving’s editing shies away from this entirely and instead demonstrates a total lack of focus and makes the whole thing feel infinitely messier is gravely disappointing.
1.Weak Spot: No Thoughts, Head Empty
I know this may seem like an obscenely stupid thing to ask about this particular film, but what exactly is Thanksgiving trying to say? Is it a film about the harsh and callous nature of the modern world, as insinuated by John Carver’s lines about the death of subtlety and having to beat modern audiences “over the head” to get their attention? No, not really, because the film does ultimately come down on the side of its younger generation protagonists.
Then is it a film about a vindictive and greedy older generation whose mistakes and sins threaten to suffocate the younger generation entirely? If so, writing the younger characters almost exclusively as vitriolic and unpleasant is an exceedingly strange choice, as is having the one character who actually broaches this theme through dialogue (an in-class report about the violent real-life history of the titular holiday) be roundly ridiculed and dismissed by the film itself.
Ultimately, Thanksgiving isn’t really about much of anything. It’s a surface-level imitation of much better films done in incredibly limp fashion.
That Grindhouse trailer for Thanksgiving from fifteen years ago? It was funny, it was gory, it was full of passionate filmmaking and genuinely palpable adoration for the genre and tropes which it was so lovingly thumbing its nose at. But Thanksgiving, the feature film, doesn’t have any of that. It’s sanitized and dumbed down to an insane degree, turning it into just a dull, run-of-the-mill slasher movie and little more.
Much like the holiday upon which it is based, much of Thanksgiving feels driven by morbid obligations. People clamored for a feature-film version of Thanksgiving, and so, by hook or by crook, Eli Roth has given it to them. But judging from the film itself, Roth has clearly moved on, leaving the film to feel like leftovers that really shouldn’t have been in the fridge anymore.