SIXTEEN YEARS AGO…
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez teamed up to create Grindhouse, a smashing double-feature package emulating the 1970s exploitation films they grew up watching. Films like these ran in seedy theaters, prints were often scratched and damaged (sometimes missing entire sequences), and the subject matter often included lurid material not meant for the mainstream. Along with Rodriguez, three filmmakers – Edgar Wright (Don’t), Eli Roth (Thanksgiving), and Rob Zombie (Werewolf Women of the S.S.) – were invited to create fake trailers for Grindhouse’s intermission. Hobo with a Shotgun, a fifth trailer by Jason Eisener, John Davies, and Rob Cotterill, won a contest to be included in the Canadian release of Grindhouse. To date, Rodriguez’s Machete trailer and Hobo with a Shotgun have been fleshed out into full-length features, until…
After hearing talk about director Eli Roth making his holiday-themed slasher film trailer into a proper movie for the past sixteen years, Thanksgiving is being released just in time for its namesake holiday. Is it worth the wait? Hell yes, it is. Even better, Roth continues to maintain a creepy aesthetic that would fit right alongside Tarantino and Rodriguez’s movies, but not in the sense of the scratchy film damage and missing footage. Instead, there’s an almost ‘80s TV-movie kind of vibe going on here, from the acting to the photography to the script itself; picture “the softer side of Sears” with the blood and guts of Roth’s Hostel, and you’ll get the idea.
Roth’s new expansion contains as much fun as its forebear, with other new surprises filling in for some of the more offensive bits from the trailer, which showed the promise of a teen slasher flick culminating in a horrible Thanksgiving dinner. It’s still a teen slasher flick, but it’s completely removed from the Kevin Williamson oeuvre (Scream, The Faculty, etc.) and the imitators that followed. Gone are witty meta-references to other horror films and their creators, hyper-stylized dialogue that kept our ears thrumming between scare sequences, and the borderline creep into comedy territory with joke after joke.
It’s the anti-Scream, if you will – this time, we’re focusing on the jocks and the prom queens, not the outcast high school fringe. Dialogue is about as sparse and utilitarian as can be; Roth wants us to take this film with a modicum of seriousness, but there’s also a sick bent in doing so. He and Rendell set up characters just this side of arch – sure, we’ve got the meatheads, the pretty girls, and the dark-historied brooding guy, but there’s a little more going on here. Roth’s commentary runs a divide between the haves and the have-nots while examining what we do to each other for the sake of feeling power over someone else, and he disperses these themes throughout the film and its inhabitants. Not just as a message, but as part of who they are.
Right away, we’re slammed with Roth’s ire against Black Friday midnight doorbuster events, as the RightMart’s midnight sale turns into a stampede. This sequence, while not containing slasher violence, is just as horrifying as the murders dotting the rest of the film; Roth wastes no time showing how ugly we can be over so much as a waffle iron or some other inconsequential item. Jessica (Nell Verlaque), the daughter of RightMart’s owner, manages to slip her friends inside before the sale, triggering a riot that results in several deaths and leaving a bad taste in the town’s mouth that’s still present when the film flashes forward a year. Someone’s out for revenge, targeting Jessica and her family and friends after one of their cell phone videos of the event goes viral – another spike Roth and Rendell wish to throw at us.
These barbs are dealt with quickly, leaving the rest of Thanksgiving to play out as we hope it should. Murder sequences provide ample shocks with effective suspense sequences, frightening jump scares, and the kind of gory carnage with which Roth has made his name. All the while, cinematographer Milan Chadima’s shot choices go more toward a chill, relaxed kind of feel; there aren’t any radical zooms or angles, with everything being shot fairly straightforward, opting for the visuals to carry the energy rather than artificially forcing it upon us in-camera. Combined with how stock the characters are, we’re back in the 1980s again, looking at something like Friday the 13th, where people act just the way we expect them to before they’re given the axe (literally).
High-minded social commentary aside, Thanksgiving is a welcome throwback to how teens used to be teens, with only the convenience of cell phones to differentiate it from its influences. They’re not used to distract us from the serial murders at hand; instead, they’re tools the killer uses to position victims in the right place at the right time. Dressed as a Pilgrim with a mask bearing Plymouth Colony governor John Carver’s face, the killer also uses video chat and Instagram cleverly, finding new ways to keep Jessica and her friends on the run. That’s about as savvy as the film gets; otherwise, you’ve got a film about a girl being largely punished for the sins of her father, with everyone involved getting some kind of grisly comeuppance.
Eli Roth knows how to stage his stalk-and-slash sequences for maximum effect, and it’s something we haven’t seen from him in a while. While he shows a modicum of restraint, he’s not merely trying to gross us out; well, to be fair, he does (a scene involving a Dumpster comes to mind), but he also wants us to enjoy the ride. It’s a nasty combination of the silliness of holiday-themed horror films, the suspense of some of the best slasher movies, and a welcome return to more realism, eschewing flashy dialogue. While there is a gargantuan streak of dark humor coursing through Thanksgiving’s veins, it’s not the kind of black comedy of late-‘90s horror films. It’s more in the absurdity of the nature of “John Carver” and his victims, the latter of whom range from a cat-loving security guard to an overbearing football jock. We’re back in the land of the “serious” horror flick that dispenses with frivolity and goes straight for the gut. Roth knows that fans have been enduring a sixteen-year wait to see Thanksgiving made flesh, and he doesn’t let us down, giving us a more satisfying experience than we expected.