A little over 15 years ago, the Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez horror concept anthology film, Grindhouse, debuted in theatres. Paying homage to 1970s exploitation movies and the less than glamorous showrooms where they screened, the project consisted of two feature-length segments, Planet Terror and Death Proof, separated by stylized fictitious trailers that reveled in their B-movie chintzy nature.
Weirdly, the project’s legacy wasn’t the two actual movies crammed together, but all the trailers — short snippets of comically deranged horror and action pictures that were never intended to exist. But since the release, audiences have been clamoring for full-on versions of these fever dreams, and the creators responsible have been all too happy to oblige. Rodriguez himself adapted the first of them, Machete, which gained a cult following and even spawned a sequel. In 2011, Jason Eisener and John Davies expanded Hobo with a Shotgun to feature length.
But through it all, the one that I feel most fans were itching for was Thanksgiving. Styled as a classic 70s and 80s bloodbath reminiscent of Slumber Party Massacre with a holiday twist, a la Halloween or Black Christmas, it was beyond over-the-top and filled with nudity and gore, including multiple decapitations with fountains of blood. The most memorable moment by far was a cheerleader who strips naked for her boyfriend (obviously something that wouldn’t be seen in even a red band trailer today) while jumping on a trampoline, unaware that a knife has emerged from the center of the fabric, leading to the most gruesome cutaway of all time when she comes down from doing an aerial split.
Needless to say, it was a perfect representation of director Eli Roth, who at the time was fresh on the horror scene, having emerged during the torture porn craze with the Hostel films. Knowing he wouldn’t shy away from the viscera, audiences campaigned for years to see Thanksgiving finally made into a full feature, and now it’s happened. Arguably, this is the most anticipated movie of all of 2023, given the decade and a half that slasher fans have been giddily waiting. Well, just like a delicious turkey, you have to let it take its time cooking slowly, basting here and there with hints and a few brief glances, before it’s finally ready to be voraciously consumed. And for all our patience, we have been richly rewarded with one of the best mainstream genre entries in quite a while.
The film wears its roots like a badge of honor, but Roth isn’t content with just recreating the trailer and stacking bodies. Instead he’s crafted a decent, oddly relatable story to frame the carnage, and gives the proceedings a modern sheen rather than just trying to mimic the 70s aesthetic that the trailer lovingly lampooned. In doing so, he’s created something delightfully depraved that could stand on its own had the parodic preview never existed, which I don’t think you can say about the other expanded vignettes, entertaining though they may be.
Set in Plymouth, MA (naturally), the film opens with Sheriff Eric Newlon (Patrick Dempsey) attending Thanksgiving dinner at the home of his friends Mitch and Amanda (Ty Olsson and Gina Gershon). Festivities are cut short, however, as Mitch is called into work, where he’s a manager at the local discount retail superstore, RightMart, because rather than open early for Black Friday, the store’s owner has opted for a Thanksgiving pre-sale. That owner, Thomas Wright (Rick Hoffman), is busy having his own, much richer and fancier dinner with his family, including teenage daughter Jessica (Nell Verlaque), new wife Kathleen (Karen Cliche), and Jessica’s boyfriend Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), blissfully exempt from the duties of the plebians.
After dinner, Jessica and Bobby are picked up by their friends, Evan (Tomaso Sanelli), Yulia (Jenna Warren), Scuba (Gabriel Davenport), and Gabby (Addison Rae). Typical horror movie jocks and popular girls, they shoot the shit and talk trash in the vehicle, ostensibly on the way to the movies, but Evan decides to make a detour to the RightMart to get a new phone (he smashed his old one in a fight with a guy from a rival school), and a massive crowd has gathered for the late night doorbuster. As the daughter of the owner, Jessica has a key to the employee entrance, and reluctantly takes the group inside before the store officially opens. Meanwhile, Newlon and Amanda have also snuck in to give Mitch some leftovers for his involuntary shift. The crowd outside — which includes that rival who Even fought (Mike Amonsen) — notices all this and begins rushing the entrance. Before you know it, the doors are breached, feral shoppers are trampling each other for useless things (Roth gets a lot of mileage out of a running waffle iron gag), and collateral damage turns fatal, with Evan recording and live streaming the whole thing like a douche.
I’ve mentioned this before, but for a slasher film to work, you almost always need to have someone to root for, be it one of the main characters like the stereotypical “last girl” (Jessica has that status practically tattooed on her forehead) or the killer. This opening sequence provides that rooting interest perfectly by making sure we all know that just about everyone is terrible, so that when the hunt begins, we will almost be firmly on the madman’s side. All of Jessica’s friends are dicks, particularly Evan, and Jessica herself doesn’t escape culpability, because at any point she could have just told Evan, “Dude, fuck your phone, we’re going to the movies,” and the whole thing might not have happened, or at minimum, they wouldn’t have been involved. Thomas is a jackole for perpetuating the mania that is the Black Friday rush, exploiting his hourly workers in a dangerous situation for profit, and Kathleen is no better for goading him into it. And of course, you have the absolute sea of Mass-holes who just HAVE to be first in the store, decorum and other people’s organs be damned. I lived in New England for about eight and a half years when my career was first starting. I have met every single one of these people at one time or another. Every society has their dregs, but these ones always feel more real, mostly because they have the most exaggerated accents you could imagine, yet somehow it’s not a bit.
Within the first 10 minutes, the only people who you don’t immediately want to see eviscerated are Jessica, Newlon, Mitch, Amanda, Bobby, and this dude Ryan (Milo Manheim) who’s in the crowd and has a crush on Jessica, but is too dorky to ask her out while she’s with a star athlete in Bobby. Honestly, one of the few flaws this film has is that because this group of non-hateworthy characters is so small, you’ve already drastically narrowed the list of potential first victims and eventual suspects. There can be fun in formulaic predictability, but I was hoping some tropes would be eschewed. Roth didn’t opt for that here. It doesn’t detract all that much, but it’s worth noting without truly spoiling anything.
A year later, the dust has settled somewhat, but things are still tense, as despite the disaster, Thomas (at Kathleen’s behest) is planning to have another Thanksgiving sale. Newlon, training a new deputy (Jeff Teravainen), advises against this, given the mysterious circumstances surrounding the investigation of the previous catastrophe, where all surveillance data has somehow disappeared. Meanwhile, Jessica notices Bobby returning from college — he left suddenly after the incident — and is now dating Ryan while trying to forget what she witnessed. Even Evan feels remorse for his viral filming, a rare sign of humanity from him. The group is spooked when they’re all tagged in a social media post showing an empty Thanksgiving table set with places for all of them. Soon after, the first victim is taken out by a man dressed as John Carver, one of the pilgrims who signed the Mayflower Compact and founded Plymouth Colony. Newlon begins scrambling to find the perpetrator, anyone who might have held a grudge or done something suspicious during the riot, while Jessica and her friends try to stay alive, having been directly targeted by the killer, along with the entire Wright family.
Again, a lot of what unfolds is entirely predictable, including the various red herrings like Ryan and Bobby always antagonizing each other. But that doesn’t make this any less of a treat. Each of the kills is expertly designed and choreographed, with just the right amount of sick humor to go along with the blood and guts. And for what it’s worth, most of those guts are done with practical makeup effects rather than CGI. If you stay through the credits, you can see that as far as visual effects go, there were a handful of compositing artists, and that’s about it. Everything else was done with makeup and prosthetics, as they should be. The fact that almost everything looks completely real (save one obvious digital bifurcation) makes the kills that much more righteous. Tom Savini would be proud.
And give credit to this cast of mostly young unknowns, as they really do sell the moment (save for social media star Rae, who ironically gives the weakest performance of the bunch, as she doesn’t appear to have the ability to pretend to have a personality for longer than the length of a TikTok video). Verlaque and Warren make excellent Scream Queens, Manheim (a former Disney Channel star) straddles a believable line between unassuming nerd and aggressive jerkwad, Davenport makes you care far more for a character named “Scuba” than you’d ever think you could, and even Sanelli playing a hot-headed antagonist like Evan still wrings just enough pathos from the character’s genuine fear of both dying and being displaced from the social hierarchy that you can find yourself almost feeling sorry for him in the moments you’re not actively laughing at his machismo-fueled folly.
But what honestly surprised me the most was in how the killer’s motivations were weirdly understandable even before you officially know who it is. Issues of class warfare, unchecked capitalism, entitlement, and mob mentality are all brought to the forefront to be explored through the filter of the splatter-fest. We’ve literally seen on the news for years the heinous scenes of Black Friday sales that bring out the worst in humanity. Roth just takes this insanity to, ironically, its next logical step, where people get killed in the melee and survivors seek revenge on those who cavalierly allowed it to happen and profited off of it. With the exception of one or two side hacks (like a guy dressed as a turkey in the town parade getting his head cut off as a nod to the original fake trailer), the deaths carry weight because they’re targeted at people who took active or passive steps to contribute to a tragedy and got away with it. Most people’s basic sense of justice would require that they be punished in some way. Obviously in the real world no one would say that getting baked alive is an apt price to pay, but in the extreme nature of the fantasy, Roth does allow for the viewer to check themselves and examine how they’d react to a situation that is very real and possible if we don’t get our collective shit together. I didn’t expect to have anything to think about while watching this flick, but every once in a while you get surprised.
Sometimes, things just fall into place pretty perfectly, like the fact that a Plymouth pilgrim would just happen to be named “Carver” when his actions led to a national holiday where we slice roasted meats, and thus would be the ideal model for a killer thematically based on that premise. You can’t predict when it’ll happen, just recognize it when it does. In 2007, two genre auteurs created an experimental anthology film where their carefully crafted stories were upstaged in the collective consciousness by goofy but inspired parodies, leading to their own successful full-length features. No one would have guessed that would happen, but it did, and the creative minds rightfully got to work to realize the full potential of the silliest premises. Thanksgiving represents, for now, the apogee of this unlikely perfect storm.
Now if Rob Zombie could just get to work on Werewolf Women of the SS, that’d be great.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How many times have you seen the original joke trailer? What was your favorite kill? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!