3 out of 5 stars

When Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez teamed up for Grindhouse (2007)—their grimy, slimy double feature that paid homage to sleazy 1970s horror—they decided to include a handful of fake trailers to add more ambience. Rodriguez directed the first one, “Machete”, based on an unused screenplay he wrote for Danny Trejo a decade before, and soon filmmakers like Edgar Wright (Shawn of the Dead), Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects), and Eli Roth (Hostel) were gunning for a fake film spot. Roth’s resulting trailer for “Thanksgiving” was a sadistic slasher with sex, dumb jokes, and the shocking sight of a woman trussed up and roasted like a turkey. It was funny, gruesome, and left you satisfied.

More than half of Grindhouse’s fake trailers have now been turned into actual feature films. Thanksgiving is the third to join this list, following Machete (2006) and Hobo with a Shotgun (2011). However, if you’ve seen either of those movies, you’ll know that they padded out the lean, mean trailers with unnecessary filler and skimped on the entertaining elements that made the promos so appealing. This is partly due to the challenge of fitting all the pieces into a longer, cohesive narrative, but why settle for a bland meal of vegetables and bread when you can add some savoury sausages and seasoning? Sadly, Roth’s Thanksgiving falls into the same trap, as trimming away 15 minutes would make it a truly delectable dish, but it still stands out as a satisfying treat in this otherwise dry slasher season.

Amidst the backdrop of Plymouth, Massachusetts, the cradle of the first Pilgrim settlement, Thanksgiving holds a special significance as the town’s most cherished holiday. Parades fill the streets, the aroma of roasted turkey wafts through the air, and residents proudly don attire reminiscent of John Carver, the town’s inaugural governor. However, this year, Thanksgiving intertwines with Black Friday, transforming the festivities into a frenzied spectacle.

In Plymouth, this convergence means a restless throng of eager shoppers amassing outside Right Mart, awaiting the doors to swing open. When Mr Right Mart’s (Rick Hoffman) own daughter, Jessica (Nell Verlaque), and her companions audaciously infiltrate the store, taunting the expectant crowd from within, chaos ensues. And the eruption of violence becomes etched in history as ‘The Right Mart Massacre’, casting a dark shadow over the town. Undeterred, Mr Right Mart makes the fateful decision to keep his shop open for Black Friday the following year, igniting a chain of horrific murders.

In an effort to tie together as many of the silly scenes from Roth’s original trailer as possible, Thanksgiving’s narrative is busy and disjointed. There’s a love triangle, a delicate drama between a widower and his daughter, and the story of a kid who writes history papers for other students—and while all these elements were crammed into the trailer, none of them have any real impact on the film’s overall narrative. While a lack of cohesion could be forgiven if it led to more scares, more blood, or even more jokes, this film version ultimately delivers very little, leaving viewers with a sense of narrative bloat rather than genuine entertainment.

The Right Mart Massacre serves as a gripping and impactful prologue, setting the tone for the suspenseful narrative that follows. However, the introduction of the new deputy, a tough-as-nails newcomer, seems somewhat out of place, given his abrupt and unexplained departure from the story. While his presence initially misdirects the audience’s attention regarding the identity of the killer, the lack of a more substantial role for such a prominent character feels anticlimactic. Considering the film’s relatively straightforward plot, a more satisfying conclusion for the deputy would’ve been a gruesome demise, adding a further layer of intrigue and intensity to the story.

The deaths are thankfully gruesome and unflinching, reflecting the film’s unsparing depiction of violence. Victims’ bodies seem to be made of pudding and popsicles, as their bones shatter and their blood is spilt with a horrifying fluidity: a dumpster lid cleaves a woman in half with the precision of a guillotine, while a table saw transforms a young girl into a grotesque fountain of carnage. The production’s morbid creativity is evident in his choice of props: real sausages and minced meat serve as viscera, and a trussed-up woman appears to be carved from a real turkey. In a world increasingly desensitised to on-screen violence, Thanksgiving stands out as a rare and unapologetically R-rated horror.

But a good slasher isn’t just about carnage. First, audiences must lean in when things are getting steamy, when bras are getting unstrapped, and pants are coming off—then the killer strikes. In this sense, Thanksgiving isn’t R-rated at all, feeling more like a chaste PG movie. It plays more like a teen rom-com, which explains TikTok star Addison Rae’s casting. In the movie, the topless cheerleader from the fake trailer keeps her top on and doesn’t get carved in the crotch, while the boyfriend doesn’t get beheaded while getting head.

Across the board, there’s a surprising amount of modesty. One could see that as a plus, and if you do that’s exactly the reason it’s been toned down. But getting action is also a good analogy for getting ready for action—being an adult—and when the characters are crawling, screaming for their daddy and getting their guts ripped out, it doesn’t hurt to let them show a little maturity beforehand.

In terms of the cast’s maturity, the main ensemble has a youthful appearance, which is a departure from the trope of casting twentysomethings as teens. However, their behaviour extends beyond their looks, as they often act like adolescents even in the face of extreme horror. This approach works well when they’re interacting casually, but it falters whenever they’re confronted with gruesome violence. Their reactions, characterized by initial shock followed by swift acceptance, seem unrealistic and out of place in such dire circumstances.

Fortunately, director Eli Roth and casting director Mary Vernieu have entrusted the most harrowing chase scenes to their most capable actors: Karen Cliche and Jenna Warren, who both deliver standout performances in the more intense sequences. On the other hand, seasoned actors Rick Hoffman and Patrick Dempsey are underutilised, leaving one to question whether this was an intentional decision.

While it may not be the lavish Thanksgiving feast promised by Roth’s original trailer in 2007, the movie version still delivers a satisfying meal of thrills and chills. With its impressive kills and a feeling of genuine suspense, this 2023 slasher is certainly a cut above the rest. It may not become a holiday tradition, but it’s certainly worth carving out some time for.

USA | 2023 | 106 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Eli Roth.
writer: Jeff Rendell (story by Eli Roth & Jeff Rendell; based on ‘Thanksgiving’ by Eli Roth & Jeff Rendell).
starring: Patrick Dempsey, Addison Rae, Milo Manheim, Jalen Thomas Brooks, Nell Verlaque, Rick Hoffman & Gina Gershon.