Paper-thin, disposable characters and cheap scares accompany Thanksgiving, Eli Roth’s latest B-movie venture based on his Grindhouse short.
For a few years, Eli Roth has struggled to regain his genre filmmaking prowess. After many attempts at doing so with reimaginings of classic Grindhouse pictures and B-movie thrillers, he still hasn’t found a way to get the audience back at his side. The root of the problems accompanying his failures is simple: Roth focused on recreating the magic of those pictures he was inspired by instead of creating something original that referenced the classics while still feeling fresh. He initially did that with his first two features, Cabin Fever and Hostel. But as time passed, his efforts grew more vacuous and stale rather than horrifying. And his latest work, Thanksgiving, goes down that same trajectory.
It is Thanksgiving day in Plymouth, Massachusetts. As families gather around to eat a feast, the workers of Right Mark are prepping for Black Friday. They are doing crowd control and security briefings to make the chaotic day go as smoothly as possible. The retail store’s owner, Thomas Wright (Nick Hoffman), has made a couple of sweet deals to make buyers craze for his products. The first hundred people to enter the store on Black Friday get a state-of-the-art waffle iron. The problem is that there are only three security guards. Will these three alone be able to handle a group of rowdy townsfolk? As anticipated, they won’t. A riot breaks out, and the store’s doors crack open, letting in the swarm of consumers.
A handful of people die during the madness, and Sheriff Newton (Patrick Dempsey) holds the owner’s daughter, Jessica (Nell Varlaque), and her friends responsible for the tragic outcome. They instigated the crowd by entering the store first because of their privilege, mocking their behavior. Eli Roth lets you know he isn’t taking things seriously from the get-go. His rocky, wry comedy is in the center of this cold open – making everything feel silly and entertaining. Although he could have exaggerated even more with the situation, Roth tries to make everything over the top, to the best of his abilities. From the slapstick gags to the minor details from the background actors, you get a grasp on the purposefully schlocky nature of Thanksgiving. While that trait doesn’t do the film much favors in the latter half, you end up enjoying yourself quite a bit during the first ten minutes.
The film flashes forward a year later, right around that same week. The town of Plymouth has moved on yet is still somewhat scarred by what happened on Black Friday. Protests against Right Mart opening its doors are taking place as Thomas Wright continues to plan out what he will do that night. Money is on his mind, so there’s a significant probability that he will open the store as usual. Meanwhile, Jessica and her friends – Gabby (Addison Rae), Evan (Tomaso Sanelli), Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), Yulia (Jenna Warren), and Scuba (Gabriel Davenport) – are being hunted down by a killer dressed as a pilgrim. He’s targeting those involved with the previous year’s tragedy, concocting a special holiday threat for them.
The concept of Eli Roth’s latest arrived in Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 double-feature event. The term refers to theaters or drive-ins in the 70s that showed low-budget horror pictures, splatter fests, and exploitation films for adults paying the price of admission, particularly during their late-night or midnight screenings. The intent behind this creation was to make modern audiences feel as if they were spending a night at one of these cinemas at the height of their existence, programming a double bill of purposefully schlocky thrillers – Tarantino’s Death Proof and Rodriguez’s Planet Terror – with an array of faux trailers of movies that didn’t exist. One of these trailers was the aforementioned Thanksgiving. However, a few key differences might have affected its extension from short to feature-length format.
The fake trailer was a highlight reel of killings by a murderous man dressed as a pilgrim in various and startling ways. It was one of the better and most memorable shorts in Grindhouse, having a premise that would serve as a serviceable (and bankable) throwback slasher. There were specks of everything you could imagine genre-wise: creative kills, great practical effects, an exploitative edge, and the right amount of campiness. It was over-the-top, bloody, and goofy at the same time, a trait that’s easy to sell to genre fans. But, when you look at the 2023 version of Thanksgiving, which ups its runtime from two minutes to an unnecessary one hundred, you feel Roth struggling with extending the material and adding context, as well as subtext, to the original concept.
There isn’t much meat on the premise’s bones. The trailer told the entire story in under three minutes. The only things left to see were the brutal kills we all anticipated. Eli Roth had to do something worthy of everybody’s time and service the concept’s update on a bigger scale. He makes a few changes here and there to make the transition easy-flowing, yet these “fixes” take away what intrigued everyone from the short that birthed this feature-length film. The setting remains the same, but the time period has changed from the 80s to the 2020s, where social media ruins everything. Online platforms such as Instagram and TikTok are used to keep the mystery behind the killer’s identity. However, it is also the root of some baffling dialogue.
With this change in period comes a glossier and more traditional look, leaving behind the griminess and exploitation. Thanksgiving seems aimed at a more teenage audience. But the rest of us who saw what his short had to offer are left disillusioned by what he provided: cheap scares with good practical effects, terrible editing and transitions, as well as paper-thin, disposable characters. There’s a constant feeling that Roth isn’t sure what he actually wants to do with the project. There are hints of camp and satire that mock slasher films and moments of gore that feel ultimately restrained. This division between the two sides makes Roth unable to dedicate enough time for both sides to shine, leaving us horror fans wanting more.
Thanksgiving feels like two separate ideas that are crossed together without much thought. All that was needed to make this a thrilling slasher was a simple idea and creative kills. Think of Terrifier 2: it is a gorefest about a killer clown who does severely malicious things. The film is ridiculous and over-the-top but very effective and impressive from a production standpoint. You never know what Art the Clown will do next or to what extent.
Here, you don’t get much of an impression from the scares because of two specific reasons. First off, there is a lack of tension. If you deliver proper frights, there must be an atmosphere centered on the fear of impending demise. But Roth focuses on the aftermath of the kills instead of making the audience feel anxious and worried for the characters.
The second reason concerns the trailers, both the promotional one for this picture and the ones that inspired it. If you have seen the Grindhouse short, you saw most of the kills in Thanksgiving. The original kills made for this new version are seen in the trailer. It is a Fast & Furious situation, where the promotion for the movie shows every action set piece. This leaves zero room for excitement, because you already know everything that will happen beforehand. You can see everything that Roth has to offer in under five minutes. I wanted to like this, as I’m a big fan of Eli Roth’s first works. Unfortunately, it is a lackluster slasher with some brief seconds where you can admire the practical effects.
Thanksgiving is out now globally in theaters.