Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving
By: rogerebert Posted On: November 15, 2023 View: 58

After promising us back in 2007 that “white meat … dark meat … all will be carved, this Thanksgiving,” Eli Roth has finally delivered on the promise of his mock trailer that played between Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s films in “Grindhouse.” The feature version was worth the wait, in particular for how the project didn’t pick up the jump-scare overzealousness of a Blumhouse movie, or the high-minded storytelling of A24-esque elevated horror, while in the oven. “Thanksgiving” is thrillingly pure in its nastiness and has more in common with ‘80s films like “Mother’s Day,” “Graduation Day,” and “New Year’s Evil” than its modern mainstream peers (the “Terrifier” blood bonanzas are an indie exception). Roth’s head-chopping whodunit doesn’t use “Grindhouse” aesthetics, but it’s a classic at heart. 

Just in time for the holidays, Roth and writer Jeff Rendell unleash a great bit of horror and comedy with the opening of “Thanksgiving,” which depicts a Black Friday sale (on Thursday night, naturally) with a body count. In the film’s first display of expert timing for shock and laugh-out-loud awe, Roth ratchets up the tension as a feverish, volatile mob bursts into the Right Mart department store as if needing rations for the apocalypse. “Thanksgiving” then delivers one brutal satiric beat after another as everyone battles for stuff, reminding us of what the “black” in “Black Friday” really amounts to, as blood splatters and people die painfully for the cause of free waffle irons. 

A year later, a killer with the mask of first Plymouth, Massachusetts governor John Carver starts terrorizing the town, targeting those who were part of the tragedy: the high schoolers who snuck in through the employee entrance like Jessica (Nell Verlaque), Gabby (Addison Rae), Yulia (Jenna Warren) and Scuba (Gabriel Davenport); the owner (Rick Hoffman) and his wife Kathleen (Karen Cliche); and customers whose heinous acts were caught on security camera footage that was suddenly deleted. The killer's murders are investigated by the local sheriff (Patrick Dempsey), but it’s Jessica, the store owner's daughter, who starts piecing together what’s been happening while she and her friends receive cryptic Instagram notifications from the killer and images of a table that has been set. Some suspects include her boyfriend Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), who vanished after his baseball dreams were ruined by a gnarly injury during that fateful Black Friday sale, and Ryan (Milo Manheim), who swooped in on Jessica after Bobby left. 

For such a big cast of characters, “Thanksgiving” is wonderfully efficient with establishing its potential future victims, giving you just enough to care about them, and not losing the potent relatability of its opening sequence. Rendell’s script (a "2023 reboot" of the trailer, as he described it to Collider) has some great jokes about high schoolers being dopey social media users or stubborn children, sometimes simply just to lead any sleuths astray. But it doesn’t reduce them to simply being blood bags, which makes the terror wrought on them more intimate. Like with Wes Craven’s “Scream,” there’s some lightness to people like Jessica and her friends, goofy as they can be, and that makes this movie’s Ghostface all the more charismatic. The John Carver killer is a clever instrument for cold-blooded, giddy violence, and that face of colonialism and misbegotten tradition is freaky just enough. 

There’s only one real jump scare in “Thanksgiving,” and it works so well, in part because Roth’s movie is more about timing out in the open; it has plenty of impressive, over-the-top kills that can give the best kind of whiplash, thanks to a stable ebb and flow of horror and comedy. It’s only in the last third that this nasty blast does too much testing of one’s palette for sadism with their popcorn, also at the risk of pacing. How much fun is the survival game of a slasher movie when it feels like the director is cheering for the killer? You will find an answer within “Thanksgiving,” which is most scattered when trying to tie itself together, delivering its juicy reveal in an atypically clunky fashion. 

It’s been a 16-year wait, but as studio horror needs something more than the supernatural and super serious to stay lucrative, “Thanksgiving” could revive the slasher flick at just the right time. “Thanksgiving” is engineered for hooting and hollering, especially for Massachusetts theatergoers like Newton's own Roth to have their minds blown by deep-cut name-drops to the town of Methuen and the pizza chain Papa Gino’s. It has the constant momentum and specificity of a passion project, and while calling it Roth’s best film may not carry the most weight, “Thanksgiving” easily affirms that when his script isn’t simply a pile of guts, he can be a wicked good entertainer. 

Available in theaters on Thursday, November 16th.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

Thanksgiving movie poster

Thanksgiving (2023)

Rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, pervasive language and some sexual material.

106 minutes

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