Eli Roth’s new film Thanksgiving bills itself as a tongue-in-cheek slasher about a killer stalking the streets of Plymouth, Massachusetts, the birthplace of the holiday. The film’s tagline — “This Thanksgiving, there will be NO LEFTOVERS!” — suggests a campy, silly time at the movies. Unfortunately there’s an uneven tonal quality to this film that reminds us to be grateful for directors who can commit to the bit.
Roth (Hostel) always loves a good gorefest, and this one is no different — but he tends to hover just around the edges of social satire, which in this case seems to leave him unsure how seriously to take his own film. With a subject that’s both as inherently fraught (Colonial history! Indigenous genocide!) and inherently silly (Awkward family dinners! Turkeys!) as Thanksgiving, the plan should probably be: Not very!
Instead, Thanksgiving gets caught between competing impulses: It wants to satirize society, and also wants to be a classic campy slasher, and also wants to be sort of operatically, dramatically arty about it all. The result — although highly anticipated, finally arriving to theaters 16 years after it first entered the imaginations of horror fans everywhere — winds up seeming like a bunch of different films, through which an inexplicable Patrick Dempsey, lately People’s Sexiest Man, wanders dazedly like a lost crew member from another movie set.
Thanksgiving’s origin story lies with Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 cult favorite Grindhouse. A tribute to the gory, sleazy pulp aesthetic of ’70s grindhouse cinema, Grindhouse is actually two different horror films originally released together on a double billing, as classic films of the genre often did: Rodriguez’s horror comedy Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino’s revenge pastiche Death Proof.
Around and between both films, a number of guest directors contributed pulpy parody trailers for imaginary ’70s-style horror flicks. These trailers were every bit as popular with fans as the full-length films — so popular, in fact, that several of them, including Rodriguez’s Machete and Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun, have gone on to become full-length films in their own right. One fan favorite was Eli Roth’s trailer for a fictional film called Thanksgiving that sounds pretty familiar.
The original Grindhouse trailer delivers the typical vibe of a ’70s exploitation film: It’s packed with bloody moments, sex, and sleaze. It feels grimy, both because of what’s happening onscreen and because of the look of the film itself, with its scratched print and dingy filter. This is the basic aesthetic of grindhouse: over-the-top gore mixed with illicit sexual and psychosexual themes, all coated in a layer of grime.
Of course, the original trailer was entirely a joke, so even the deadpan scenes of the Thanksgiving massacre are tinged with comedy. The satire is evident throughout, from the “killer-cam” Halloween homage to the footage of a wholesome Thanksgiving Day parade in historic Plymouth (which strongly resembles the actual Plymouth Thanksgiving parade) to the “holiday season” release of the film ... in February. The soundtrack makes squelching noises at you over a font dripping with blood. Whatever this fictional Thanksgiving is, it registers to us both as shocking and entirely unserious.
The new Thanksgiving, as we can see just from the trailer, looks and feels much different.
There’s still plenty of gore, but the tone has more gravitas than over-the-top absurdism, even when it’s giving us several ridiculous moments from the first trailer. The choppy editing and shaky handheld camera work from the original, which helped deliver its low-budget exploitation film aura, are gone, as are the dingy filters and blaring synthesizer sounds. In their place is a chipper Bing Crosby tune about being thankful, and a stylish modern horror film aesthetic that helps slot Thanksgiving right into the current crop of artier horror slashers like Saw X and the recent Halloween trilogy.
The film, however, doesn’t live up to its peers. The opening sequence is strong and unnerving: a Black Friday mob gradually builds to an out-of-control fever pitch before finally unleashing a genuinely scary consumerist frenzy. But despite this masterful opening setting up a minefield of social commentary (and despite what Roth says about the film’s social consciousness), the rest of the film mostly sidesteps it in favor of a generic teen slasher revenge plot that’s just not that interesting. Not even Suits’s Rick Hoffman, earnestly working his small part as the dad of our final girl, Jessica (Nell Verlaque), can alleviate the bland onscreen character dynamic. When characters start dying, it lacks impact.
There’s also a missed opportunity for Roth, a native of the area, to explore the extreme seriousness with which the actual Plymouth takes its Thanksgiving festivities. There’s a real chance to unpack what it says that a creepy killer in a pilgrim mask (inspired by real-life Plymouth Colony governor John Carver) can so effectively manipulate this celebration. Yet beyond the concept of a scary masked killer distorting a few familiar Thanksgiving tropes, this film doesn’t really have much to say. Even the sequences that are more or less taken from the original Grindhouse trailer feel stultifying in context — whether because the film invests too little in its characters to make us care about their fates, or because, despite some fairly creative kills, their straightforward presentation quickly begins to feel rote.
One could also argue that the sordid, surreal vibe of the original is what gave all of its gore its effectiveness. The minute you take a cheerleader who’s about to get phallically skewered on a trampoline, as shown in the original trailer, and ask us to take her death seriously, it feels out of place and atonal. This effect increases when goofy murders are juxtaposed with serious scenes of local townsfolk somberly trying to solve the mystery, as though their reality hasn’t just been bizarrely distorted and upended.
By now, it’s a well-known dictum that we’re living in a new “golden age” of horror. One could argue this is a double-edged term. Even average, perfectly serviceable horror films get viewed through this higher-brow lens now, arguably creating undue audience expectations of even non-“elevated” horror storylines. It also creates pressure on filmmakers to contribute to that golden age. But let’s face it: many of the basic, tried and true pleasures of horror are schlock, shock, and crassness. Look at a true classic: the 2007 film Thankskilling, about an evil killer turkey whose tag line is “Gobble, gobble, motherfuckers.” Really, sometimes all you need is the bit, without a lot of window dressing. (And before you scoff at Thankskilling, it was successful enough to spawn a sequel, ironically called Thankskilling 3.)
Grindhouse was a commercial flop on release, though it’s since become widely regarded as a treasure of the genre. Still, the pressure on Roth to deliver something more than a cheesy low-budget shockfest must have been real. The problem with Thanksgiving isn’t necessarily that Roth tried to evolve the film from a cheeky grindhouse pastiche to something more tonally artful, though; it’s that he mistakes “art” for “seriousness.” A serious approach to a storyline about a Thanksgiving serial killer almost undoes itself at the outset. At the very least, you need a more developed set of characters and a more convincing killer.
But do we really need any of that? I would argue: probably not. The squandered potential of Roth’s Black Friday opening, a Dawn of the Dead-style commentary on contemporary consumerism that just sort of fizzles, leads me to believe Roth wants to have his cranberry sauce and eat it too. But you can’t have well-done social satire without follow-through, and Roth ultimately isn’t aiming his darts where he should be — at the notion of consumerism itself, and at Thanksgiving as a centuries-old tradition that ties the idea of consumption to American identity. He goes through the motions, but he’s mostly too busy trying to bring measured balance to a story that doesn’t really need it — and that ultimately makes the whole film feel off-balance.
Honestly, he could have just given us a slightly updated evil turkey and we’d have been stuffed.