Friday, December 1, 2023

A Place at the Table: Thanksgiving (2023) Review

Director: Eli Roth

Notable Cast: Nell Verlaque, Patrick Dempsey, Addison Rae, Milo Manheim, Jalen Thomas Brooks, Gabriel Davenport, Tomaso Sanelli, Jenna Warren, Rick Hoffman, Karen Cliché, Gina Gershon, Ty Olsson


Sixteen years is an incredibly long time. To think where I was in my life sixteen years ago, is to feel like I’ve looked back upon a half dozen lifetimes. For director Eli Roth, it’s damn near half a dozen films. Yet, his 2007 fake trailer for Thanksgiving has remained one of those fan-favorite ideas that kept coming up repeatedly. Attached to the Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez double feature Grindhouse, this throwback trailer to some long-lost sleazy slasher had fans in a tizzy for nearly two decades. Watching a fake trailer became a staple of the turkey-powered holiday, and everyone just kept asking, “When, Eli, when?”


Eli Roth always remembered, and now, sixteen years later, he has fulfilled that promise of delivering his own holiday treat, Thanksgiving. Trying to compare this film to its fake trailer is something of a fascinating way to view it, but really what Roth has done with this film is he’s delivered a raucous and gory classic slasher with a modern lens that fits right in with his style of filmmaking - updating genre pickings with a dark comedic bent as a love letter to cinema. Thanksgiving gives thanks to all the slashers that come before but manages to hold its own identity with piss n’ vinegar. 


What makes Thanksgiving such a fascinating film though is that, instead of recreating the moments and 70s sleaze tone of the original trailer, Roth has opted to go with a more modern spin on the same idea. In a way, Thanksgiving feels like the early 00s remake of a 1970s slasher and - as a horror fan with a soft spot for that era of slashers - I am definitely pulling my seat up to the table for it. 


Thanksgiving sets the table with plenty of slasher tropes for the fans of the genre, including the teenage set of protagonists, a masked and gimmicky killer, plentiful creative kills, and gore galore. It’s a bit shocking that Roth didn’t go fully in on the sleaze and grime that pop up in his other films, but then again - it very much feels like the 00s slashers rather than the 70s one. It doesn’t hold back on some of its fun, horror deaths though and while I won’t spoil some of the ones not featured in the trailer, seeing Roth play around with the fall holiday’s gimmicks is a blast to watch. Is it excruciating to see a person baked alive like a turkey or see someone get the ol’ corn cob skewers to the ears? Sure, but it’s all fun and games for Roth and his team to put together some gory and often silly slasher kills filled with solid tension and fantastic payoffs. 


Yet, seeing Roth play around in this slasher playground is almost par for the course. He wasn’t going to fuck that up, but what’s more surprising in Thanksgiving is how much fun the film has with its whodunnit narrative. Like so many slashers, this one very much toys with its audience in delivering a slew of characters that may or may not be the killer, who is figured after a pilgrim named John Carver. 


The characters and the main plot are introduced through a horrific event on Black Friday where people storm a box store for the sales and free waffle irons. Deaths occur, our main group of teens happen to be at the eye of this story, and Roth even goes as far as to have one character record the chaos on his phone and release the footage on YouTube in a hilariously dark moment of comedy (RIP to the victims and don’t forget to click and subscribe.) This allows the film to play around with its ensemble of characters, introducing us to the final girl Jessica, played by newcomer Nell Verlaque, and the teen problems that arise after a tragedy. Each person seemingly has their motive to be the killer and the script loves to throw red herrings at the audience from every corner. Who is the Carver and who will be carved? It’s a blast to just go along for the ride. 


As a bonus, Roth’s penchant for off-beat, dark, and often childish humor is in its wheelhouse with Thanksgiving. Even moments where tertiary characters get long monologues about Black Sabbath or the elongated setups to get characters alone for a fun kill play into the humor of its style and Roth sinks the shot. Although his humor often plays at odds with his horror in other films (I’m looking at you, The Green Inferno), the conjunction of the two in this one is impressive. It’s like Roth was built to make this movie, and it shows in every moment. 


While my expectations may have been tempered by the speed that Thanksgiving was cooked up in the wake of Roth finishing his yet unreleased adaption of Borderlands, the fact that it so nimbly earns its merits makes this slasher one of my favorites of the year. The cast is having a lot of fun with the characters, there’s just enough heart and mystery to keep its narrative afloat, and the slasher kills and horror builds are aptly crafted. 


With the recently announced sequel on the way, Thanksgiving already looks to be a holiday must-watch. It’s enough that I’m incredibly excited to return for seconds. 


Written By Matt Malpica Reifschneider

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