by Philip Price
Director: Eli Roth
Starring: Nell Verlaque, Jalen Thomas Brooks & Milo Manheim
Rated: R (strong bloody horror violence & gore, language & some sexual material)
Runtime: 1 hour & 46 minutes
For a movie largely intended as a joke someone took this assignment seriously. Whether that be writer/director Eli Roth or his co-writer and childhood friend Jeff Rendell or both, this tight, symmetrical script that pays off each of its set-ups, introduces just the right number of red herrings while having actual, creative fun with its premise along the way. As far as slasher flicks go, it doesn't get much better than this in terms of execution that elevates the original blueprint. Roth is a veteran of the genre, but up to this point has not made a true-blue slasher film yet apparently should have been making them all along. Spawned from the trailer he made for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's “Grindhouse” feature in 2007, I do wish Roth had held on more to that aesthetic rather than the clean, digital sheen of this final product, but aside from this complaint “Thanksgiving” delivers a satisfying, full course meal.
A real highlight of the film is how it utilizes all the hallmarks of the holiday from the opening Black Friday massacre to a Thanksgiving parade as its central set piece, and then of course the climactic meal itself - all of which are cheesily rendered into perfect camp with some of them not lingering quite long enough, leaving us wanting more. Arguably, a good Thanksgiving meal should instead leave you stuffed rather than clamoring for more, but in this case, it works to Roth's advantage. Speaking to tone specifically, Roth manages his film’s ability to lean into the camp in terms of the performances while maintaining the credibility of the gross-out gore and actual tension of the scenario when necessary. As always, balance is key, and when a movie like “Thanksgiving” - a movie where you watch it because you know what you want out of it - is as gory as it is hilarious, that's a win. Further holiday hallmarks include the use of the name John Carver (an early governor of Plymouth Colony) as the main baddie of the film while a band in the parade named "Plymouth Rocks!" only emphasizes further the (again, equal) amount of fun and creativity that went into each decision.
In invoking the spirit of a classic slasher while attempting to up the stakes, one must have the key ingredient of - if not necessarily relatable – at least memorable teenagers looking to evade their seemingly impending doom. In this case, we have what are essentially a trio of couples who are inadvertently looped into the opening chaos of a Black Friday that ultimately turns red. Nell Verlaque is Jessica AKA the final girl who is dating a college ball player (Jalen Thomas Brooks) but has always had the affection of Milo Manheim's character, Ryan, which is just a mega savvy move considering this guy led a horror-themed Disney trilogy of original movies that began only five years ago. Tween fans of that series have officially found their gateway into real horror. There's also Evan (Tomaso Sanelli) and Gabby (Addison Rae) and Scuba (Gabriel Davenport) and Yulia (Jenna Warren) each of whom could blend in and out of one another if we're arguing about it, but as a unit, they take enough advantage of the archetypes to realize that fine line of freaky yet endearing. It goes back to tone, but the character interplay and authenticity have a lot to do with the comforting, almost inviting quality of the film despite the danger at hand and this group accomplishes such. Bonus points to Sanelli for being hilarious throughout as the dim jock though; the bit about him playing football by himself is killer (yes, pun intended).
Given it has been 16-plus years since the fake trailer first premiered and likely even longer since Roth and Rendell first had the idea for this film one of the aspects that was immediately concerning was the pivotal role technology might play as the aforementioned grindhouse aesthetic was pushed out for a John Carver who livestreams his kills. Fortunately, the campy tone is elicited in these choices as well a la Evan posting his video of the Black Friday trampling to his YouTube channel and then slapping a "RIP to the victims" message at the end as an airhorn sounds. It's perfect in its lampooning yet effective in its construction. It doesn't necessarily make me consider the hierarchy of the social ladder and how the poor, despite working the hardest day in and day out, also must work the hardest to enjoy the simple pleasures of something like a waffle iron, but it's there if you desire to read more into things or is just as easily left at amounting to little more than a lack of subtlety.
Speaking of subtlety, every time I thought there might be a hint of a bad performance I had to remind myself it was all intentional because that moment of doubt would immediately be followed with something like a kid making an emotional speech in class about his defiance of celebrating Thanksgiving while being immediately proceeded by him lifting up his shirt to wipe away tears revealing a perfect set of abs as he is immediately flanked by (emotionally supportive) female classmates. Then there's the involvement of the guy who graduated a few too many years ago to still be hanging around high schoolers but does it anyway, McCarty (Joe Delfin), who ends up supplying our heroes with their weapons to fight back against Mr. Carver. From the numerous, random places in which he hides these weapons to the posters on his wall and of course his "I Love to Fart" coffee mug, everything down to the smallest of details in “Thanksgiving” evokes a reaction. It is that classic, horror flick response of being frightened and then moments later laughing at how frightened you were to again watching the movie through your fingers moments later; such a reaction is key to the success of such a film and a real credit to the filmmaking. Roth knows what he’s doing, and he knows he’s good at it, but he also really needed a Sabbath song on his end credits to top it off perfectly. Oh well, there’s always next year…