Sixteen years ago, horror fans were salivating with high hopes for a rousing round of gruesome, irreverent exploitation after seeing the “fake trailers” sandwiched between the Grindhouse double feature of Planet Terror and Death Proof. The imaginary coming attractions were: “Machete,” “Thanksgiving,” “Werewolf Women of the S.S.,” and “Don’t.”
Director Robert Rodriquez made his faux trailer Machete into an underwhelming feature several years back, and now, finally, we have another gory flick joining the fray: Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving. It’s just in time for, well… you know. Mark your calendars for carnage!
The film opens during a plentiful Thanksgiving dinner at the Wright household. The Wrights own the biggest department store in Plymouth, Massachusetts, called, appropriately enough, WrightMart, so they can easily afford the biggest, best turkey with all the trimmings. But rather than enjoying their meal and family time, the store’s greedy owners, Thomas (Rick Hoffman) and his young trophy wife, Kathleen (Karen Cliche), decide to open early for Black Friday, which causes a horrendous stampede and riot that kills and maims many of the townspeople.
One year later, a killer with an ax to grind and wearing the mask of Plymouth’s first governor, John Carver, starts tormenting the town. The anonymous terrorizer targets those he deems most deserving of revenge, including but not limited to: the Wrights, teens who snuck in through the employee entrance, and certain customers whose greed and callousness were caught on camera.
Sheriff Newlon (Patrick Dempsey) is trying to hold everything together, but Carver’s carvings are impossible to contain—there’s a particularly gleeful and bountiful bloodbath done in broad daylight during the Thanksgiving Day parade. There’s plenty of butchery, gore, and Thanksgiving-specific kills. The only shock sequence that seems shoe-horned in is the one involving the cheerleader (a character from Roth’s 2007 mock trailer), but it’s easy to understand why it couldn’t be left out… unfortunately, there is a bit of a fake-out with this set-piece.
In true 1980s slasher tradition, the cops are always several steps behind the murderer, so it’s up to the college-bound protagonists to piece together the gristly, pulpy puzzle. Since she’s indirectly involved, the killer zeros in on taunting Jessica Wright (Nell Verlaque). The teen starts receiving cryptic clues via social media, making her suspect everyone from her ex-boyfriend, Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), who vanished after his promising pitching arm was mangled during the Black Friday free-for-all, to her hotheaded new beau, Ryan (Milo Manheim), who seems to always be in the right place at the right time. As the body count rises, Jessica’s list of suspects dwindles but she doesn’t feel any safer as the countdown to Black Friday commences.
Roth, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Rendell (incidentally, the latter played the perverse pilgrim in the vintage trailer), is known not only for his longtime love of the genre but for being a mover-shaker in the bygone “torture porn” era. Roth knows his cheap cinema, so it’s a lot of fun to pick out his sly nods to classics like Happy Birthday to Me, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and even more than you can shake a drumstick at. But Thanksgiving is no turkey on its own merits—you’ll see lots of original, eye-opening (and thigh-opening) kills, including scalping, skewering, shooting, and stabbing.
Thanksgiving is funny, fast-paced, and easily digestible. In fact, I am sure that lots of horror lovers will be going back for seconds.