IMG via Sony
A decade and a half ago, mock trailers for potential exploitation films adorned the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez-directed Grindhouse double-feature in theaters. Among these fictional previews were Rodriguez’s eventual full-length feature “Machete,” Jason Eisner’s “Hobo With a Shotgun,” which also transitioned to a theatrical release, and notably, Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving.”
A playful take on holiday-themed slasher films, Roth’s brief “Thanksgiving” trailer was a chaotic journey, seamlessly bouncing from one bloody and laugh-out-loud setpiece to the next. Fifteen years later, “Thanksgiving” has taken the same path as its fellow trailers, evolving into a full-fledged feature film. Regrettably, Roth’s “Thanksgiving” movie falls short of the captivating allure presented in that initial tantalizing Grindhouse trailer.
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5. Gory Glee
The film’s story is essentially a loose skeletal frame upon which Roth and co-writer Jeff Rendell can hang various horror setpieces. This flying-by-the-seat-of-its-pants flair brings a sense of indulgent joy to the film in its first act and standout sequences like one involving a diner’s freezer and the later Thanksgiving Day parade setpiece cash in on this in significant ways.
4. Weak Spot: Modernizing the Story
“Thanksgiving” draws inspiration from a broad spectrum of slasher horror history, with roots reaching back to genre classics like John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” George Mihalka’s “My Bloody Valentine,” and Sean S. Cunningham’s “Friday the 13th.” In its initial form as a Grindhouse trailer, it embraced a vintage, fuzzed-out slasher aesthetic. However, in its transition to a feature film with a contemporized narrative, “Thanksgiving” feels somewhat disconnected from these traditional reference points.
If anything, it feels much more in touch with the whodunit-inspired slashers of the ‘90s, like “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” But the presence of these elements, alongside its more overt and harsh attempts to feel modern in the year 2023 (which include but are not limited to factors such as Instagram Live videos, copious insert shots of cell phones, and excessively toning down some of the racier and more insane elements of the initial trailer) only serve to make “Thanksgiving” less impactful.
I believe Roth’s intention is to pay homage to the slasher genre with a focus on the modern audience. However, the film’s execution is uninspiring and often painfully dull, making it seem less like a heartfelt tribute to slasher films and more like a critique of their inherent shortcomings.
3. Weak Spot: An Overstuffed Cast
Slasher films, by necessity, typically involve large and extensive casts. If the film’s entire premise revolves around the expectation that cast members will be unceremoniously dispatched every few minutes or so, there needs to be a sufficient number of characters to fill out the runtime while maintaining a core unit alive for a satisfying third act.
This is also where some of those modernization issues bleed into the proceedings, as Roth and Rendell seem to view the generation of characters they are writing scornfully or dismissively. This results in characters we don’t know hardly anything about other than their grating, one-dimensional, surface-level personalities, which is not a great recipe for making us care when it comes to the horror itself.
If “Thanksgiving” aimed to replicate the harsh, dissonant, and poorly edited style of some of the lower-tier slashers of the ‘80s, then it succeeds. However, that’s not the film’s intention. If it were, it could have retained the VHS-infused aesthetic of the original trailer or even the gritty faux-projected visuals of Grindhouse itself. Instead, in modernizing the story, Roth also chooses to modernize all of the filmmaking craft around it. This leaves few options other than concluding that “Thanksgiving” just features some truly atrocious editing.
In numerous sequences, the construction of suspense and/or tension is completely fumbled by jarring cuts, haphazard fade-to-blacks before the actual conclusion of a given scene, and even noticeably poor ADR lines (including the line spoken by the protagonist during the big climactic moment!).
One of the greatest appeals of the slasher genre is how filmmaking and craft can take center stage. “Halloween” became iconic due to John Carpenter’s concentrated and monolithic craft. So the fact that Thanksgiving’s editing shies away from this entirely and instead demonstrates a total lack of focus, making the whole thing feel infinitely messier, is gravely disappointing.
1. Weak Spot: No Thoughts, Head Empty
“Thanksgiving,” while initially seeming an unlikely subject for thematic scrutiny, raises questions about its underlying message, as it neither distinctly conveys the harsh nature of the modern world, as suggested by John Carver’s lines, nor commits to portraying a vindictive older generation, ultimately prioritizing the perspective of its younger protagonists without delving into a specific social commentary or clear thematic anchor.
If “Thanksgiving” aims to portray a vindictive and greedy older generation whose mistakes jeopardize the younger one, the film’s peculiar choice to depict the younger characters predominantly as vitriolic and unpleasant, along with the dismissal of the character addressing this theme through dialogue, adds to the overall strangeness of its narrative approach.
In the end, “Thanksgiving” lacks a substantive thematic focus, serving as a superficial imitation of superior films and executed with a notably lackluster approach.
The Grindhouse trailer for “Thanksgiving” from fifteen years ago was humorous, gory, and brimming with passionate filmmaking, showcasing genuine adoration for the genre and tropes it playfully mocked. However, “Thanksgiving,” the feature film, lacks these qualities. It has been sanitized and dumbed down to an extreme degree, reducing it to a mundane slasher movie with little to offer.
Similar to the holiday it draws inspiration from, much of “Thanksgiving” appears motivated by morbid obligations. With public demand for a feature-film version, Eli Roth has delivered it, but the film itself suggests that Roth has moved on, leaving it feeling like lingering leftovers that should have been discarded.