Director: Eli Roth
Screenwriters: Jeff Rendel
Starring: Patrick Dempsey, Nell Verlaque, Addison Rae, Rick Hoffman, Milo Manheim, Jalen Thomas Brooks, Gina Gershon
There were quite a few issues with the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez exploitation double feature ‘Grindhouse’ from 2007, with Rodriguez’s film Planet Terror admittedly being the superior film to Tarantino’s Death Proof, which whilst not awful, is certainly his worst film so far. What was possibly the best part of both films were the opening few minutes, which contained mock trailers for exploitation horror films before the main feature. Out of these came Rodriguez’s Machete in 2010, which somehow has become Danny Trejo’s modern day calling card, and Hobo with a Shotgun starring Rutger Hauer in 2011. Now, twelve years after the last feature-length version, and sixteen years after the fake trailer short film first aired in the double bill, Eli Roth brings us Thanksgiving, a pure exploitation slasher flick of the greatest kind.
Following a massacre at a Black Friday sale at RightMart, the next year’s thanksgiving is rightly looked to with apprehension. Demonstrations to close down the store, comments towards the store owner’s daughter, Jessica (played by Nell Verlaque), and the return to town of her old boyfriend, Bobby (played by Thomas Brooks) are just small parts of it. The more pressing issue is that someone has stolen an axe from a mock-up of John Carver’s ancestral home, and there are a load of masks of his face being handed around for the upcoming parade. Someone is back for revenge, and this time there will be no leftovers. So says the tagline.
The poster designs for Thanksgiving have shown clearly where the film’s interests lie, as four are variations of old slasher posters, from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) to Halloween (1978). The original Grindhouse short was very much a love letter to these films of the seventies and eighties. However, it would be remiss to say that Thanksgiving is simply an 80s tribute, because whilst there are moments (even referencing slightly lesser known entries like Prom Night and even Happy Birthday To Me), there’s as much praise given to the neo-slashers of the modern era. The slick stylings of Kevin Williamson-penned slashers like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer are front and centre, and Roth’s swift direction and Rendel’s dialogue make it clear that this is a modern film which isn’t interested in replicating the crackly quality of the 80s, as the film Abrakadabra (2018) did to stylistically replicate the 70s giallo. There’s as much tribute paid to old schlock like My Bloody Valentine and New Year’s Evil (80s slashers, after Halloween, took any national holiday they could to make a film around) as there is to Happy Death Day. Thanksgiving is traditional in sentiment and tropes, but modern in its slick execution.
It is precisely this balance that makes Thanksgiving so fun to watch. Yes, it’s violent to the extreme, with gnarly gore and twisted deaths, and if that’s not your cup of tea then the film won’t be for you, but this amount of red meat is to be expected of Roth, who has never shied away from ripping off body parts for the past twenty years. Yes, the formula is baked into the film’s very existence, and Roth never tries for a single second to step away from it. It is cliched to the hilt, shining its axe blade to a finely honed edge of horror formula. Yes, it never for a second tries to do a single thing which might be considered new or innovative or interesting from a standpoint of pushing things forward.
Yet that is the exact point of the film. This is a love letter to all of the teen slasher’s history, from Blood and Black Lace’s giallo beginnings to the most recent Scream films. The characters are stock but well acted, music by Brandon Roberts in the now-traditional orchestral stylings that Marco Beltrami used to great effect in Scream doing its job, and everything slots together nicely in the final product.
There’s a strong anti-capitalist message which comes and goes in varying strength depending on when the plot calls for it, and the clunkiness of its execution in this department isn’t going to score it any points, but there is, at least, something in there. It doesn’t simply use teen technology as a joke, although it also doesn’t put its full weight behind using it to give the message of the viral nature of crime and the desensitisation to violence as it seems to think it is doing. Perhaps this would be explored in a sequel, as the film certainly leaves enough scope and enough lingering doubts as to warrant it. There are no loose ends, but there’s a feeling that things aren’t all said and done.
For the most part, however, Thanksgiving does exactly what it says it’s going to. It gives a good, bloody slasher flick with confident writing and directing, and whilst it never achieves anything distinctly new, it is as monolithic a tribute to the slasher film as there ever has been, without going postmodern and meta to name-and-shame every film it stole a shot from. It feels very much like a film which heralds the end of an era for the slasher film, as the reboots of Halloween and Scream have seemed to begin to usher in a new wave of the formula. The film holds its axe high to the world and confidently, without shame, declares, ‘I am a slasher film, and I love it.’