Eli Roth’s ‘Thanksgiving’ Carves Into the Holidays With Delicious Slasher Chaos

Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving” is one of the year’s most surprisingly satisfying realizations of a cinematic “what if.” For the horror director’s longtime fans and film geeks, the wait for this slasher thriller has lasted about 16 years. Back in 2007, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino released the B-movie double bill “Grindhouse,” which featured an intermission composed of various mock B-movie trailers directed by guests like Rob Zombie. Among them was Roth’s hilariously vicious “Thanksgiving,” imagining Plymouth, Massachusetts terrorized by a slasher dressed like a pilgrim. It was a rather brilliant little gem and like the rest of “Grindhouse,” made with the look and sound of some scratched, discarded film reel. As a full feature, “Thanksgiving” now arrives with the same zest without simply expanding the trailer itself. “My best friend, writer Jeff Rendell and I had been dreaming of doing this since we were 12,” Eli Roth tells Entertainment Voice. “We watched every holiday slasher movie and the only one missing was Thanksgiving. We were growing up in Plymouth, Massachusetts so Thanksgiving is the biggest deal there.”

A new addition to the concept is Roth taking aim at another American tradition, Black Friday. A Right Mart in Plymouth is the site where an enraged mob storms the store on that fateful consumerist evening, spreading chaos and death over items and free waffle makers. A group of high schoolers happen to be at the tragic event, Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), Jessica (Nell Verlaque), Gabby (Addison Rae), Yulia (Jenna Warren) and Scuba (Gabriel Davenport). A year later and Chad has been laying low while the others carry on with school and life. And then, as Thanksgiving approaches, a killer dressed as John Carver, first governor of Plymouth, goes around brutally killing certain people connected to the riot. Who could it be? Sheriff Newlon (Patrick Dempsey) is on the case but Jessica is the one who really starts sleuthing. She has more at stake anyway since her parents (Rick Hoffman and Karen Kliche) are the owners of the Right Mart. As the body count rises in grisly fashion, the teens begin to suspect everyone, including each other. 

“’Grindhouse’ was the place where we got to try out these ideas, and I’m very grateful to Robert and Quentin for that. But the idea was always to make a feature,” says Roth. “After we finished the trailer we were so satisfied with the kills we wondered if we still had to make the movie since right there you see all the best parts. But the fans just kept it alive and were always asking ‘where’s ‘Thanksgiving’? Where’s ‘Thanksgiving’? So it really bothered me that we hadn’t made it. When we saw these Black Friday trampling videos where people stomp on each other for items, we realized this was a great inciting incident for a movie.” Roth doesn’t go back to the vintage mode of the mock trailer and has delivered what works as a fun, contemporary slasher mystery in the tradition of movies like “Scream.” That may surprise longtime fans of the director, who became known through gruesome, at times brutal romps like “Hostel.” But Roth knows that the charm is the idea itself of turning such a famous holiday into the basis for the mayhem. To be sure there is quite a lot of Rothian violence involving someone’s scalp being ripped during the Black Friday riot or John Carver carving up quite a few heads, cheerleaders and turkey mascots (fans will recognize a few of these from the trailer).

“Thanksgiving” even marks visual growth for Roth, who’s always been an efficient stylist but shows off more, dare one say, elegance in his approach to this material. He’s evoking a very hometown America feel with warm lighting that gets subverted by the gory kills. Even the gore is somewhat measured and Roth isn’t trying to shock so much as grip. His films have always been less gory than people think because of the manic energy. Here, he really does know even better just when to cut or pull away, even when someone is being literally cooked. “The intention was always to make a straight away slasher movie like ‘Sleepaway Camp’ or ‘Black Christmas.’ ‘Scream’ was a huge influence in the way Wes Craven shoots slashers.” says Roth. “I also looked at holiday movies and ‘Porky’s,’ it’s actually a beautifully-shot movie and well-staged.’ I even looked at ‘Christmas Story.’ That’s what you wanted, a demented holiday film. It should look like you’re in a holiday movie, not a horror movie.” 

A good slasher movie has a memorable killer and heroes we want to root for, even on a goofy level. The teenagers in “Thanksgiving” are enjoyable to follow because they’re written with the genuine feel of high schoolers, with just enough clichés thrown in. Jessica is leading the pack to find the killer while surrounded by easy candidates. Bobby disappeared for a while after the store riot and is now suddenly back, while Jessica is now dating Ryan (Milo Manheim), a cocky rich kid who struts like an alpha male around Bobby. Either one could be the killer. Roth has absorbed this genre so well that he makes it look flawless to direct the recognizable moments where someone just nearly evades a swinging ax or breaks a body part. It all works because it’s done with such crafty spirit while being genuinely funny. John Carver’s mask should become a new Halloween tradition with a vacant yet hilariously American look. The climactic Thanksgiving dinner is fittingly insane and once the carving of the meal begins, you want to chuckle and puke at the same time. 

“Thanksgiving” is a perfect example of a movie that completely understands its genre and delivers. Eli Roth sets out to make a classic slasher movie and has produced one that may develop as much of a cult following as its original “Grindhouse” source. The killer’s motivations are at least absurd but logical and in the end, Eli Roth does his reputation justice while keeping the carnage classy. “My wife’s Italian and we built a brick oven,” says Roth. “I love margherita pizza, so the first pizza I’m making I throw in tons of mozzarella. They never have enough cheese on these pizzas. But if you put in too much mozzarella it becomes way too watery, the middle of the dough becomes soggy and your entire pizza collapses. I’ve used too much of my favorite ingredient. So you really find the balance. That’s what it’s like editing. I shoot everything but the audience tells you. If the audience is there cheering and screaming after a kill, you know you’ve got them. If the audience is sitting there silent and like eh, then you know you’ve hit them over the head too hard.”

Thanksgiving” releases Nov. 17 in theaters nationwide.