From real movies with fake trailers (Grindhouse) to real trailers for fake movies (Ticket to Paradise), Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving arrives right on time. Robert Rodriguez took advantage (?) of Grindhouse’s box office failure by expanding his trailer Machete into a feature starring Danny Trejo in 2010, but it took Roth another 13 years to deliver his full-length Thanksgiving (all eyes on Edgar Wright and Rob Zombie to expand Don’t and Werewolf Women of the SS, respectively). Since Grindhouse in 2007, Roth has directed half a dozen films, produced even more, and kept himself busy in a number of multimedia projects—including a theme park “meat tunnel” in Las Vegas, an anthology television series called History of Horror, a VR horror miniseries. He’s made kids movies, he remade Death Wish with Bruce Willis in 2018, and next year, he’ll release Borderlands, a major summer tentpole that was finished off by Tim Miller. Roth has unfinished business in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Sixteen years later, Thanksgiving can stand on its own; this isn’t another movie cranked out by Robert Rodriguez, or an inspired curio like Hobo with a Shotgun. This is Roth’s first proper slasher film, and after two decades of citing the endless slashers that inspired him, he’s put it to use. He’s tiptoed around slashers with horror tangents his entire career: the cursed cabin in the woods (Cabin Fever); inadvertently creating a new sub-genre with Hostel—“torture porn”—with the help of the Saw franchise; mondo cannibals (The Green Inferno); the erotic thriller (Knock Knock). There haven’t been many new slashers in American horror cinema recently, just sequels to classics like Scream, with middling results.
Thanksgiving has the best opening to a horror movie in years. Black Friday in Plymouth begins at midnight, and Right Mart is going to open. Everyone’s lined up, ready to trample each other for a new waffle iron and toaster oven. Tim Dillon shows up as an irate security guard who eventually gives up, looting some merchandise himself (he makes a great victim later on—his fat head a main dish); the rest of the teenage and twentysomething cast is introduced and variously mangled or traumatized by the chaos that follows when the store’s mobbed. One year later, a serial killer going by the ominous New England pseudonym John Carver is picking off particularly offensive customers from that night. Why?
I guess you’ll be guessing, in proper slasher fashion, but I can never tell who’s the killer. Although Roth has repeatedly mentioned Scream as an inspiration for the feature-length Thanksgiving, he’s not making anything meta or self-referential. This isn’t his Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or The Fabelmans, but the culmination of his filmmaking work and his lifelong love and absorption of horror cinema. Perhaps this is his Kill Bill, a “schlocky” movie that “has no business” being this good, this well done, this consistently surprising and gory.
Thanksgiving has half a dozen classic kills: corncob spears, pilgrims impaled, main characters and comic relief alike cut open with their intestines spilling out. A good example of Roth’s skill is the death of Amanda Barker, another irate Masshole who was at the front of the stampede in 2022 and made it out alive with a new appliance. John Carver tries to cut her up in the diner as she’s closing up, but she makes it out clean, until Carver starts up his car… and you think, “it can’t be this boring.” Run over by a car? Flown into the dumpster? Not quite: cut in half, guts and all. Gross, funny, scary, even a little sad—a perfect horror kill.
Shailyn Griffin plays the cheerleader on the trampoline, the only kill I wanted from the 2007 trailer that I wanted to see in the feature. I loved Thanksgiving, but this was the most disappointing sequence in the film: a majestic and erotic setup that did not end with a knife in the cheerleader’s vagina. She gets stabbed through her hands, feet, and eventually her entire upper body. How could Roth not recreate that splits shot? The decapitated turkey mascot is in the parade. If you’re going to kill the cheerleader on a trampoline with the killer underneath with a knife, her boyfriend’s head twisted around, why not immortalize and finally realize what Quentin Tarantino called the “best cut in Grindhouse”: a cheerleader coming down in splits onto a killer’s knife.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith