By Shannon McGrew
Eli Roth first grabbed my attention with his 2002 feature film debut, Cabin Fever, a film that helped usher me into the splatter sub-genre. Though I appreciated aspects of his sophomore film, Hostel, I found myself struggling to connect with much of his subsequent work. Some felt excessively shocking, while others didn’t seem to suit his style. Regardless, I, like many fans of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double feature film, Grindhouse, eagerly awaited the transformation of Roth’s fake trailer, THANKSGIVING, into a full-length feature. After more than a decade of anticipation, THANKSGIVING finally arrives, heralding Roth’s triumphant return to his former glory.
To make sure not to spill the turkey gravy and give anything away, I’ll reference the official synopsis: “After a Black Friday riot ends in a tragedy, a mysterious Thanksgiving-inspired killer terrorizes Plymouth, MA – the birthplace of the holiday. Picking off residents one by one, what begins as random revenge killings are soon revealed to be part of a larger, sinister holiday plan. Will the town uncover the killer and survive the holidays…or become guests at his twisted holiday dinner table?”
At the beating heart of the film is our group of high school students comprised of Jessica (Nell Verlaque), Gabby (Addison Rae), Evan (Tomaso Sanelli), Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), Scuba (Gabriel Davenport) and Yulia (Jenna Warren). The group is tightly knit, with relationships and social hierarchies weaving them together. There is an authentic camaraderie between them all that radiates off the screen and is a testament to spot-on casting. Each one brings their own flavor to the table, notably Gabriel Davenport and Addison Rae, delivering memorable performances.
Rounding out the rest of the cast are an array of seasoned actors. 2023’s Sexiest Man Alive, Patrick Dempsey, returns to his slasher origins since Scream 3, as Sheriff Newlon. Former Roth collaborator, Rick Hoffman (Hostel), embodies Thomas Wright, the charming and problematic owner of Rightmart, akin to Walmart, where the riot took place. Gina Gershon, consistent in delivering memorable performances, leaves an unforgettable mark with her role, the details of which are best left unsaid. While all three deliver fantastic performances, Karen Cliche’s portrayal of soon-to-be Mrs. Wright stands out and offers some of the film’s most surprising moments.
While recent projects like Fright Krewe and 2018’s The House with a Clock in its Walls took a tamer direction towards younger audiences compared to his earlier works, it’s clear Eli Roth hasn’t lost his touch; if anything, it’s more refined than ever. He knows how to balance gore with audience expectations, delivering both anticipated moments of carnage with a few surprises along the way. He’s also able to seamlessly transition from humor and exaggerated gore to a progressively darker, meaner tone. For animal lovers concerned about a particular scene involving a cat, I promise the outcome will be a relief.
THANKSGIVING is a blood-soaked cornucopia of carnage that’s as equally entertaining as it is gory. The film’s most striking element lies in the inventive kills using Thanksgiving-related items, such as a turkey carver, adding quite the unique flair to each murder. However, the film grapples with shortcomings in its storytelling and character dynamics, particularly within the Bobby and Jessica relationship. These instances left me wondering if an extended cut might address these issues, considering Roth’s discussion after our screening about trimmed scenes.
Nonetheless, horror enthusiasts can anticipate a juicy feast to savor with THANKSGIVING. Grab your forks and knives and get ready to dive in!
You can check out the holiday slasher in theaters on November 17, 2023.