THANKSGIVING

★★

A TEPID HORROR MEAL THAT’S A BIT TOO SLICK AND NOT ENOUGH SICK

THEATRICAL REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
16th November 2023

One of the highlights of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's ambitious 2007 genre experiment 'Grindhouse' was the fake trailers dispersed around the two halves of the double feature. Rather than raiding the archives for real B-grade trailers from the 70s, the two directors invited fellow filmmakers to create their own, using the tropes of their favourite low-budget horror films. The results were so distinct and charming that many fans called for the trailers to become features of their own, even though the filmmakers responsible had only constructed them as a series of trailer-worthy shots and killer one-liners. Then again, that was the exact logic behind the construction of the very films they were spoofing, so perhaps the idea of expanding them to a whole film wasn't that far-fetched. The first to be developed into a feature was Rodriguez's own 'Machete', released in 2010, and now, 16 years after 'Grindhouse', seasoned horror director Eli Roth has finally expanded his delightful trailer 'Thanksgiving' into a whole meal. The problem though is that, unlike 'Machete', something of that rough-and-ready horror charm feels half-baked in this expansion from a snack to a meal.

Riffing on the slew of holiday-themed imitators that were released in the wake of John Carpenter's seminal 'Halloween' (1978), 'Thanksgiving' centres around the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, the location of the arrival of the first pilgrims to the United States and the supposed birthplace of the holiday itself. At the start of the annual Black Friday sales, the major retailer in town is hit by a savings-fuelled riot, where several people are killed and others severely injured. A year later, with no consequences dealt and no-one deemed responsible, a killer dressed in a John Carver mask (the first governor of Plymouth) begins to hunt down the key people connected to the riot. It seems this Thanksgiving murderer is preparing for something, with each murder more theatrical than the last.

SWITCH: 'THANKSGIVING' TRAILER

It shouldn't come as a surprise that 'Thanksgiving' isn't as full-on as the 'Grindhouse' trailer, and appropriately so; it was one of the more gleefully and purposefully depraved offerings, the kind of thing that only works with short, sharp bursts. Roth and screenwriter Jeff Wendell, who had developed the idea when they were teenagers and co-wrote the trailer together, instead treat this as if it were a reboot of whatever version of 'Thanksgiving' might have been made (and inevitably banned) in the 70s/80s. Roth does weave some of the more memorable images into the film (such as the trampoline kill scene), and it's nice to see him at least acknowledging that connection, albeit with a tempered sense of depravity. On the whole, the film 'Thanksgiving' is a slickly made piece of studio horror, with Roth's usual attention to detail and clever staging. Herein though lies the central problem with the film: being a handsomely made film doesn't entirely work in its favour, not when the screenplay is heading in a different direction.

Wendell's script seems to be pitching 'Thanksgiving' as a knowing horror comedy spoof, actively lampooning the 'Halloween' imitators. The setup is wonderfully ridiculous, the dialogue is cheekily hammy, the set pieces are gloriously theatrical and the characters all fill out the expected horror stereotypes without feeling any need for depth or subtlety. And the results mostly work - it's often genuinely funny and the moments where the artifice pops out really shine. It's a script cut from the cloth of the 80s slasher film, but willing to make fun of how silly they could be and how many narrative corners they were willing to cut to get to the good stuff. Where a more serious horror film might suffer by letting the audience get one step ahead of it, part of the fun of 'Thanksgiving' is how aware it is of its audience, that they're in on the joke. It feels like it was written in five minutes with a book of puns sitting on the desk nearby, and I mean that as a compliment.

Roth seems to be aiming for a similar tongue-in-cheek style with his execution of the script, particularly with the heightened comedic and melodramatic tone of the performances (all of them pretty good) and the wonderfully gooey murder set-pieces. We know from Roth's previous work (including 'Cabin Fever' and the 'Hostel' films) that he has a good grasp of a range of horror styles and is unafraid to push the envelope with what audiences can take. It comes as a shock then that the tone of 'Thanksgiving' is all over the place. It may be written like a crappy (complementary) 80s slasher film, but it looks like a modern studio horror film akin to the new 'Scream' films. Everything is clean and sharp, the cinematography is stately and the production design has almost no grit to it. As strange as this may seem as a criticism, 'Thanksgiving' is too well made compared to the stylistic provocations of the screenplay. It feels like it should be grittier, cheaper- looking, gnarlier. As a result, the intentional leaps of narrative logic in the screenplay come across as lazy plotting, the tone of the performances feels out of place and the rhythms of the film feel erratic. It's hard to get a real grasp on what kind of experience 'Thanksgiving' is aiming for - you can feel on one end the desire from Roth and Wendell to make a cheeky horror throwback, but on the other the desire from the studio to make a post-'Scream'/'Halloween' reboot studio horror fashioned purely for its opening weekend. And this is a real pity, because when 'Thanksgiving' is able to find its groove, it really does offer some great stuff. The big signature Thanksgiving dinner set piece in the last act in particular is a highlight, combining outrageous and endless Thanksgiving puns with a 'Texas Chainsaw'-lite depravity. The reveal of the villain is also really satisfying, particularly after the way the film throws about 20 thunderously obvious suspects at you in quick succession in the opening act (again, complementary).

As strange as this may seem as a criticism, 'Thanksgiving' is too well made compared to the stylistic provocations of the screenplay. It feels like it should be grittier, cheaper- looking, gnarlier.

In another iteration, 'Thanksgiving' would wear its Grindhouse origins on its sleeve and really go for something gnarly, disgusting and ridiculous. In another, it would take the premise more seriously and become a respectable studio horror film to satisfy casual horror fans. What we have instead is somewhere in the middle, giving the promise of one while falling into the worst tendencies of the other. As a result, for all the memorable moments, 'Thanksgiving' feels amorphous, toothless, unsure of itself, unwilling to commit one way or the other. This isn't a case of criticising a film for not being what I expected; that's not good film criticism, a film should be judged on what it is, not what the critic would have preferred it to be based on the expectations they bring. In fact, I would say that 'Thanksgiving' was a better film than I was expecting, and that makes its failures all the more disappointing. It's hard to criticise it for what it is when I'm not even sure the film even knows. Would it have worked better if it had severed its Grindhouse or 80s ties altogether? Maybe. Would it have then lost the essence of its charm? Probably. Maybe this is the best Eli Roth could have made within the constraints of a studio framework. Or maybe this is a potentially juicy, flavoursome meal that just sat in the oven a bit too long.

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