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Thanksgiving Review: Eli Roth’s Long Awaited Holiday Horror Is No Fat, With All The Trimmings

For writer/director Eli Roth, Thanksgiving is a passion project he’s held near and dear to his heart for a long time. Dreaming up a slasher horror film that would bridge the gap between Halloween and the holidays, the filmmaker and friend/screenwriter Jeff Rendell have been cooking up this idea for decades. 

Thanksgiving

Young Thanksgiving cast members

(Image credit: Sony)

Release Date: November 17, 2023
Directed By: Eli Roth
Written By: Jeff Rendell
Starring: Patrick Dempsey, Addison Rae, Milo Manheim, Jalen Thomas Brooks, Nell Verlaque,  Rick Hoffman, and Gina Gershon
Rating: Rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, pervasive language and some sexual material
Runtime: 106 minutes

With the fake trailer included in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse acting as a sort of home stretch for the project, we’ve finally arrived at the point in time where Thanksgiving has arrived. No longer just a dream, it’s now a major motion picture, and dear readers, it is absolutely worth the wait.

Thanksgiving is a bit different from what you might expect. For starters, the tone of that short and sweet entertainment from 2007 has morphed into a sharp satire that cuts deeper in the name of dark humor and even darker kills. And it all centers around a holiday institution that’s seen its fair share of true terror: Black Friday. 

A group of teenagers in Plymouth, Massachusetts (Addison Rae, Milo Manheim, Jalen Thomas Brooks, and Nell Verlaque) are smack dab in the middle of Thanksgiving’s killings, as the figure known as John Carver has a score to settle. It has something to do with a local big box store and an opening set-piece that redefines the word “doorbuster,” which naturally leaves some corpses in its wake. 

From that point, a quick moving, quick witted whodunnit plays out. With our young prey being selected for very specific reasons, and a town sheriff (Patrick Dempsey) trying to figure it all out himself, Thanksgiving keeps the actual procedural heart of any good slasher alive and beating. So while you’re not trying to figure out who John Carver really is, you’ll be plenty entertained by what’s being served.

In adapting this Grindhouse short, Eli Roth has turned Thanksgiving into a modern and topical horror delight.

Slightly updating the original concept into something more modern, Thanksgiving follows a group of high school teenagers who are, say it with me now, getting picked off one by one. It’s a traditional formula, and it works beautifully while also leaving room for innovation. This isn’t just a retread of the horny retro slasher that was shown in the original concept trailer, as it’s obvious that sort of movie wouldn’t play as wide as it may have in 2007.

Eli Roth has improved upon that kernel of an idea and built an actual horror-comedy offering that absolutely rocks. Integrating social media tomfoolery and Black Friday sale carnage into a good old fashioned revenge story, Eli Roth’s latest return to horror is definitely built to welcome younger audiences into the fold. In a crazy way, his experience with his gateway family horror film The House with a Clock in its Walls probably helped Thanksgiving become the movie it is today. 

Much like the holiday it takes its inspiration from, everyone can gather around the table to enjoy this cinematic entry that heralds a holiday that doesn’t get much movie love. Fans of the fake trailer are going to be happy about seeing aster eggs, callbacks, and direct references ripped from Thanksgiving’s previous incarnation. 

Simultaneously, newcomers who are hankering for a well-balanced meal of gore-soaked kills and hilarious punchlines are also going to be satiated. You can clearly see where Thanksgiving started off in the finished product, but instead of resting on their rosemary, Eli Roth and Jeff Rendell scaled their dream into a timely terror that doesn’t forget to smile.

Thanksgiving gleefully walks a fine line between laughter and dread.

The genres of horror and comedy love to dance together, as screams and laughs swing to opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Thanksgiving swings with great glee as it whips its axe in both arenas consistently and with a pacing that keeps things moving along. No joke robs the story of its importance, and no kill is above sprinkling some amusing notes that makes even a woman being chopped in half into a gag.

Succeeding with its balance of humor and horror, Thanksgiving lands some seriously funny moments. One of the best examples is a moment where a teen heartthrob reads his essay on why he won’t be celebrating Thanksgiving ever again. Almost immediately after closing his remarks, the girls fawn over him and call him ‘brave,’ while he wipes his tears with his shirt. Exposing six-pack abs in the process, the scene plays perfectly, and not too long before another sequence of killer John Carver stalking his prey through the halls of the local high school.

Which leads us to the horror portion of Thanksgiving: an exercise that’s just as brutal and bloody as the trailer that spawned it. But even with kills from Grindhouse being revised to be more elaborate (and in some cases more brutal), there’s still a story that weaves a web of intrigue connecting every horrific set piece. The infamous trampoline kill from the trailer is still here, and it’s still as lewd as it was in the past. That being said, the kill is slightly tweaked into a more vicious attack on its victims.

By time the third act goes full tilt into revealing the killer, Thanksgiving lets the unmasked party go totally wild. I’d even dare to say that actor is allowed to become more unhinged than they ever have been on camera. Question that claim all you want once you’ve seen the film yourself, but as that player savors their task in full view of the camera, it only makes the rousing climax into another example of the careful balance of laughs and menace this whole enterprise embodies. 

Eli Roth fulfills a long standing promise to his fans with Thanksgiving. 

Passion projects and “fake movies” are never guaranteed to be successes when fleshed out. Sometimes the tales we’re most excited to tell are better off as basic concepts than full length narratives. But when you get a movie like Thanksgiving that makes that sort of thing work like a charm, it’s a thing of beauty no matter what genre you’re into. 

Eli Roth has been living with this movie in his heart for some time, and now he and Jeff Rendell have given that dream form. Thanksgiving celebrates the time of year that makes us all reflect on what we’re grateful for while really making us consider just how “thankful” we are in our darkest hours. It’s not heavy-handed in that respect, but it certainly has a fine point at the end of its thematic blade, and it knows how to use it. 

As with any good horror movie, the door is left ambiguously open for Thanksgiving’s John Carver to continue. It would be a crime not to at least plant the seed for a potential future franchise that keeps delivering for the titular holiday. At the very least, Thanksgiving is primed to become an annual favorite that people throw into the rotation as soon as November rolls around. 

But the bones are so good on this movie that, if the fates allowed, the bloody fun can continue very easily. Sparing no victims, and promising no leftovers, Thanksgiving will have horror fans saying their blessings over the finest massacre to be served on the good flatware. 

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