Sixteen years after it was first teased as one of the fake coming attractions in 2007’s Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double-feature collaboration Grindhouse, Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving has finally hit the big screen. Featuring plenty of the gore promised in the trailer, this throwback slasher pic will gratify genre fans who will appreciate the titular holiday finally getting its own horror film along with the likes of Christmas, Valentine’s Day, etc. This one is no instant classic, ranking more along the lines of April Fool’s Day than the gold standard of its ilk, Halloween. But it offers plenty of cheap thrills, or more accurately cheap kills, presented with the sort of attention to bloodthirsty detail that horror aficionados crave. Pity, though, that there aren’t really any more actual grindhouses.
The film set in (where else?) Plymouth, Massachusetts, does begin spectacularly, with an elaborate, expertly staged sequence depicting a riot at a big box store named Right Mart (any resemblance to Walmart is strictly coincidental, presumably) on Thanksgiving night, the start of its Black Friday sale. An only slightly exaggerated rendition of the sort of violent mayhem that has actually occurred in various places, the tragic event results in several gruesome deaths, including one involving one of the more recognizable cast members. Needless to say, the harrowing footage captured on a cell phone camera quickly goes viral.
Cut to a year later, when the unrepentant store owner (Rick Hoffman, made for movies like this) plans to once again open the store on the holiday, much to the dismay of his daughter (Nell Verlaque, whose wide, expressive eyes guarantee her a future as a scream queen should she so desire). But someone else is even more upset, namely the serial killer — wearing a mask featuring the bearded face of John Carver, the Pilgrim who became the first governor of Plymouth Colony — who begins dispatching people who were at the store on that fateful night. (The mask is not quite as scary as the blank one worn by Michael Myers, but it gets the job done.)
Investigating the killings is McDreamy, excuse me, Sheriff Newland (played by Patrick Dempsey, fresh off his coronation as People’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” which I’m sure is a total coincidence). The hard-working sheriff has his work literally cut out for him as John Carver lives up to his name by chopping and dicing — and in one case cooking someone alive like a Thanksgiving turkey — his way through the community, including several of its particularly attractive young people. The killings, delivered with the sort of practical effects that you can imagine its creators gleefully devising, are quite imaginative; there’s one involving a sexy cheerleader being knifed to death on a trampoline and another involving a parade driver getting his head impaled by the wooden bowsprit of a Mayflower float (loved the detail of the nose hanging dejectedly off to one side as a result).
“No one appreciates subtlety anymore,” one of the characters ironically complains, and the film is a case in point. There’s exactly nothing subtle about this effort, including the heavy New England accents sported by many of the actors, which result in such amusing exclamations as “Oh, my Gawd!”
The screenplay by Jeff Rendell, who devised the story along with Roth, features welcome doses of the sort of self-aware humor that reassure us that the film is not to be taken too seriously, although without lapsing too heavily into the sort of meta territory the Scream films have now done to death. There are also clever visual touches throughout, as when Jessica attempts to hide from the killer by blending in with a series of mannequin heads sporting wigs.