Review: ‘Thanksgiving’ is Eli Roth’s grotesque holiday slasher film with a surprisingly good premise

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Michael Phillips | Chicago Tribune (TNS)

A generation ago, film director Eli Roth made “Hostel: Part II,” one of the most heinous things, never mind movies, on the planet — a film of lingering torture sequences, bad faith, worse misogyny and galling laziness.

Now Roth has made “Thanksgiving,” based on a mock trailer (2 minutes, 19 seconds) he shot that same year in 2007, for the Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez double feature “Grindhouse.” And get this: “Thanksgiving” works. It’s predictably gory but, at its best, unpredictably nimble. In a career pockmarked by lows, Roth’s latest stands out as a zesty example of holiday stress in extremis.

Director Eli Roth on the set of “Thanksgiving.” (Pief Weyman/Sony Pictures/TNS)

Screenwriter Jeff Rendell takes the original fake trailer as a reference point, not as a guidebook for feature-length expansion. The setup is terrific. At a locally owned Walmart-type big-box store, one Thanksgiving night in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Black Friday shoppers seethe and rage in the cold, desperate to get past the security guards. Meantime the store owner’s daughter Jessica (Nell Verlaque, a wide-eyed, easygoing presence) and her high school friends cavort inside, taunting the rabid customers on the other side of the glass.

The ensuing melee leaves at least three dead, and the escalating craziness of the opening sequence toggles between bloody black comedy and weirdly plausible thrills. A year later, there’s a Thanksgiving killer on the loose, with an apparent grudge against Jessica and company. Screenwriter Rendell lays out a buffet of potential suspects, likely all residents of the tight-knit community unraveling a little more with every corpse.

Patrick Dempsey is the kindly sheriff; Jalen Thomas Brooks and Milo Manheim trade dirty looks as Jessica’s competing, jealous romantic interests. The movie’s final third feels increasingly routine, by which time we’ve seen a lot of entrails and vivisections (one by dumpster lid). But getting there, Roth manages a pace and a merrily sadistic vibe recalling the better “Scream” movies, as well as a worthy protagonist determined not to die.

So why only a middling star rating? I’d place “Thanksgiving” halfway between “fair” and “good.” Inevitably, Roth can’t keep his baser storytelling and filmmaking instincts at bay forever. The culminating sequence depicts the masked killer basting and roasting a female alive, and the movie dies, temporarily, along with the female.

It’s supposed to be grotesque, of course — the diseased doings of a diseased mind, which means anything goes. The Motion Picture Association’s hilariously forgiving definition of an R-rating means the same thing. Roth knows it. He owes his career to it.

What I didn’t know is that Roth even had two-thirds of a good, legit genre movie in him, though his breakout film “Cabin Fever” came close. We’ll see the “Thanksgiving” sequel either in 2024 or 2025, I’m sure.



2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for strong bloody horror violence and gore, pervasive language and some sexual material)

Running time: 1:47

How to watch: In theaters Friday

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