Thanksgiving (2023)

thanksgiving film review

Thanksgiving (2023) Directed by Eli Roth

Strictly speaking, Eli Roth’s exquisitely graphic holiday slasher based on the fictitious trailer that was part of the nostalgic 2007 film project Grindhouse is the closest we’ve come in the 21st century to witnessing a slasher made to the letter. Thanksgiving aims for that and nothing else, it wants to be the most traditional slasher of recent times and puts all its efforts in consummating that goal no matter how banal and crude the final result is. No one in their right mind could claim that Eli Roth is a talented director and that he has been the creator of great works of horror cinema, I have always believed that Eli Roth is nothing more than a cynical sadistic horror buff making movies that only satisfy his facet as an imitator of his favorite filmmakers. I don’t blame him; I find his deluded persistence and infectious passion for horror filmmaking totally admirable. Having said that, I guess it’s time to paraphrase that last statement and specify that I feel that Thanksgiving is the first Eli Roth film that I absolutely adored, loved unconditionally.

He went from being the horror fan director making films with no identity to being the horror fan filmmaker making an unpretentious film with its own identity. It’s a classic slasher reminiscent of the best and worst of the quintessential American 80’s horror genre, but crafted with no pretensions of grandeur, just with a blunt humility that brings out the very best in Eli Roth, no longer exclusively as a horror enthusiast but as a cineaste. The coolest thing about Thanksgiving is that it’s a viciously funny slasher – the humor here is so mordant and farcical that it’s perfectly in tune with the violent dynamics of the genre and its gross-out absurdities – and I get the feeling that one of the unmistakable explanations for its success despite being a concoction of 80s slasher tropes is that Eli Roth is having a blast shooting this movie. Likewise, the actors seem to be having a swell time participating in the gruesome perversities that unfold in the plot. The filmmakers are more concerned with religiously adhering to slasher cinema paradigms than they are with the pressure to produce a good movie, and being absolved of that responsibility makes the burden of the film feel light, for them and for us. The only hierarchical priority they have is to give us a succulent amount of astonishingly nasty kills and over-the-top slasher pulp literalism.

Gracefully, Thanksgiving honors the slashers of the 1980s, yet transposes its visual and narrative technicalities to the omnipresence of smartphones, rapacious consumerism and social media culture in modernity, i.e. 2023. The plot is set in the “hometown of America”, Plymouth, Massachusetts, where during Black Friday night at RightMart a tragedy befalls when a horde of people desperate to buy trivial items lose their dignity to devolve into savagery and brutally beat each other up over such stupid things as a waffle iron. This is where Jeff Rendell’s script is at its strongest, with a delightfully grotesque and hilariously tawdry sense of humor. Jessica Wright (Nell Verlaque), the daughter of the owner of RightMart, along with her friends were somehow instrumental in getting the mob out of control, as she and her friends had the privilege of getting in before everyone else. A year after the fatalities of that infamous Black Friday, Sheriff Eric Newlon (Patrick Dempsey) reopens the case of that night’s incidents when one of the protagonists of the consumer pandemonium turns up dead. An unidentified killer wearing a John Carver mask prowls the town carrying out what appears to be revenge for what happened last year at Thanksgiving. Eli Roth’s willfully cold and sleazy directing takes us down paths already explored; every now and then the mise-en-scene throws in nods that elicit emotions we’ve already encountered from watching other slasher classics. From its gripping, overblown first act to its stomach-churning finale, the film trusts that faithfully sticking to the genre’s stereotypes and crass conventions that made many of the slashers of the past monuments of American exploitation cinema is the only formula that will yield what it strives for. In the end, its intransigence in holding firm to the rulebook is exactly what makes it a triumph in slasher cinema, even more so given its contemporary atmosphere, which is committed to being as old-fashioned as it is modern.

Eli Roth orchestrates sequences worthy of being labeled as delectably disgusting, a well-crafted oxymoron. The way he conceives the imposing and wickedly creative killer is so frighteningly satisfying to watch that John Carver automatically becomes one of my favorite murderers in slasher cinema. He is no ordinary killer, he slaughters his victims with fastidious artfulness, the most unimaginably silly weapons and objects become lethal in John Carver’s hands. A slasher and nothing more than that, don’t try to look for drama or metaphors where there are none, it’s not self-conscious or purposeful camp, it’s not an ironic commentary or an anti-consumerist cautionary tale. Thanksgiving is just good exploitation cinema, and it’s one of the most entertainingly barbaric horror movies I’ve ever seen. Eli Roth finally finds his identity in simplicity and enjoyment, you can sense, feel and taste that this feast of human flesh executed with unhinged gusto is every horror devotee’s wet dream. The film serves its purpose, it’s filthy and gory, it’s messy and tacky, it’s clumsy and engaging, and it enacts the slasher tradition with inimitable fervor. There have been many failed attempts to resurrect the genre with frivolous remakes and tiresome postmodern reinterpretations, yet Thanksgiving is here to tell us that you don’t need to update anything or change anything, just keep being unapologetically old-fashioned. This is the horror flick that fans of the genre have been clamoring for all along. It’s not for everyone, but if you have a fancy palate, rest assured that your appetite will be satiated.

Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching films, I'm writing about them.
Editor and Official Film Critic at Celluloid Dimension

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