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Thanksgiving review: a gruesome, cutthroat horror comedy

A masked killer holds an axe in Thanksgiving.
“Eli Roth's Thanksgiving is a gloriously violent, riotously fun slasher comedy.”
  • A refreshingly brutal throwback to the slasher genre's greatest hits
  • Several unforgettably gory set pieces and kills
  • An enjoyable comic horror tone throughout
  • A runtime that's about 10 minutes too long
  • Several uninteresting major and supporting characters

Thanksgiving is a deliciously mean-spirited, gnarly horror-comedy. Like Ti West’s X, it feels like a throwback to simpler times when horror movies could be gory, bloodthirsty, darkly funny, and not much more than that. In many ways, that’s exactly what Thanksgiving is. Directed by Eli Roth, it’s a feature film version of the trailer that he shot for 2007’s Grindhouse. Back then, Thanksgiving was just a trailer for a cheeky, low-budget horror movie that didn’t even exist. Sixteen years later, it now very much does.

Thanksgiving | Eli Roth Trailer 2007 - featured in Grindhouse

The new film is just as much of a send-up of holiday-themed horror movies like Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night as the trailer that inspired it, but it’s also more than that. What was once just an endearingly rough-and-ready, low-budget slice of pure horror pastiche has now been expanded into a full-blown Eli Roth gorefest — one that is every bit as repulsive and gleefully violent as that suggests. It’s everything that it needs to be and absolutely nothing more. In a time when mainstream slasher movies like it are increasingly hard to come by, that’s perfectly OK.

Four teenagers stand in a store together in Thanksgiving.
Tristar Pictures

Set in the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, Thanksgiving opens on its eponymous night and follows an array of characters as they all eventually end up at the same supercenter for Black Friday. Convinced by his second wife to try and capitalize on the financial opportunities presented by the commercial holiday, the store’s owner, Thomas Wright (Rick Hoffman), orders his employees to work Thanksgiving night and supplies them with only two security guards to control all of the impatient consumers literally pounding at the gates to get inside. When Thomas’ daughter, Jessica (Nell Verlaque), helps her friends get in early, she unknowingly enrages everyone waiting outside.

Before long, everything turns to chaos: workers are trampled, throats are cut on broken shards of glass, and unsuspecting innocents are pulverized by shopping carts. This sequence, an over-the-top critique of consumer culture and thoughtless capitalistic decision-making, marks the moment when Thanksgiving fulfills the violent, tongue-in-cheek promises of its original Grindhouse trailer. Behind the camera, Roth lingers on every instance of skin-tearing violence — ensuring that the film’s opening Black Friday massacre functions as an effective prologue for everything that follows.

One year later, the citizens of Plymouth find themselves terrorized by a masked killer who seems intent on making everyone who was present and responsible for the riot pay for their sins. As Jessica, Sheriff Eric Newlon (Patrick Dempsey), and the film’s other characters attempt to uncover the killer’s identity, Thanksgiving adopts a familiar small-town slasher movie structure. It spends most of its runtime bouncing from scenes of quiet paranoia and suburban humor to outrageous, cartoonishly violent set pieces and kills. The film, unfortunately, doesn’t always strike the perfect balance between those two modes.

Gina Gershon and Patrick Dempsey walk through a store together in Thanksgiving.
Pief Weyman / Tristar Pictures

Thanksgiving, which could have easily been about 10 minutes shorter than it is, occasionally fails to keep up the light, breezy pace that its story demands. It gets lost in the melodramatic relationships between its teenage characters and doesn’t fully justify all of its various subplots and tangents. While the film’s performers all seem perfectly aware of the tone they’re meant to support and the jobs they’re each meant to do, Jeff Rendell’s script doesn’t give viewers much of a reason to care whether or not any of their characters survive. That fact doesn’t completely sink Thanksgiving, but it does result in several of its nonviolent sections falling flat.

For the most part, though, Roth’s latest effort is an easily digestible cocktail of bloody horror and pitch-black comedy. The film’s kills are all not only strikingly well-staged and paced, but are frequently delivered with a winking, wry edge that makes some of its most brutal moments easier to stomach. Whether it be the unopened waffle iron box that one Black Friday customer literally bleeds over or a disturbing use of two corn on the cob holders, Roth never fails to throw in darkly funny details that effectively punctuate each of Thanksgiving’s moments of slasher horror with laugh-worthy visual punchlines.

THANKSGIVING - Official Trailer (HD)

Thanksgiving is an undeniably one-note horror movie. It’s a 106-minute joke that sticks to the strengths of both its famously macabre director and the slasher subgenre that it so clearly adores. One could criticize it for its lack of originality, but that would be missing the point of Thanksgiving, which just wants to give horror fans a fun time at the movie theater. It does so with near-flying colors, to the point that its contentment with its surface-level thrills and kills can be easily forgiven. After all, if any movie is allowed to just be a riff on something you’ve seen a million times before, why not let it be a film that lovingly spit-roasts the very American holiday that is all about replaying the same hits every year?

Thanksgiving is now playing in theaters. For related content, please read Thanksgiving’s ending, explained.

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Alex Welch
Alex Welch is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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