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Movie Review - Thanksgiving

Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving got me to thinking about slashers from both the 80s and 90s and their differences. In the 80s, what’s generally regarded as the hey-day of the subgenre, the films ended up being more morality plays than anything else. If you had pre-marital sex, drank or smoked weed…or just were a total asshole, you likely weren’t going to see the end credits. That said, most victims were picked off one by one and many of those put up little to no resistance. That’s not to belittle their efforts, as when they came face to face with the killer, of course they’d put up a doomed struggle, but if we’re being fair, only two people could be counted on to turn the tables and track the slasher: the macho guy who’d usually fail (“If he can do that to Brad, think of what he could do to us!!!”) and the Final Girl who, when backed into the corner, would finally succeed in taking the villain out…for now. The 90’s, however, gave us a different breed of slasher. In this decade, our group of teens weren’t going to just take their stalking lying down and, more often than not, the ‘rules’ established by the 80s films served as little more than ‘meta’ commentary. Instead, these teens would fight back…to largely fatal results…until, you guessed it, we arrive at our Final Girl.

So why the opening diatribe? Well, reviews for Thanksgiving place it as an homage to 90s horror…and they’re not wrong. We have our killer and we have a group of plucky teens very desperate to not go quietly into that long, dark night. Before we delve any deeper, let’s get to that synopsis:

One year after a fatal riot that accompanied a local retail superstore’s Thanksgiving Day sale, people around Plymouth, Massachusetts are being brutally murdered. Each one of the victims has a connection to that day, with the killer closing in on the group of teens that inadvertently started it. With plenty of potential suspects among the survivors, can this killer be stopped before his gruesome table is set? And will anyone survive the main course?

So, back to the opening, with this being a more 90s-style slasher, that means that our teen victims are active…and the opening scene focusing on the massacre at the Right-Mart shows their first action is indeed to have an active hand in starting the whole fracas. Jessica’s dad is the owner of the store and she and her friends decide to duck in and grab a few things while a very testy mass of shoppers waits outside. What was supposed to be a ‘stealth mission’ goes awry right off the bat as, teens being teens, they start goofing off. This doesn’t go unnoticed by the shoppers outside, who start charging forward wondering why these teens get special treatment and they’re left outside. As the crowd continues to surge…well, that’s when bad things start to happen. As the dust settles, one security guard is trampled, one Bruins fan has his throat slit, a star college pitcher has his throwing arm broken and, most importantly, the store manager…who wasn’t even supposed to be there that day [Thanks Kevin Smith! – Ed.]…finds his wife has been killed.

Of course, with the film hitting theaters a week before Thanksgiving, there’s a least a little bit of time for this societal criticism to sink in. Not that anyone will take it to heart mind you. We all agree that the level of consumerism on display year after year is sickening and we all gasp at the inevitable news of at least one fatality on Black Friday. And yet, every year, we all just keep showing up, don’t we? Hell, this lesson has been floating around since George A. Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead way back in 1978 and…well…here we are. Now, Roth certainly puts his stamp on it, as we’d expect him to, and this scene sets the tone for the gore effects we can expect throughout the picture.

That said, with Roth being no stranger to gore, the practical effects on display here are top-notch. Where Roth and his team deserve high praise is the range of the gore: some set-pieces being wince and nausea inducing while others being comedic on a level (and blood pressure) not seen since Monty Python’s golden years. The kills themselves prove never to be boring as our murderous Pilgrim, wearing a mask of the Plymouth Colony’s first governor John Carver, is certainly creative and well entrenched in his theme, using a freezer, an electric carving knife, a pitchfork, an oven, the standard butcher knife, a good old fashioned ax and, as has been present in the advertising, a pair of corn holders/skewers each to unique effect.

The cast assembled for this grizzly tale all play their roles well, many of whom I’ve not seen any previous work…which, given that they’re teens in a horror movie, isn’t exactly a shock. Still, Nell Verlaque as our main character Jessica carries the feature without any major foibles. While flawed and certainly responsible for how all these events unfold (she let her friends into her father’s store as the mob waited outside), her screen presence and fairly smart performance gives us a not-quite-Final Girl to cheer for. Jalen Thomas Brooks’ Bobby, the pitcher who gets his arm broken in the opening fiasco, straddles the line as both potential suspect and as Jessica’s partner in trying to unravel the mystery of the Carver’s identity. He manages that duality well, but there’s a third aspect to his performance, which might be the weaker of the three. He’s also Jessica’s ex…and while you really don’t feel any romantic tension between them (likely due to the circumstances of their break-up), both actors convey that the prospect of them getting back together isn’t entirely impossible. Milo Manheim’s Ryan, Jessica’s current beau, serves as another potential Carver as it’s clear that while he tries to earn the approval of Jessica’s friends, the viewer can’t help but wonder if he’s trying a little too hard.  The remainder of the teens, well, they’re pretty annoying (an exception being made for Gabriel Davenport’s Scuba)…but the mark of a good actor is to make you feel what the story needs you to…and these kids need to be annoying, after all, they are slasher-fodder. That said, they certainly achieve what they set out to do. I will admit that I was not expecting to see Patrick Dempsey have such a prominent role in this film, but then again, he’s also done a Transformers movie, so I guess work is work. Still, to his credit, he brings a lot to the role of Sherrif Newlon, more often than not serving as not only an anchor for the terrorized teens, but for the audience also. Another surprise is Gina Gershon since it’s been a hot minute (as the kids say) since I’ve seen her in anything. Checking out the Wiki, it’s clearly my fault as she’s been working steadily since her one-two punch of Showgirls and Bound back in the mid-90s. Lastly, I’ve gotta heap praise on Joe Delfin as McCarty, son of the local gun shop owner and regular bad seed/metalhead, as his alcohol fueled Thanksgiving party is an undercurrent to the story. Delfin steals practically every scene he’s in and ends up being vital to the film, both in terms of tension-breaking humor and in that he’s instrumental to Jessica’s eventual survival. [Sure, you could call that a spoiler, but come on, if you have any experience with slashers, it’s not hard to figure out who the Final Girl is going to be. – Ed.] Oh, I nearly forgot, be sure to keep an eye open for the director himself, as Eli Roth pops up a few times in the film who pops up as reporter Hank Morton. [IMDB actually says this is actor Yusuf Zine, but the two do look pretty similar. – Ed.]

Now, it took me two viewings to find it, but I did stumble upon what I would consider the only weakness to the film: wasted red herrings. While we have a fair number of suspects, the above-mentioned Bobby and Ryan as well as Jeff Teravainen’s Deputy Labelle, who’s brand new in town, and Ty Olsson’s Mitch Collins, the Right Mart manager who finds his wife has been killed by the stampeding mob, they ultimately fall off the radar pretty quickly. Ryan’s shadiness is explained in short order but sadly, Mitch and Deputy Labelle fall off the radar so quickly it’s kind of sad to see them wasted like that. The man who has the strongest motive and the stranger that no one knows anything about really ought to be included in the web of suspects. Mitch does materialize for one brief scene…and to be fair, Mitch’s body-type doesn’t fit with the Carver’s as he’s a little too chunky for the role…but it almost feels like an afterthought: “Oh, shit, we forgot about him, quick…throw him in….THERE.” I’ll admit, staying within the framework of a tight 90-ish minute horror movie runtime might make trying to flesh those two out as potential suspects a little difficult, but I do have to fault the movie for not even really trying.

Thanksgiving came to life initially as a fake trailer for the 2007 Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez Grindhouse double feature. It’s taken 16 years for it to finally make it to the big screen. While some of the kills in the trailer have survived into this film, not everything translated over, including changing the film from an early 80s grindhouse-inspired horror film to a more polished 90s-style slasher. The important thing is that the killer Pilgrim features prominently in both and rightly so. In both versions, Eli Roth gives us what could potentially be a new horror icon, especially since the 90’s were a little light on them…yielding, what…Ghostface from Scream and…well, the Fisherman from the I Know What You Did Last Summer movies tried to be a thing but never really gained much in the way of traction thanks to the fish sticks you can find in your grocer’s freezer. From the modulated voice to the blank visage of long-dead John Carver, this new slasher villain has the potential to join the Parthenon of horror alongside the greats. And let’s face it, with Michael Myers just finishing a divisive trilogy recently, the fact that Jason remains confined in legal limbo, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) from Phantasm is dead and poor Freddy doesn’t seem like he can find life beyond Robert Englund, horror fans are in dire need of a slasher to cheer for. I really think this Carver is the man for the job. With Eli Roth at the top of his game here and gore effects that really bring the cranberry sauce, slasher fans will love what Thanksgiving brings to the table.

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