The seed for Eli Roth’s latest horror outing was planted in the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double feature Grindhouse where Thanksgiving was advertised in a fictitious trailer. It is inspired by Roth’s childhood spent near Plymouth, Massachusetts – the site of the first Thanksgiving celebration. Now, over a decade and a half later, Roth’s vision is fully realised in a feature-length film.
In the film’s prologue, high-schooler Jessica (Nell Verlaque), her boyfriend Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), and her friends are going out on Thanksgiving, when they make a detour to her father’s (Rick Hoffman) store. Black Friday shoppers are restlessly congregated in front, and their frustrations boil over when they spot the teens inside.
A murderous stampede ensues, offering a disturbing reflection of the dangers of hedonistic consumerism, enabled by capitalist greed. Nonetheless, there may have been a missed opportunity to provide more meaningful commentary as the calamitous death of the store’s working-class security guard is overlooked.
A year later, a killer camouflaged as John Carver, the first governor of the Plymouth colony, is out for revenge. As referenced in Thanksgiving’s promotional campaign, social media is tastefully integrated into the plot, managing to avoid feeling obnoxious. Carver posts a photo of a dinner table to Instagram, tagging the main group as if seated around it as a warning of what’s to come.
Thanksgiving uses teen drama tropes and archetypes through its small-town setting, particularly the high school and diner scenes, and the traditional character dynamics. Bobby and the eerily smooth-talking Ryan (Milo Manheim) vie for Jessica’s romantic affections. The casting of Verlaque and Manheim, whom younger audiences may recognise from various Disney projects, helps to make the film more approachable to horror newcomers.
The bulk of the narrative rests on Verlaque’s shoulders, and it’s a weight she carries with astounding ease. Her performance is authentic and unwavering, bringing a refreshing maturity to the ‘final girl’ role. A lesser performance may have highlighted the film’s derivative elements at the expense of its heart and originality.
Thanksgiving’s strengths lie in the increasingly inventive murders. Roth consistently creates palpable murderer-victim tension even in predictable circumstances. The first two murders lean more cartoonish than the rest, comfortably toeing the line between horror and comedy. Still, Roth doesn’t cheapen the kills by playing them for laughs. Each slaughter is thoughtfully and uniquely designed, paced, and captured – just as different cooking methods are utilised when preparing a festive spread.
Nevertheless, the film’s murder mystery component is half-baked, with the red herrings being painfully obvious. The perpetrator’s identity is equally unsurprising, and reminiscent of a Scooby Doo villain reveal.
Though Thanksgiving’s tagline is ‘There will be no leftovers’, the ending is sudden and startling, leaving the oven door open for further instalments. Regardless, I’m not particularly worried about the timeline for the expansion of Roth’s self-proclaimed ‘Thanksgivingverse’. After all, revenge is a dish best-served cold.
Thanksgiving is in cinemas now.