Thanksgiving is a superb slasher, one that does all the things that it’s supposed to do very well, in addition to doing other things that it wouldn’t necessarily need to do well but does anyway. Adapted from the best of the fictitious movie trailers that appear throughout 2007’s Grindhouse, the long-gestating feature is comparatively more straight-faced than its farcical predecessor but is still stuffed with just the right amount of camp. Given that this is directed by Eli Roth, who debatably hasn’t made a good movie since the original Thanksgiving short, and that it’s a Sony horror movie released after Halloween that was barely screened for critics, I did not go into this film with high hopes. Sometimes, lowered expectations can be a beautiful thing.

The outset of Thanksgiving covers a scenario that is sadly becoming more familiar: a crazed crowd forming outside a retail store (RightMart, a stand-in for WalMart) on Thanksgiving evening ahead of Black Friday. When a few shoppers get in early, the incensed mob pushes their way through the doors and carnage ensues. A year later, RightMart owner Thomas Wright (Rick Hoffman) waffles on whether or not to have a Black Friday sale, given the previous year’s riot. His daughter Jessica (Nell Verlaque) saw the violence firsthand with her friends Gabby (Addison Rae) and Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), the latter of whom has been missing ever since. When members of the community who were also present that night start getting picked off in brutal fashion, it’s up to Sheriff Eric Newlon (Patrick Dempsey) to track down the killer.

While the original 2-minute Thanksgiving trailer is aiming for laughs with its corny line readings and increasingly improbable decapitations, the feature-length adaptation isn’t as much as send-up of slashers as it is a genuine student of their craft. Roth is obviously versed in horror filmmaking but this is his most exquisitely-enacted entertainment yet. The movie’s killer, who dresses in pilgrim garb and goes by the moniker “John Carver”, is a dynamic dispatcher who favors an ax but isn’t above a flashbang grenade or silenced pistol when the situation calls for it. Appropriately, Carver makes creative use of holiday meal props like pop-up turkey timers and corn cob forks as well. There aren’t a ton of Thanksgiving-set slasher movies out there but those kinds of festive touches immediately shoot this entry to the top of the list.

Even more than your average horror flick, Thanksgiving sports a sometimes overwhelming amount of primary and secondary players but the actors make the most of their screen time regardless. Verlaque is outstanding as final girl Jessica, smart and sensitive while no doubt tough enough to fight off Carver’s numerous ambushes. Joe Delfin is a hoot as McCarty, a Black Sabbath-loving hooligan whose impressive gun stash is concealed so ingeniously that it would make the arms hustler from Taxi Driver jealous. Dempsey is seemingly the only one in the cast who decided to be deliberate with their New England accent but I’m happy that he did nonetheless.

As both director and co-writer, Roth does an excellent job evoking the tropes embedded in the slasher subgenre while he reminds us how effective they still are. There’s the rival high school with their loudmouth football captain, the weird loner who wants to fit in, and the jock with a heart of gold. All potential victims and all potential suspects. It’s a tricky balance, getting the audience to care about characters who could either be killed one minute or revealed to be unspeakably evil the next. Masters of horror like Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven manage this expertly and while Roth doesn’t have the track record of those two, he does a pretty darn good job running at their pace with this one. Thanksgiving is a massively satisfying meal that will have horror buffs coming back to the table each year for seconds.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is Napoleon, a historical epic starring Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby depicting Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power in France through the lens of his volatile relationship with Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais.
Also coming only to theaters is Wish, an animated musical starring Ariana DeBose and Chris Pine following a young girl who wishes on a star and gets a more direct answer than she bargained for when a trouble-making star comes down from the sky to join her.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is The Velveteen Rabbit, a holiday special starring Phoenix Laroche and Helena Bonham Carter adapting the classic children’s book about a boy who unlocks a world of magic after receiving a new favorite toy for Christmas.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup