You don’t make a movie called Thanksgiving without mentally preparing for critics to label it a turkey. I suspect that pun will be dispensed quite a lot in reviews of Eli Roth’s latest slasher, reheated like leftovers from the holiday and all the more flavorless with every bite. Possibly from low expectations––this is, after all, an adaptation of a fake in-movie trailer from a box office flop approaching 17 years old, spin-offs of which are the underwhelming likes of Machete and Hobo with a Shotgun––I didn’t find myself in that camp, even if the taste it left in my mouth wasn’t altogether pleasant.
With 2006’s Hostel, Roth popularized the “torture porn” genre within the mainstream, but even as his films have become more slapstick in violence, the benevolence with which they treat their characters remains the same. At his worst, it would seem Roth sees himself as something of a cultural satirist, firing potshots at everyone from do-gooder peace activists (2013’s The Green Inferno) to social-media obsessives oblivious to how much of their lives they’re posting online (2015’s Knock Knock). What stops his films from ever feeling truly transgressive is their lack of clear comic POV, something which curdles into Thanksgiving––see an introductory set piece that appears to take at Black Friday’s mindless consumerism that has polluted the family-oriented holiday, but never lands anything approaching a satirical punchline that could ground its delightfully over-the-top splatter. It aspires towards Dawn of the Dead and mostly resembles a decade-old episode of South Park.
There’s even what I assume is a half-assed swipe at “woke culture,” the obvious sign any satire is toothless, and Roth’s punchline isn’t particularly comprehensible––is he laughing at a student being socially conscious for attention, or the dumbing-down of fairly ordinary sentiments about Indigenous relationship to the holiday? The joke comprises less than 10 seconds of the runtime but lingered in my mind throughout, never fully committing to any gag that could leave it written off as culturally conservative edgelord bullshit. It’s either a sign there’s some semblance of maturity on Roth’s behalf, or that Thanksgiving just doesn’t have the courage of its convictions, a possibility echoed by the timid way it toys with a pro-gun mindset (a criticism previously afforded to his ill-fated Death Wish remake).
Whatever these objections, I found myself warming to Thanksgiving in a way I suspect few others will. For one, it’s a feature-length take on an older comedy short that (somehow) justifies being expanded into this form; there’s enough within its seasonally specific iteration of the Scream formula that sustains its runtime, never struggling to expand beyond a 90-second teaser as other Grindhouse trailers did in their adaptations. The story is simple: a year after surviving a department-store massacre in Plymouth, Massachusetts (where the first Thanksgiving was observed, and near Roth’s hometown of Newton), a group of teens are targeted on social media for filming the atrocities, getting picked off one-by-one in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. It’s partially a murder mystery, though this never inspires intrigue, at least partially by design––when countless people have the same motivation to target these survivors when their loved ones died, does it really matter who is engineering their downfall?
My enjoyment partly stems from this being Roth’s unashamed attempt to mimic the Blumhouse teen-horror formula, albeit with gallons of fake blood and gruesome deaths a PG-13 rating would never permit. It’s reverse-engineered around set pieces, leading to a third act that takes place at the dinner table, but these are constructed with such effectiveness it often didn’t matter that the movie was nothing more than graphically depicted murders loosely strung together by a plot. Thanksgiving crumbles when it aspires to anything more than this: toothless in its satire, uninvolving whenever it tries to convince you the whodunnit intrigue is worth investment. It isn’t. When unashamedly embracing a slasher persona, it proves far better than it has any right to be––what a shame these simple genre thrills are tangled in a more confused attempt at horror-comedy.
Thanksgiving opens on Friday, November 17.