Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Eli Roth’s ‘Thanksgiving’ is wicked fun

Holiday horror is so back
Photo courtesy of IMDB.

Eli Roth’s newest horror film “Thanksgiving,” was released on Nov. 17. Set in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the movie follows high school student Jess and her group of friends as they are stalked by a serial killer dressed as John Carver (the first governor of Plymouth Colony, who also happens to have a fantastic slasher movie name). “Thanksgiving” joins the ranks of other holiday horror films like “Halloween,” “Black Christmas,” “My Bloody Valentine” and “April Fool’s Day.”

“Thanksgiving” has been a long time coming. Its origins stem from the 2007 movie “Grindhouse,” directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, which was meant to emulate the low-budget, high-sleaze horror films of the 1970s. Formatted as a double feature, it combined Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” and Tarantino’s “Death Proof.” It also included several fake horror film trailers in between the two features. “Thanksgiving” was one of these fictitious trailers, also directed by Roth and showing a killer pilgrim stalking Plymouth. Remembered for its brutality, the two-minute parody trailer nearly earned “Grindhouse” an NC-17 rating.

Roth described the initial inspiration for a Thanksgiving-based horror trailer in a 2007 interview: “My friend Jeff, who plays the killer pilgrim — we grew up in Massachusetts, we were huge slasher movie fans and every November we were waiting for the Thanksgiving slasher movie. We had the whole movie worked out: a kid who’s in love with a turkey and then his father killed it and then he killed his family and went away to a mental institution and came back and took revenge on the town.” The idea of a kid avenging his pet turkey was scrapped, but the final trailer was well-received and left fans asking for a feature-length film.

The movie centers on Jess (Nell Verlaque), whose father (Rick Hoffman) owns the local RightMart, a fictional supermarket. After Thanksgiving dinner, she uses her father’s key to sneak her friends into the closed store, while a horde of Black Friday shoppers are being held back by the local sheriff (Patrick Dempsey). Tensions between the shoppers and teens rise until a riotous stampede erupts, resulting in gruesome injuries and deaths amidst the frenzy.

One year later, many residents call for RightMart to remain closed on Black Friday as Plymouth prepares for its Thanksgiving festivities. Jess’s boyfriend, Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), is still missing-in-action after his wrist was trampled by a rioter the year prior, ending his baseball career. Jess and her remaining friends start receiving cryptic notifications from a mysterious Instagram account. As more and more townspeople get slaughtered, it becomes clear that the killer is targeting those involved in the Black Friday massacre the year before.

“Thanksgiving” pays homage to many other classic slasher films. The opening scene is shown through a first-person perspective and consists of an unseen figure breathing heavily as they approach a house, a nod to the opening sequence of “Halloween.” The Black Friday massacre at the beginning has a shot of the rioters pressed up against the glass doors of RightMart right before they shatter, recreating a shot from “Dawn of the Dead” where the zombies break into the mall. The entire Thanksgiving parade scene, in which the protagonists board a float to scan the crowd for the killer, calls to mind a similar parade scene in “I Know What You Did Last Summer.”

The film’s strongest points lie in its creative kill sequences and nauseating special effects. Roth included some of the most memorable kills from the original trailer, such as a cheerleader being stabbed through a trampoline in the middle of a routine. In another scene, a victim is roasted alive, and the killer subsequently tries to force her husband to eat a slice of her leg.

Along with the special effects, the sheer absurdity of the plot makes “Thanksgiving” deeply entertaining from beginning to end. The horrible Boston accents, campy dialogue and ridiculous twist ending could be regarded as weak points of the film, but they all feel at home within the film’s goofy tone.

“Thanksgiving” also includes relevant social commentary about capitalism and corporate greed. Watching the owner of RightMart get abducted after refusing to close the store, or even seeing the most bloodthirsty members of the Black Friday mob get chopped in half, you almost start to root for the killer Pilgrim (almost).

Although “Thanksgiving” possesses many of the elements that make a great slasher, it lacks the deaths of main characters, which feels strange given its inspirations. The brutality of the kills partially distracts the audience from the fact that few of the signifigant characters die; Roth opts to kill more minor characters instead. While this could be an intentional way to set the story up for a sequel, the deaths of the minor characters pack less of a punch than the death of someone in the main friend group would. “Scream VI” faced similar criticisms earlier this year, but the lack of significant deaths seems more excusable due to its legacy cast of beloved characters. In “Thanksgiving,” the emotional stakes are significantly lower, which makes the relatively high survival rate of the main characters surprising.

The film also suffers from a somewhat uneven tone, as though Roth couldn’t commit to whether he wanted the movie to be taken as serious social commentary. Additionally, some of the line delivery is wooden, an element not helped by dialogue that feels like it would never come from the mouth of a teenager.

Anyone from Plymouth could also point out some blatant inaccuracies in its setting. “Thanksgiving” was actually filmed in Ontario, as evidenced by the high rises in the background of several shots. Roth’s initial plans to start production in Plymouth in 2019 fell through. Despite the filming location, Roth’s appreciation for his home state shines through with regional references to Papa Gino’s, Hanover, Methuen, Cordage Park and even jimmies peppered throughout the movie.

Sixteen years in the making, “Thanksgiving” is a strong addition to the holiday horror genre. Roth does his original trailer justice, and recently announced via Instagram that fans can expect to see a sequel in 2025.

Sophie Machernis can be reached at [email protected].

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