The concept of a Thanksgiving-themed slasher film already existed in the form of a mock trailer featured in the 2007 film “Grindhouse,” which drenches the imagery of the holiday in blood, guts and severed heads.
This twisted joke of sorts has suddenly become very real and tangible with the release of “Thanksgiving,” a slasher film that brings the mock trailer to life. With the titular holiday just around the corner, this film has manifested at the perfect time, angling to capture the favor of viewers who enjoy festive horror movies like “Black Christmas” and “Krampus.”
Although “Thanksgiving” meets the quota of what a holiday slasher should do, it’s a bit frustrating that it has no aspirations to carve a fresher take from the bones of its subgenre –– sacrificing characterization for carnage and proving that a great idea doesn’t always translate to a great feature-length film.
Keeping in line with other slashers, this story’s setup favors simplicity over convolution — in the wake of a Black Friday bloodbath, the residents of a small Massachusetts town are subjected to an unrelenting torrent of terror as they are hunted down one-by-one by a masked killer.
Even though the opening onslaught and the murders that stem from it allow for some easy critiques on holiday consumerism, “Thanksgiving” mostly refrains from exploring these themes. Instead, this is more focused on serving up seasonally relevant violence, and it operates magnificently when it makes the most of its premise and dishes out deaths by axes and meat tenderizers alike.
What makes this film is that it comes across as far more campy than it does cruel, a decision that equally complements and clashes with the film’s harsher proceedings. Despite still being mean-spirited at times, director Eli Roth’s signature brand of comedy seeps into a majority of the butchery depicted on-screen, which sometimes deflates the tension of any given moment altogether.
Roth clearly realizes the silliness a holiday-set slasher warrants, but his choice to play almost every kill for laughs reveals a slight lack of faith in the film’s ability to convey this tone through its premise alone.
The cast of “Thanksgiving” does a lot of heavy lifting in selling the script’s humor, but they don’t leave much of an impression beyond that. Most characters are confined to nothing more than one-dimensional archetypes — as to be expected, there’s the star athlete, the cheerleader and the town sheriff.
Maybe these details don’t matter in a film of this caliber, but by leaning so heavily into slasher tropes, “Thanksgiving” lacks the imagination to see its characters and setting as anything more than a source for gore gags and brutal kills.
Fortunately, those elements of the film are executed rather well. A lot of the best bits from its source material are recreated here on a larger scale, such as a Thanksgiving parade decapitation, and it is in these moments that the film justifies its existence.
That being said, for every stab at viciousness this takes, it shies away from being truly grisly in so many other ways. Therefore, a lot of the exploitative nature of the mock trailer is sanded down here, almost as if the film doesn’t dare to go that far out of fear of being unpalatable to general audiences.
This conflict over presentation indicates just how precariously this film is caught between the past and present of horror, and it often succumbs entirely to its own contradictions — it is a bit too clean to match the vintage nastiness it tries to emulate, and it is also too funny to ever be frightening.
While it succeeds as a slasher, “Thanksgiving” comes out a bit undercooked as a whole –– and any future importance it holds around this time of year might be accredited more to its concept than its underwhelming content.