What sets Eli Roth apart from other contemporary American horror directors is his unique braiding of current issues with high genre literacy. This holds true for his latest effort, Thanksgiving, an anti-consumerist holiday giallo that traffics openly in reflexivity. In an interview on Mick Garris’ Post Mortem podcast, Roth cites Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) as an influence on Thanksgiving. The reference is intuitive, given both films’ giallo structures, young adult casts, and senses of self-awareness. Perhaps more interesting, though, is Thanksgiving’s connection to Craven’s final feature, Scream 4 (2011), a prophetic statement on corroding American empathy under social media selfhood. It’s also worth noting that Roth’s new film displays a better understanding of Craven’s cinematic grammar than either of the recent post-Craven Scream spinoffs do.
Thanksgiving’s development story is unique. It began as a joke between Massachusetts-raised Roth and friend/screenwriter Jeff Rendell, then became a faux trailer accompanying the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double-feature, Grindhouse (2007). Over fifteen years later, Roth and Rendell’s concept has come to fruition as a feature film. The plot builds on Roth’s career-long antagonism toward all manner of 21st-century American evils — performative politics, late capitalist exploitations, state-sanctioned cruelty, xenophobia, exceptionalist thinking, etc. In his most transgressive films, Hostel and Hostel II, high-paying black marketers buy human bodies for torture. In The Green Inferno — Roth’s throwback to 1970s Italian cannibal films — crooked power structures emerge among social media slacktivists who are captured to be eaten by Amazon tribes. Most recently, his shark trade documentary Fin unfurls the hydra-like machinations of a cruel and environmentally devastating industry.
Thanksgiving never approaches the level of transgressive brutality exhibited by those earlier works, but Roth’s knack for acerbic social satire shines through. Set in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the film’s primary plot begins a year after a Thanksgiving Black Friday sale that resulted in several people’s deaths. An unknown killer dons a mask modeled after 17th-century Plymouth Colony Governor John Carver, picking off locals he holds responsible for the previous year’s Black Friday casualties. As in Craven’s Scream films and the Italian gialli that inspired it, Thanksgiving keeps its black-gloved killer’s identity anonymous until the final reveal.
The inciting Black Friday sequence shows Roth in top form, especially in the callously flippant YouTube video posted after the tragedy. Although Thanksgiving only cursorily addresses the colonialist violence central to its titular holiday, it locates the darkness of capitalist impulse through its Black Friday narrative, which follows in the tradition of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). Thanksgiving also makes clever use of Instagram livestreams to show the queasy interplay between contemporary reality and social media.
Mostly, though, this holiday genre picture just allows Roth to appease his inner horror aficionado, staging ghoulishly elaborate murder sequences that pay homage to the excesses of classic Italian gialli and ’80s American slashers (especially effects legend Tom Savini’s grotesque wizardry in Friday the 13th, The Prowler, The Burning, etc.) Roth understands the small flourishes that lend impact to such scenes. For example, he uses sound design to invoke a whining tinnitus after the killer stabs a young woman’s ears with corn skewers, closing the distance between viewer and character subjectivity. In another sequence, when the Carver-masked villain prepares another victim to be cooked like a giant turkey, Roth devotes time to the uncomfortably protracted seasoning of human flesh.
Roth states in the aforementioned Post Mortem interview that Thanksgiving is expressly “mainstream horror,” the Scream to his own Last House on the Left (Hostel). It’s his first out-and-out horror film since The Green Inferno, which was released a decade ago. As an important genre auteur’s return to his origins and a paean to the slasher subgenre’s legacy, Thanksgiving works just fine.
DIRECTOR: Eli Roth; CAST: Patrick Dempsey, Nell Verlaque, Milo Manheim, Addison Rae, Gina Gershon; DISTRIBUTOR: Sony Pictures; IN THEATERS: November 17; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 47 min.