Like gravy-soaked mashed yams with marshmallows on top, Eli Roth’s cinema is, how shall we put it, an acquired taste. His work—usually something ridiculous, in poor taste but inexplicably fun—is much like the aforementioned dish. It’s either your thing, or it isn’t.
Fortunately, Roth’s “Thanksgiving” proves to be more a main course-type spread anyway, serving up a strangely appealing old-school small-town slasher you might want a second helping of next Thanksgiving, one that’s equal parts entertaining and amusingly bloody with broad appeal.
Just like much of what you’ve seen in Roth’s “Hostel,” expect plenty of decapitated heads, exploding limbs and sliced up body parts here. It’s a madly hilarious experience you’ll want to experience in a movie theater for those communal (and perishable) screams.
And in some of the film’s more, ahem, creative torture scenes, prepare your eyeballs (and gag reflexes) for a body that gets generously buttered and seasoned before becoming a stuffed centerpiece, a wet cheek that gets stuck on a freezer door (use your imagination as to how the owner of the said cheek frees herself), a cheerleader on a trampoline landing on a series of knives and so on. But here is one piece of good news: The kitty cat whose life you’ll fear for, actually lives.
But how does it all start? We’re in Massachusetts’s own Plymouth, the birthplace of the turkey day on the turkey day, and a well-off family of extended relatives and plenty of grudges are settling in for a quiet dinner, before their Walmart-adjacent store RightMart opens up for business late night for Black Friday deals where a riot is impending. Call it the poor judgment of dad, played gleefully by repeat Roth collaborator Rick Hoffman.
Meanwhile his daughter Jessica (Nell Verlaque, a sturdy final girl) misses her late mother and can’t stand her stepmother Kathleen (Karen Cliche, making the most out of her character’s tacky vibes). Gina Gershon is also in the mix, playing a married character flirting with the town’s single Sheriff Newlon (a dreamboat Patrick Dempsey) in ways you won’t be able to miss.
In a script co-written by Jeff Rendell, Roth has swift economy in his introduction of these characters, and he orchestrates the incoming violence in RightMart quite well. In that, a no-holds-barred sequence is unleashed on the audience, tragic deaths caused by poor planning, lack of security and hundreds of discount-hungry shoppers who won’t take no for an answer or follow any civility guidelines.
Seeing this apocalyptic carnage, you might wonder if Roth’s point here is a critique of capitalism and insatiably wasteful consumerism. Well, the answer is no. In the most Roth way imaginable, he’s merely setting the stage for what’s to come: Blood-soaked revenge carried out by an axe-wielding maniac—wearing a John Carver mask, by the way—who clearly harbors a grudge over that riot due to the loss of a loved one and blames Jessica, her friends and her family.
“Thanksgiving” slightly drags once everything gets going. You’ll wonder who’s sending creepy Instagram posts to Jessica and her friends, or why the town isn’t doing more to save its citizens once the killer makes his intentions clear. But amid the bloat, there is also considerable finesse to the way Roth writes and orchestrates mayhem and mystery, somewhere on the scale between his earlier “Knock Knock” and “Hostel.”
As Sheriff Newlon puts it, be careful whom you trust, because the killer could be anyone, from Jessica’s ex, whose sports career ended after that tragic night, to an angry husband who lost his wife to the worst fate imaginable.
The ending that Roth and Rendell have up their sleeves is serviceable, if slightly predictable. One big miscalculation they make is with Kathleen, an initially grating character whose dexterity and dedication one comes to respect, even like, during one of the key scenes of “Thanksgiving.” Does she really deserve that end?
But undercooked dishes aside, with eye-popping production design and an invitingly rowdy premise, you feel just thankful enough for the full, calorie-rich meal Roth’s latest slasher provides — bones and all, but no leftovers.