What’s scarier than a murder dawning a pilgrim outfit out for revenge in a small town known as the epicenter for the Thanksgiving holiday? Some people would argue venturing into the wild abyss of Black Friday shopping among those willing to stampede through others for that marked-down coffee pot. Sixteen years ago, director Eli Roth gave a brief glimpse into what this story could be within a faux trailer inside Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse double feature. It’s taken a long journey to get to the feature-length, but it’s true to its tagline: “This year, there will be no leftovers.”
Thanksgiving works because it’s in on the joke, as its self-awareness of being a holiday horror film allows the premise to be loose and comical. Some typical slasher hallmarks are rifts from films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, but they are presented with a sense of irony and brutality. You’ll still get the protagonist hiding nervously from the killer in a broad room. Even so, Roth and writer Jeff Rendell play it like a parody of itself, referring to things in the original concept teaser and within the film itself.
In Plymouth, Massachusetts, a group of families are preparing Thanksgiving dinner. Our main point person, Jessica (Nell Verlaque), has much to consider. She’s not too keen about her stepmother Kathleen (Karen Cliche); her boyfriend is a star pitcher at school. Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks) and her father (Rick Hoffman) is the owner of RightMart (basically our Best Buy) and is prepping for a blowout Thanksgiving night sale. Let’s say things don’t quite go as orderly as they should. In a massive opening sequence, a significant stampede of citizens rushes the story, and calamity ensues. People are tramped to death, disfigured and still reaching out for things, and less than courteous to their fellow person.
A year later, those involved start turning up dead in rather gruesome ways. The perpetrator dawns a mask of Plymouth’s first mayor, John Carver. Thus, we are off on a mystery trail until time runs out. Roth and Rendell look to keep the viewer guessing, offering a plethora of whodunnit character types to the point where you might take your eye off the ball. Jessica has a typical high school friend group, including obnoxious jock Evan (Tomaso Sanelli) and close, but stuck-up friend Gabby (Addison Rae). A continuous love triangle breeds as Bobby becomes injured in the stampede and disappears from town. Extreme nice guy Ryan (Milo Manheim), who has always had his eye on Jessica, swoops in as Bobby suddenly returns.
As they run in a frenzy where the killer tags them in social media posts as the body count starts to climb, town sheriff Newlon (Patrick Dempsey) looks to stay one step ahead of this killer. Roth’s antagonist might have a muted expression due to the mask, but is full of minor quirks that make them distinguishable. For example, a security guard (played by Tim Dillon) is not long for this world and has a cat in his apartment. After he meets his extravagant end, Carver feeds the cat before exiting. Things like this walk the line between keeping the tension high and invoking a chuckle simultaneously.
Thanksgiving’s central theme is not having a disdain for tribal capitalistic rituals. Some people who meet their end certainly tie into that concept, but the film also uses the school story it has. Roth's use of jump scares is meant to get you to the mayhem that means hacked-up limbs, torsos, and decapitations galore. The film doesn’t shy away from the bluntness you’d find in Roth’s previous horror entries, but interjects a comedic aspect to them to lighten up the room.
Ultimately, you have a film that knows what it is and what has come before it and provides its own switches. There’s nothing to contemplate after the credits roll other than the good time you had.