‘Thanksgiving’ Review: Gobble, Gobble, Gasp

The origin of this seasonal slasher is in an ersatz trailer the horror filmmaker Eli Roth made for the portmanteau movie “Grindhouse” in 2007. The two lurid features directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were separated by a series of teasers for imaginary movies concocted by like-minded pals of the filmmakers, also including Rob Zombie and Edgar Wright. Believe it or not, Roth’s feature-length version of “Thanksgiving” is the third such trailer to get its Pinocchio-esque real-movie wish.

The movie posited in that trailer was, of course, a way-trashy variant on John Carpenter’s “Halloween.” Roth’s feature realization, scripted by Jeff Rendell from a story by both Rendell and Roth, opens with a Carpenter tribute, a shot from an unknown point of view, approaching a door, perhaps menacingly.

What follows is different: Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Mass., celebrated by two families, one lower-middle class, one affluent. The turkey and pie are interrupted in both households by the run up to an early Black Friday sale at the big box store owned by the affluent clan. The store is overrun by a mob of unusually lumpen bargain hunters, and the riot that ensues is a bloody doozy, coming off like an amalgam of George A. Romero and Jean-Luc Godard. No, really.

That’s the thing about Roth, who’s coming back to the undiluted horror that made him notorious (see “Hostel”) after the career detours of a “Death Wish” remake and the altogether more wholesome “The House With a Clock in Its Walls,” both from 2018. He’s not a poetic horror moviemaker; he doesn’t dwell on eerie atmosphere. Any calm that exists in his pictures is just there to set up a jump scare. Horror for him is a blunt instrument. The thing is, he knows his stuff and he’s very adept at serving up both gross-outs and real leap-from-your-seat moments.

As for those gross-outs: if you know the fake trailer for this movie, you know they included a genuinely objectionable knife-through-a-trampoline gag, and a terribly improbable human turkey gag. Spoiler alert: a toned-down version of the former and a ramped-up version of the latter feature here. Like his exploitation feature forebears, who include not just Romero but Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and on the arguably minus side, Sean S. Cunningham (the man behind another holiday horror, “Friday the 13th”) Roth enjoys imagining and then simulating lacerations of the body parts you’d least like to be wounded in, but his sadism also has a wicked wit.

The scenario, in which an unknown lunatic seeks to avenge the casualties of the aforementioned riot one year later, of course features a group of beleaguered teens. Their primary member, Jessica, is the daughter of the mega-mart’s venal owner, but also the one family member with a real conscience. Nell Verlaque, who plays her, turns in a better performance than the role genuinely calls for. Patrick Dempsey, recently designated People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, takes the role of the town sheriff, which here is not as thankless a role as it is customarily. The movie also includes a Black Sabbath joke that is both funny and accurate.

Rated R for grisly violence, language. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.

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