“Thanksgiving,” a cheerfully debased — or maybe I should say de-basted — slasher film directed by Eli Roth, marks the second time that one of the luscious mock trailers from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse” has been spun into a feature film. The first such movie, Rodriguez’s “Machete,” worked better than anyone might have expected; it gave Danny Trejo perhaps the best lead role of his career, and it was tasty enough in its high-zooming vengeful action hyperbole to spawn a sequel.
Roth’s trailer for “Thanksgiving,” on the other hand, was a bloody perfect, outrageously transgressive parody of the holiday horror genre that had long gone out of style. The best thing about it may have been the narrator, with his ultra-low voice of deadpan drive-in psychosis (“White meat, dark meat. All will be served”). The “Thanksgiving” trailer, as indelible as a great Mad parody, was two-and-a-half minutes of concentrated schlock heaven. Was it worth turning into an actual movie?
It turns out that “Thanksgiving” has been perfectly timed — and I don’t just mean because it’s coming out on Thanksgiving weekend (though I suspect it will generate some box-office gravy). The movie reconnects us with a genre that is so out it’s in. Holiday horror movies may now seem as corny as a corndog, but David Gordon Green’s rebooted “Halloween” trilogy helped revive interest in them. And “Thanksgiving,” I’d say, is juicier fun than they were, because it’s so brazenly up front about embracing how everything in the “Grindhouse” trailer — the way it walked the line between gruesome and preposterous — is exactly what audiences have loved about these movies for 40 years.
In the ’70s, when the slasher film was coming into its own, with movies like “Last House on the Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes” and the “Citizen Kane” of the genre, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” they were true nightmares on film (or trying to be). But by the ’80s, with the rise of the “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, they’d become something else: sick-joke comedies with jump scares. They’d completely dispensed with the idea that we cared about who lived or died, and characters like Jason and Freddy were now showbiz heroes of cheeky terror — ringleaders that the audience cheered on.
They were, with rare exceptions (like “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors”), incredibly formulaic films. But that’s where Eli Roth comes in. He’s a highly skilled pulp practitioner, witty and shameless enough to be at once incorrect and diabolically unhinged. “Thanksgiving” follows the rules of the slasher genre, but it’s got a more charged and entertainingly hyperbolic atmosphere than these movies used to have.
It’s set in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where a group of high-school friends (and a handful of adults who turn into collateral damage) are stalked over the Thanksgiving holiday by a maniac named John Carver, who wears the tacky plastic mask of a kitsch Plymouth Rock pilgrim (in the “Grindhouse” trailer his face was just buried in shadow), as well as a pilgrim’s hat and uniform. He looks creepy enough to be a cosplay mascot of death.
Before it gets to Carver’s rampage, though, the film kicks off on Thanksgiving the year before, when the local Right Mart big-box store is about to open its doors for Black Friday, which now starts on Thursday night. The overflow crowd that has lined up in the parking lot is so hyped it looks like it’s waiting for a glimpse of Taylor Swift; the prospect of buying a waffle iron for 50 percent off is enough to provoke mass hysteria. The Black Friday-as-riot sequence that follows is an acidly funny piece of social satire. There’s already a killer onscreen, and it’s the consumer culture.
After several people emerge injured or dead, the stage is set for a small-town soap opera of guilt and recrimination. Which, of course, is what every slasher movie is really about. Roth, working from a script he wrote with Jeff Rendell, lines up the usual array of suspects and walking dead meat: the heroine, Jessica (Nell Verlaque), who’s the daughter of the geek (Rick Hoffman) who owns the store (and didn’t order enough security); her princess stepmother (Karen Cliche); her boyfriend, Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), whose pitching arm was injured in the melee, and who hasn’t been heard from since; her new boyfriend, the deceptively nice overachiever Ryan (Milo Manheim); a handful of jock louts and mean girls; and Sheriff Newlon (Patrick Dempsey), the eager-beaver mensch law enforcer.
Roth, working in a 50-year-old genre, incorporates elements of more contempo horror. “Thanksgiving” has the fast-break patter of the “Scream” films — not the we’re-fighting-off-a-slasher-as-if-we-were-in-a-slasher-movie meta quality (which has gotten old anyway), but the precociousness that drives it. The movie also shares the design of the recent “Saw” sequel, with John Carver targeting the characters who are linked, in a culpable way, to that Black Friday riot. It makes canny use of social media, as Carver live-streams his climactic atrocity. But mostly this is a movie about a slasher treating his victims like turkeys waiting to be slaughtered and trussed.
The film re-creates several key moments of the “Grindhouse” trailer, like the Thanksgiving parade (with its decapitated turkey mascot), the insanely gruesome episode with a cheerleader bouncing on a trampoline, and the climatic Thanksgiving sequence, in which Carver assembles his victims around a table for a dinner that’s a gag in every sense. The “Grindhouse” trailer was a joke, and the movie, you could say, is still a joke. But here’s the difference. In 2007, when “Grindhouse” came out, the whole feel of that trailer — what made it satire — is that it was a shade too goofy in its sadism, too gruesomely absurd; it all went a little too far. That trailer can now be a movie because a movie called “Thanksgiving” that has an insane pilgrim staging homicide as holiday dinner just seems like what it is: this week’s what-the-hell trash. To put it another way: Who wouldn’t want seconds?