Review: 'Thanksgiving' or Fright Night Revisited
Horror comedies are tricky. The quest for laughs in these pictures tends to destabilize the scary stuff. Like, has anyone ever wished there were a couple more chuckles in "Alien," or a fart joke in "Frankenstein"? Once humor becomes a pressing concern in a fright flick, the familiar pleasures of terror become technical exercises.
There's nothing really scary about "Thanksgiving," the new Eli Roth movie, but it is pretty funny, especially the gory bits. Since a wonderful fake trailer for the film was included in the 2005 genre parody "Grindhouse," we've had 18 years to assemble a full-length motion picture in our heads. So have Roth -- creator of the unflinchingly gruesome "Hostel" movies -- and fellow slasher fanboy Jeff Rendel, who scripted this film. Given its concept, the movie's action and dialogue pretty much assemble themselves. "Every weapon he's using is straight off a Thanksgiving table," one character notes, as we watch various sorts of trauma being doled out with meat thermometers, tenderizing mallets, and holiday corn-cob holders. That someone at some point will say the words "Dinner is served" is never in doubt.
As is traditional in this sort of good-natured trash, the characters here -- especially the clueless teenagers among them -- are on hand mainly to die, in as garish a way as possible. (The standout in this regard -- at least in the original fake trailer -- was a fearlessly appalling scene involving a cheerleader, a knife, and a trampoline; Roth has now recreated that scene, but in a softer, less politically incorrect way, which is too bad, although the original scene lives on, of course, on YouTube.)
The plot does its job, leading us from one head-severing or face-basting to another while otherwise staying mostly out of the way. The movie has more characters than it really needs, but not for long. It kicks off with a flashback to last Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts, when a shopping riot ensued as the Right Mart, a local big-box store, kicked off its annual Black Friday sales stunt at the stroke of midnight. (Already the strains of "Jingle Bells" are insistently filling the air -- but the movie isn't so much a comment on the consumerism satirized in George Romero's 1978 "Dawn of the Dead" as it is a recognition that vintage social commentary of that sort is now just another element of horror-movie style.)
The story begins as another turkey day is rolling around and a high-school girl named Jessica (Nell Verlaque) is wishing her father (Rick Hoffman), who owns the Right Mart, would call off this year's Black Friday event. She also wishes he hadn't married an annoying woman named Kathleen (Karen Cliche) after her own mother died. Jessica has two boyfriends (one an ex-), but like several of the movie's other characters, neither is very interesting. There's also a flirty wife on the scene, played by Gina Gershon, and a teen named Gabby (Addison Rae), who turns out to look suitably terrified with a gag in her mouth. Then there's Plymouth's chief lawman, Sheriff Newton (Patrick Dempsey), who soon has his hands full when a wave of murders breaks out -- the work of a serial killer called John Carver (a little on-the-nose, maybe, but actually the name of the first governor of Plymouth Colony back in the 1600s).
Carver skulks around the town in a plastic souvenir mask and a black Puritan hat, with a very well-honed axe at hand. Since the big Thanksgiving Day parade is drawing ever nearer, he fits right in among all the other townsfolk milling around in exactly the same outfit.
This perfunctory plot is winningly energized by Roth's formidable geek expertise. He knows just when to rip a swatch of scalp off somebody's head, just when to start waving around buzz saws and pitchforks, and just when to wheel out his clever genre salutes to "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," "Mad Max: Fury Road," and "Taxi Driver." And toward the end, when something blows up real big, Roth knows exactly what somebody has to pipe up and say: "No one could survive a blast like that."
Of course not.
Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.
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