Eli Roth has been working towards bridging the gap between mainstream and fringe cinema for a long time. He has been sneaking in low-budget genres, such as splatter horror, erotic thrillers, and mondo films, into popular multiplexes. In 2007, he contributed to Grindhouse, a double feature created by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez that paid homage to the cheap and gritty films of the past. This included retro scratches and fake trailers for non-existent movies. Roth directed one of these trailers, which featured a killer dressed as a pilgrim wreaking havoc at a Thanksgiving parade in Plymouth. The tagline, “White meat. Dark meat. All will be carved,” was delivered with a hint of playful irony in the voiceover.
Roth takes a risk by turning his hilarious two-minute joke about a gravy-drenched Thanksgiving into a feature-length film, which became tiresome when attempted in his previous works, Machete and Hobo with a Shotgun. He abandons the nostalgic style and updates the visuals to match current times of Instagram live streams and land acknowledgments. Despite the need for some changes to fit within an R rating, such as moving a graphic scene to a more acceptable body part and dressing a nude corpse, Roth stays true to the twisted humor of classic exploitation films, creating a satisfyingly gory and comedic experience. Forget about the turkey, because he serves up a hearty portion of red meat: pure, certified laughs and mutilations without any unnecessary additives.
Unfortunately, to the great disappointment of the numerous DIY enthusiasts who follow his lead, there is no substitute for Roth’s expertise as an orchestrator of tension and humor. This sets the perfect groundwork for his wicked games. In the thrilling opening scene, a sense of impending danger builds up and eventually erupts as Black Friday shoppers swarm a Walmart-like store, resulting in three deaths. This clever twist on Dawn of the Dead’s mall invasion, with the zombies replaced by consumers, is a not-so-subtle yet chilling commentary on our society’s distorted obsession with consumerism during a holiday that, as one teacher points out, stems from America’s history of genocide. Roth captures the chaos of the crowd with the same intensity as a rabid mob after a major sports event, showcasing one of the many aspects of Massachusetts’ culture in this exceptional and authentic film. However, he also takes a moment to focus on a “Doorbuster Sale” sign, serving as a reminder that businesses fuel and profit from such reckless behavior. In the second Hostel film, Roth reduced human lives to nothing more than commodities in soulless auctions; here, they are marked down by 50%, as emphasized by a banner that forms a disturbing yet clever pun with a woman’s dismembered body.
Roth’s approach is centered on clever setups and satisfying punchlines, resulting in a multitude of unique and engaging murders that also serve to connect the storyline. One year after the initial massacre, the killer, dressed as the governor of Plymouth colony, targets those who were captured in a viral recording from that night. His victims include Jessica, the daughter of a store owner, and her friends, including social media influencer Addison Rae, who brings to mind “Paris Hilton in House of Wax” without the gruesome ending. Despite the efforts of the town’s sheriff, who speaks with a Maine accent and is played by Patrick Dempsey, the killer continues to add to his macabre dinner guest list, which features decapitation, disembowelment, and forced cannibalism. Just like a well-prepared meal, timing is crucial, and there is no wasting time or taking itself too seriously to interrupt the enjoyment. Even a side story about two boys vying for Jessica’s affection is not exempt from poking fun at its own irrelevance.
The table’s depiction reflects the previous portrayal of twisted wholesomeness in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where the focus on family and unity turns into something incestuous and filled with rage. Roth’s references may not be obscure, but he has earned the right to use them by fully embracing horror for the sake of horror. This is a welcome relief in a time where many entries in the horror genre are weighed down by overbearing metaphors about trauma. He brings discipline to the disreputable, elevating select pieces of trash with a genuine mastery and appreciation for their most vile and base pleasures. What more could we ask for?
Thanksgiving will be released in cinemas in the UK and US on November 17th.