Once upon a long time long ago, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez collaborated on a project called Grindhouse, a loving recreation of the long-ago time when a single ticket at a low-rent theater paid for two features and a cornucopia of titillating trailers for movies that rarely lived up to the ballyhoo. Now forget the movies (though Tarantino’s Death Proof is legitimately great and Rodriguez’ Planet Terror is a respectable pastiche of low-rent sci-fi pictures dressed up with sexy space babes) and let’s go to the trailer for Thanksgiving, a slasher movie in the grand tradition of Halloween, Christmas, Mother’s Day et al., which use take holiday traditions and color them blood red. After mock-promising us back in 2007 that “white meat … dark meat … all will be carved,” Thanksgiving–is set in Plymouth, Massachusetts, because of course it is–serves up just that.
Let’s talk about the opening Black Friday sequence, because it’s flat-out great. Black Friday–for anyone who doesn’t know, the Friday before Thanksgiving, known since the early 1950s as the holy grail of shopping days, the one on which large retail outlets offer outrageous sale prices on big ticket items, they keep local television reporters in guaranteed material for what’s traditionally a slow news day, offering the spectacle of consumers willing to line up for hours in the cold for the chance at snapping up big-ticket items at artificially low prices. The catch: Supplies are very limited and the waiting crowd starts earlier and gets bigger every year.
Director Eli Roth, as is his wont, turns the volume up to 11: The restless crowd outside the local Right Mart (hmmm, what chain might that be meant to evoke?) breaks through barricades and stampedes in like bulls in Pamploma, trampling the weak, the slow, the clumsy and the just plain in the wrong place at the wrong time. Flesh is pulverized, blood flows, people die and the local news crews get the kind of footage for which you usually have to travel to war-zone frontlines. It’s gory, kinetic and it’s flat-out terrifying, especially for anyone who finds crowds anxiety-making.
Cut to a year later, when everything’s back to normal: Folks are looking at a couple of days off from work or school, a parade, lots of turkeys being dressed and tossed into ovens: Even the Rite-Mart will be open, to the dismay of the owner’s daughter (Nell Verlaque), who must have inherited her conscience from the other side of the family. Now cue some disgruntled someone, his face hidden behind a mask of Pilgrim John Carver, the first governor of Plymouth Colony (which looks remarkably like the mask made famous in V for Vendetta), who’s out to remind everyone that it’s pretty callous to be eating, drinking and making merry when this time last year their neighbors were being trampled to death during a perfect storm of greed, holiday hype and criminally lack of preparedness.
Thanksgiving is the third movie based on one of the fake trailers featured in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 Grindhouse–following Machete (2010, Robert Rodriguez) and Hobo With a Shotgun (2011, Jason Eisener)–and it’s equally well made, if more formulaic. And that’s not really a criticism: It’s a holiday-themed slasher movie, a subgenre that runs from the excellent Black Christmas (1974) and Halloween (1978) to the laughable Leprechaun (1992). The conventions are pretty inflexible–they’re body-count movies with a dollop of seasonal dressing and the playbook is pretty rigid: establish the theme, set up the victims and start picking them off while puzzled powers that be stumble around like, well, chickens with their heads off.
That said, it’s sleekly efficient and delivers both some solid suspense sequences and one of the more imaginatively grotesque images I’ve seen in a lifetime of watching horror movies–one of which is in the set of promotional images that are already all over the web.