Gather ’round the table, horror fans, because Eli Roth is finally serving up his long-gestating holiday feast: the seasonal slasher movie “Thanksgiving.” The idea for this film got rolling some 16 years ago with the 2007 Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double feature “Grindhouse,” in which Roth and his longtime friend Jeff Rendell cooked up a joke trailer inspired by their love of themed horror movies and a Massachusetts childhood spent just down the road from Plymouth, the site of the first Thanksgiving.
When horror fans first got their eyes on the “Thanksgiving” trailer, it sparked a fervent appetite for the whole meal, but with the full film finally hitting theaters after 16 years of discussion and development, it proves the adage — also true for Thanksgiving meals — that there can be too much of a good thing.
“Thanksgiving” is an enthusiastic slasher romp in which Roth is clearly having a ball making his childhood dreams come true. But the problem here is the underbaked script, co-written with Rendell. The film has been reverse-engineered around the holiday-themed kills (Black Friday mob, electric carving knife, turkey roasting) and references to the original trailer and other classic horror movies. The script takes the shape of a loose take on “Scream” or “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” with our killer, known as John Carver, stalking a group of teens in a revenge plot. “Thanksgiving” doesn’t try to deconstruct the genre — its only self-reflection comes with the requisite references — but the characters are thinly written, lacking motivation, and the central mystery is hopelessly muddled.
Our heroine is Nell Verlaque as Jessica. She could have easily swapped roles with social media star Addison Rae, who herself plays a vaguely mean popular girl Gabby; both are brunets with long, wavy hair and similarly wan screen abilities. The plot starts on Thanksgiving when Jessica’s father (Rick Hoffman), the owner of the Right Mart big-box store, starts his Black Friday sale a day early. A mob, frothing for free waffle irons, starts a vicious stampede after they’re taunted by Jessica’s snotty group of friends, who sneaked into the store early.
Mayhem ensues, lives are lost, etc. All that’s left is a haunting social media video and a sense of community grief and trauma. Fast forward a year later and this John Carver character — outfitted in Pilgrim finery — has been hunting down everyone involved in the melee for a deadly dinner party. It’s up to Jessica to track down the killer’s identity (is he one of two boyfriends?) since the bumbling Sheriff Newlon (Patrick Dempsey) proves to be utterly useless.
Roth, a horror fan and dedicated student of the genre, can stage and shoot an innovative suspense sequence. The violence is sadistic and gory; the setups are inventive and engaging. But he rushes through them and doesn’t let anything breathe. It’s the connective tissue — the gristle — between the kills that is seriously lacking. Local color is sprinkled on top like a garnish, not incorporated as a part of the whole, and the story movement from scene to scene hardly makes sense. It’s only the prior knowledge of horror tropes and a curiosity about who’s under the Carver mask that keeps this moving forward.
There’s also the sense that this holiday meal just might be a little stale. Certain set pieces like a cheerleader on a trampoline might have played well back in the Wild West of the mid-aughts, but in 2023 it’s cringe-worthy, and Roth seems to know that. He rushes through it as if he’s checking a box for the fans. His centerpiece of the table is a roasting sequence that reminds us why he excelled in the torture-porn era, but overall, “Thanksgiving” feels incredibly juvenile, perhaps due to its genesis so long ago.
If “Thanksgiving” had to be any specific dish on the holiday table, it would be stuffing: disparate chunks tossed together and baked. Stuffing is a dish where old bread goes to shine — a cheap and easy crowd-pleaser. But this particular serving of it is missing a crucial element, the binder. Without it, it’s just a crumbly mess. It might taste good for a bite or two, but Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving” isn’t a full meal.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service critic.