Like most of you, my knowledge of Eli Roth's slasher Thanksgiving was limited to the infamous trailer, which has become a staple side dish for midnight double features (I saw it earlier this year in between Planet Terror and Death Proof in a sparsely attended grind-house theater). Due to distribution hangups, Thanksgiving can only be obtained through select Asian markets (under the Japanese translation of Mashed Brains Potatoes), so you can imagine my surprise when I found a copy in the bargain bin of a nearly out of business convenience store. After watching Thanksgiving, it's a shame that it will likely never be seen in most markets, because it's one helluva ride.
We've all seen (and maybe gagged at) the gross-out gore in the Thanksgiving trailer, but what you don't see in the trailer is a carefully directed story of simmering violence and repressed sexuality. Roth opens with a scene at a Thanksgiving table in Plymouth, Mass., in 1972. The camera pans along the various side dishes, and what at first seems like a normal holiday dinner is shattered when the turkey is slammed down at the center, where it is revealed that everyone at the table is dead. We do not see the apparent culprit's face, only that he glazes the bird with blood (leading to a title card freeze frame -- beautiful).
Fast forward 30 years, and Plymouth is gearing up for its famed Thanksgiving parade. The whole town is in a festive spirit, but the anniversary of the Plummer Family Massacre (which a crazed woman is quick to remind us was never solved) is never far from their thoughts -- especially since Judy Plummer (Jordan Ladd), the family's last remaining kin has just moved back into town. Plymouth has tried to move on from the grisly crime by demolishing the old Plummer house, but we soon find that old habits die hard. On her way to the parade, Liz thinks she sees someone in a pilgrim costume looking at her from a distance, but each time the person is gone when she looks back. The events leading up to the parade (such as the needless run-ins with the mayor) border on plodding, but once we get to the festivities, Thanksgiving never lets up.
At the parade, we see the apparent killer mingling in the crowd, and it is here that Roth makes a bold choice: instead of having the villain covertly kill the first victim, Roth has the masked pilgrim step into the parade and lop off the head of the marching turkey mascot. It's the first of many shocking scenes, and Roth sells the terror by having the killer make a believable exit amid the ensuing chaos.
The raw brutality glimpsed in the parade kickstarts a series of 'can I top this?' killings by the villain. This middle section of Thanksgiving is standard horror fare (all the disposable characters meeting their demise), but Roth does it in his own style that keeps your interest better than most slashers. Yes there's the infamous trampoline kill, but that's probably the fourth-worst death in the whole goddamn movie -- the 'knife from below' ploy is used a few times, and never better than with an unlucky coed (who we have never seen before) who decides to go out on the lake in her inflatable raft. The absurdity of this scene is spectacular -- who goes out on a lake during Thanksgiving, and was the killer waiting for her that whole time? No matter, Roth makes it work (bringing new meaning to the term 'dead astern').
The much-maligned trampoline scene is actually more tame than the trailer would suggest -- the cheerleader actually survives that scene and gives the pilgrim a pretty good fight near the end (though it's hard to believe she would get on a pommel horse given the trauma she experienced in her previous attempt at gymnastics).
As townspeople are murdered left and right, Plymouth starts to crumble, with a town meeting called to find the killer that degenerates into senseless killings by the citizens themselves. While Plymouth's leaders and authorities are occupied, Thanksgiving really shifts it into high gear with a final act that shifts manically between ridiculous ('Can you please pass the -- BRAINS!?!') and clever (Judy's escape in the woodshed -- wow!). The oft-criticized horrific dinner scene from the trailer takes place during the climax, and I'm proud to report that the final product is much worse than anything the trailer shows. Roth doesn't pull any punches here: he gives us the awful turkey, but in the true spirit of the holiday, he keeps on giving.
Roth's masterwork is keeping the identity of the killer a true secret up until 'dessert' is served. When the mask is pulled away, the identity revealed is a genuine surprise and actually ties up a few loose ends of the plot which at that point I had given up on. *Slight spoiler* I've heard the criticism that the villain's identity makes no sense, but if you focus on the cafe scene in the beginning (in between the chef's food innuendos), it seems to tie together nicely.
It's too bad that Thanksgiving essentially relegated Roth to direct-to-DVD forever, because outside of a few questionably explicit sex scenes (the second cheerleader 'practice' in particular), there's really nothing that you haven't seen in a mainstream Hollywood slasher. If there's one aspect of the movie that doesn't come through well on the Asian DVD, it's the soundtrack. Originally composed by Dave Mustaine (from his still unreleased '. . . and a Side of Death' solo album), the Asian distributors apparently couldn't get the rights -- which makes a U.S. DVD release that much more essential.