What film director Eli Roth did a generation ago “Hostel: Part II” Movies aside, it’s one of the most disgusting things on the planet; It’s a movie with drawn-out scenes of torture, malevolence, worse misogyny, and frustrating laziness.
Now Roth has made “Thanksgiving” based on the fake trailer (2 minutes, 19 seconds) he shot the same year in 2007 for Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez’s double feature “Grindhouse.” And get this: “Thanksgiving” works. Predictably bloody, but unpredictably nimble at best. In a career full of lows, Roth’s latest stands out as a delicious example of holiday stress at extremes.
Screenwriter Jeff Rendell takes the original fake trailer as a reference point, not a guide for the feature-length expansion. The setup is awesome. On a Thanksgiving night at a locally owned Walmart-type department store in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Black Friday shoppers boil and rage in the cold, desperate to outrun security guards. Meanwhile, the store owner’s daughter Jessica (Nell Verlaque, a wide-eyed, easygoing presence) and her high school friends enter and taunt the rabid customers on the other side of the glass.
The ensuing brawl leaves at least three people dead, and the escalating frenzy of the opening sequence oscillates between bloody black comedy and oddly reasonable thrills. A year later, a Thanksgiving killer is on the loose with an obvious grudge against Jessica and her friends. Screenwriter Rendell lays out a buffet of potential suspects, where presumably all the residents of the tight-knit community will unravel a little more with each body.
Patrick Dempsey is the kindly sheriff; Jalen Thomas Brooks and Milo Manheim exchange dirty looks as Jessica’s rival, jealous romantic interests. The last third of the film becomes increasingly routine, by which time we’ve seen plenty of guts and live cuts (one with a trash can lid). But once there, Roth directs a sadistic tone with a pace and glee that recalls the better “Scream” films, as well as a worthy hero determined not to die.
So why only a middling star rating? I would put “Thanksgiving” somewhere between “fair” and “good.” Inevitably, Roth can’t keep his basic storytelling and filmmaking instincts at bay forever. The final scene depicts the masked killer beating and roasting a female alive, and the film ends with her temporarily dying.
Of course, this was supposed to be grotesque; the sick actions of a sick mind, which means everything is fine. So does the Motion Picture Association’s hilariously forgiving definition of an R-rating. Roth knows this. He owes his career to this.
What I Little did he know that Roth himself had two-thirds of a good, legit genre movie in him, although his debut, “Cabin Fever,” came close to that. I’m sure we’ll see the sequel to “Thanksgiving” in 2024 or 2025.
“Thanksgiving” — 2.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: R (for strong bloody horror, violence and gore, strong language and some sexual material)
Running time: 1:47
How to watch: Premieres in theaters November 16
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.