I don’t go into many movies with a lot of hope nowadays, and I never expected a whole lot from horror films, so I’m happy to be surprised on occasion. Thanksgiving was one such treat, a fun, (mostly) smart slasher with decent characters and something genuinely interesting to say about the true horrors underpinning society. It’s not a classic, and it stumbles here and there, but it’s much better than the average of its kind.
One Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a Black Friday sale erupts into death and destruction when a riot breaks out among the shoppers. One year later, a serial killer wearing a Pilgrim outfit and a John Carver mask hunts down the participants in the riot, with a group of teens seemingly his main targets – but he’s saving them for last.
The first thing Thanksgiving does is introduce us to Plymouth (or the Plymouth of the movie, at least; Thanksgiving was filmed in Canada for cheap, and as someone who’s been to Plymouth, it shows) and its denizens. Almost immediately, it impressed me because Thanksgiving accomplishes a lot quickly, not only introducing the main characters and establishing their various relationships and conflicts but doing it more naturally than you’d expect from a horror film like this. Not to knock it, but this isn’t a genre that has to try very hard, and it’s gratifying when one of them goes out of its way to make you care about its victim pool.
But the real secret to the opening, and what makes Thanksgiving something more than a disposable slasher movie, is the Black Friday riot. The tension is palpable even before the film gets to the store, with workers being pulled away from Thanksgiving so people can get a good price on a toaster. As the crowd gathers, anger erupts among the shoppers lusting for deals on things they probably don’t even want, fights break out, curses are thrown around, and everyone with half a brain is scared. When the riot begins, it’s like a monster movie, with crazy-eyed people trampling over each other, committing violence they don’t even seem aware of as they try to get their cheap baubles. Our first taste of blood and gore comes not from the killer but from the public.
And the public is us. That’s the heart of Thanksgiving. When the riot ends, the title card displays, and the movie flashes forward a year, we meet some of the rioters in their regular lives, and they’re just normal people. One is a waitress at the local diner. One lives in an apartment and has a cat. One is a trainer at a local gym and seems to be a pretty effective one. They’re you and me, our friends, our neighbors, our kooky aunts and uncles. And they committed an atrocity born of petty greed. The aftermath of the riot sees the townsfolk blame the store’s owner, but the truth is, it’s the shoppers, the everyday men and women who left their families on Thanksgiving to shop for useless crap. The store was open because the owner knew they’d come, and they didn’t disappoint. This is one of the ugly truths of humanity, what we’re capable of with the slightest incentive.
This is important because it is the backbone of the traditional horror of Thanksgiving. The killer’s identity is a mystery, which is part of the fun in these films, and while we don’t know the specific motive of whoever is behind the John Carver mask, we know what set him off. The riot, the greed that killed a family holiday, is coming back to haunt those who perpetrated it, with a masked killer as its instrument. A common complaint for the slasher genre is that, too often, the audience roots for the killer instead of his victims. Thanksgiving is like that, too, but it’s not because it has bad characters; it’s because the killer has a point, and many of his victims are monsters who maybe-kinda-sorta deserve what they get.
Those characters are the film’s other strength. Thanksgiving is populated with teens who feel like real people rather than the typical slasher movie mannequins. Nell Verlaque plays Jessica, the lead, and she’s a sweet, personable girl who misses her mom and hates her stepmother, who feels withdrawn from her dad and clings to her friends. She’s not Sidney Prescott or Laurie Strode, but she’s likable, and you want her to survive. Her friends are more type-ish: the best friend, the arrogant jock, the nerdy boyfriend. But they’re funny and relatable enough that they’re more than just fresh meat for a killer. They run circles around the soulless nobodies they handed the Scream franchise to in the new “era.” Even Jessica’s dad, who could have been a one-note rich creep, shows layers as the film goes along. The performances are all fine, nothing special, but not as bad as they could have been. (Although Patrick Dempsey’s Massachusetts accent comes and goes, sometimes in the same sentence.)
Thanksgiving definitely has its drawbacks, though. There’s a decent amount of humor in the film, and it’s usually balanced well with the tenser moments, but sometimes the kills go too far into parody, so they’re funny instead of horrifying. The killer’s reveal feels like a bit of a cheat, and going over the events preceding the unmasking, I’m not sure how this person could have been in some of these places when the murders happened. And the finale itself is a letdown, nowhere near as tense as some of the moments leading up to it, and with the previously interesting killer suddenly hamming it up and shouting awful lines like he’s advertising for the movie in the movie.
But don’t let that stop you from checking it out. Thanksgiving is a pretty good slasher movie that makes some smart and important points about society and what greed does to the soul. The characters are better than usual, the cast is decent, and while it goes a little overboard in the humor department and the finale is anemic, it’s mostly an entertaining little horror flick.