Right before Halloween this year, The Washington Post published a piece analyzing an issue that has exasperated die-hard horror fans in recent years: the woeful decline of the jump scare. You know, the moments in a movie when something or someone startlingly appears or occurs, usually after a suspenseful silence. It’s amazing.
Think when a distraught Drew Barrymore peers outside the window and is suddenly facing a masked villain staring back at her in 1996’s “Scream.” Or when Samara slowly crawls out of the TV in 1998’s “The Ring,” then immediately materializes inches from a terrified man on the floor.
The Washington Post article pointed to a number of issues that have led to the dearth of these classic moments, but the most frustrating one? In an effort to appeal to mainstream audiences that are more horror-averse, some filmmakers have moved away from gore and jump scares — arguably two of its most defining elements. And consequently, that alienated fans.
So, it is massively cool that, weeks later, director Eli Roth is basically like: “Fuck all of that.”
With his new movie, “Thanksgiving,” he not only brings back the jump scare, he gives us a movie rich with fake-outs (when we think something is happening in one direction, only for it to sneak up behind us); gore; a whole group of ridiculous, terribly written teenage characters; and one mysterious, bloodthirsty baddie — wonderfully hiding in plain sight.
Essentially, “Thanksgiving” marks a fun mainstream return to the subset of more mindless slashers like “Urban Legend” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” that dominated so much of the ’90s. The descendants of ’80s slashers like “Friday the 13th” are like watching 90 minutes of increasingly creative carnage, peppered with sarcastic adolescent dialogue.
They serve a purpose, and they’re deliriously entertaining to watch.
Roth clearly had them in mind with “Thanksgiving,” which borrows a lot from its predecessors — even down to its barely-there storyline written by Jeff Rendell. While its title is ripe for commentary on America’s history of racist savagery that birthed the holiday, the movie doesn’t engage with any of it. That might seem like a major misstep.
But “Thanksgiving” ends up not straying too far from that sentiment ― because it’s rooted in today’s barbarism around Black Friday.
The movie locks you in the opening moments. Picture it: The day after Thanksgiving at a big box store. There are definitely not enough security officers to take on the mob of entitled customers in a very white suburban town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, (Roth’s home state and the site of the historical massacre), that are eager to kill each other over a newfangled waffle iron now on sale.
From there, you can probably guess what happens. Hint: Revisit any of the real-life instances of senseless violence on Black Friday that are now immortalized on YouTube. It’s a whole thing. “Thanksgiving” taps into that, with Roth delivering an appropriately chaotic and bloody cold open sequence where the camera is moving in every which direction until it’s finally over.
You don’t exactly know where the story is going from there, but Roth has your full attention. It checks off a lot of boxes that have been missing from too many genre entries today. Shock value? Check. Gore? Big time.
From there, your mind probably starts moving into the commentary state. Yada yada yada the issue with consumerism, yada yada yada we’ve become a primitive culture. Yada yada yada capitalism. All of those things are true and necessary conversations that any smart genre film probably would have.
But “Thanksgiving” isn’t that movie, and Roth seems to be keenly aware of that. It’s a single-note slasher with only blood on its mind. Some people died during that Black Friday bloodbath, others were critically injured. Someone is pissed off about that — and they’ll stop at nothing to get their revenge.
That’s it. That’s the entire premise.
A year goes by and a group of high school teens with horrendous Massachusetts accents who embody every single stereotype ever depicted of the area — including unchecked rage and potty mouths — are a few of the central targets of an unknown serial killer.
Jessica (Nell Verlaque) is the good girl daughter of the owner of the big box store (Rick Hoffman), who hates the fact that it will be open once again on Black Friday. Ryan (Milo Manheim) is her very suspicious boyfriend. Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks) is her brooding ex. Gabby and Lonnie (Addison Rae and Mika Amonsen) are the quintessential jock couple.
And Scuba (Gabriel Davenport) is the Black guy. He has no distinct characteristics beyond this.
They’re all just sitting ducks. One by one, we see characters slaughtered in batshit ways. There’s the one who gets slithered by an electric saw. Another is slammed halfway inside a dumpster and her torso is sliced off. And then there’s one of the film’s many murderous highlights: someone is basted and roasted in an oven and served for Thanksgiving dinner.
As the “Thanksgiving” slogan reads, “There will be no leftovers.” There will, however, be lots more silly Thanksgiving puns, a rapidly escalating death toll and plenty of suspense. Who will actually survive this? Nobody really knows — and it’s really hard to care about any one of them. But Roth leaves the door wide open for a sequel.
And honestly, I’d be down for one. Perhaps that excitement is brought on by a mainstream genre landscape that’s starved of actual terror, one that these days too often sacrifices dread for what has infuriatingly been referred to as “elevated horror.” At a time when the only major horror movie release for Halloween is the boring “Five Nights at Freddy’s.”
“Thanksgiving” hits at a moment when genuine fright and jump scares are too rare on screen. Many fans are so desperate for the stimulation that a movie in which a person is tenderized to death might actually be number one at the box office. And you know what? So be it.