Thanksgiving (2023)

NOVEMBER 6, 2023


It's kind of funny that Scream was supposed to kill the idea of doing a slasher film and yet it's only the success of parts 5 and 6 that we finally, FINALLY have the feature version of Thanksgiving that's been in the works for over 16 years, after winning fans over with its faux trailer during Grindhouse (a film that flopped and yet has inspired several films from its fake trailers - this is the fourth after two Machetes and Hobo With A Shotgun) - not to mention all the movies since that aped its dirty/scratched look). Spyglass was the production company that successfully relaunched Ghostface, and smartly not wanting to put all their eggs in one basket, they made Eli Roth an offer to fulfill this long overdue promise. Was it worth the wait?

Somewhat surprisingly, yes! Luckily, Roth and his writing partner Jeff Rendell realized early on that they couldn't just flesh out the trailer (which had no actual story to it, just kills) and make a real movie out of it. Instead, per Roth at a post-screening Q&A, they decided to treat the trailer as a lost slasher of yore and write the would-be remake/reboot/rewhatever of it instead. So there are a few moments from the trailer that are recreated here (the sight of a trampoline produced an audience cheer as if an A-list star just made a surprise cameo), but not all of them, and I think it was the right move - it allowed us to get into the movie as we would any other, but with a few fan service moments like that to remind us that having fun was the order of the day.

It's also got a terrific hook for the obligatory tragedy that sends our masked killer out for revenge a year later: a Black Friday stampede that leaves a couple people dead/injured. The Wal-Mart type store is owned by one of our hero teens' fathers, so they use their privilege to sneak in a few minutes before opening to buy a new phone, prompting the impatient mob outside to break through the metal fencing and storm the store, crushing a security guard, an employee's wife, etc and also breaking the arm of the local high school sports star, ending his promising career. So not only is it an epic way to open the movie and give us some spectacle for the incident (as opposed to the usual accidental *single* death like in Prom Night), but it also opens up the suspect pool more than we are used to for such things. The injured kid could be getting revenge for his destroyed career, the husband could be avenging his wife, etc., while the privileged teens, the rioters, and the store staff are all to blame in some way.

And the killer (named John Carver after the famous pilgrim/governor of Plymouth, MA, where the film is set) is the best kind of revenge slasher, where he mostly sticks to the people who were involved and doesn't add randoms to the mix when it suits him. Since I recently rewatched I Know What You Did Last Summer, a movie I don't like much anyway, I couldn't help but think of how the fisherman actually kills more people who had nothing to do with him/the main group than the ones he was actually mad at. That's not the case here; the killer's identity isn't exactly difficult to parse out, but their motive is actually quite strong (almost sympathetic!) and they rarely go outside of their target group (in fact I think Carver merely tranquilizes a few "in the way" people who had nothing to do with the stampede, but I'm not 100% sure).

Plus, the kills are all on the ridiculous side of things, and many have something to do with cooking/dinner. One gets corn cob holders to the ears, another is basted and roasted, etc - it's a nice change of pace from Scream VI, in which more people actually died by gunshot than knives (if they died at all; another nice thing here - no one's invincible). Roth knows better than to hold back from the gore, and it is glorious right from the start, as a man's neck is lacerated on broken glass as he storms into the store (and then proceeds to try to grab a toaster oven anyway). The MPA has gotten more lenient over the years to be sure, but even on that level, there were one or two kills that had me momentarily wondering if this was some sort of unrated cut, just because you don't see this type of stuff in major studio (Sony!) theatrical releases anymore. Not that you NEED this sort of thing for a slasher to work (Halloween, my favorite, has next to no blood and the kills are all rather pedestrian even by existing standards - nothing like the unicorn in Black Christmas!) but you also kind of want to feel that the person calling the shots loves them as much as you do, and that's a good way to prove it and let you know it's OK to cheer at this or that demise.

Because make no mistake, this is very much a fun slasher film in the vein of Jason Lives or Hatchet, where it's not that you dislike the victims (in general; there's a few you're supposed to hate) but the tone suggests you're not hoping they all get away either. And it's aided by the genuine humor, in particular a local gun/alcohol salesman who is using the events to drum up business but is also seemingly a genuinely good dude that ends up saving the day (not with a gun or alcohol). Roth - a native Masshole like me - also gets lots of mileage out of our well-known anger issues; I don't think the movie is five minutes old before we are treated to our first of many "Faaack you!"s. The accents are also on point; the angrier people have the "Hahhvahhhd Yaaahd" thing going but the people with actual normal volume dialogue keep it in check. Patrick Dempsey as the town sheriff (no Michael Biehn like the trailer, alas) is particularly good, but turns out he's from Maine and has been faking a "normal" one for his whole career, so I guess he was happy to just use his real voice for once. It sadly wasn't shot in Massachusetts, but whatever Canadian town they used is a pretty good stand-in - it's only the lack of decorum (read: Patriots jerseys and Dunkin Donuts cups) that spoils the illusion. On that note, my actual hometown got used as the butt of a joke, so that along with the gruesome death of someone named Collins has me thinking Roth might be mad at me about something (or he just has no idea I exist and it's a coincidence. One of those.).

I only have two minor gripes. One is that the heroine is kind of a blank page; nothing against the performer, but I couldn't tell you a single thing about her by the end of the movie, so she's one of the "final girl by default" types and I expect a little better from Roth in that department, since he played against expectations so well in his earlier films. The other was some wonky plotting regarding "who was there that night", treating it as a mystery of sorts when there isn't one? There's a subplot about the store's security camera footage being erased that results in two weird plot points: our heroine says her father has a backup, which makes no sense once we know who deleted the store's footage, because there's no reason for them to not delete that one too. And I couldn't quite track why they needed it in the first place, because one of our hero teens filmed the whole thing and put it on Youtube, so that along with eyewitness accounts (which apparently just don't exist?) should have been all the cops needed anyway. It felt reverse engineered, as if Roth/Rendell were still awkwardly trying to fit together elements from their trailer or something. And it's more of a funny issue than a serious one, but apparently one victim is identified by their legs, since Carver keeps their upper half for his dinner table tableau (very Happy Birthday to Me/Madhouse) and yet the news reports name the person instantly.

Other than that, I had a blast. It checked so many boxes for me (A masked slasher! Halloween homages! Over the top kills! People with Masshole accents shouting profanity!) that I think Roth would have had to stop the movie cold and have each actor say something derogatory about my mother for me to be not on board with what it was serving. Your mileage will vary of course; I know Roth's style just rubs people the wrong way, but as a fan of most of his films (Death Wish is the only one I dislike I think?) I was happy to see him dive into his first proper slasher, since he's confessed his love for such fare from the early days of his career but had never actually made one. And I know not everyone will find "Hanover sucks!" as funny as I do (it's a "well-to-do" town in Massachusetts, so yeah, they suck), so other audiences might not get QUITE as much of the humor, but I'm confident that the kills, the gore, the all-purpose humor (two things to look out for: a thermometer ding and a cat being fed), and well rounded cast will be more than enough to make your ticket price worthwhile.

What say you?


I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998)

NOVEMBER 2, 2023


Since I wasn't a huge fan of the original, I skipped I Still Know What You Did Last Summer in theaters, only seeing it when it came to the then-brand new DVD format (in fact, it might have been the first movie I watched for the first time on the format? Everything else I was getting at the beginning were old faves). I didn't like it, either, and I've only seen it one other time since, but I happened upon it tonight when looking for something I had seen but didn't much care about to provide background noise as I drifted off to sleep, and to my surprise it held my attention! I watched the whole thing!

Now, I'm not saying it's a particularly good movie, and - again - I don't think the first film is good either, so maybe I'm not the best judge here. But unlike the original it's rarely boring, has a reveal that - while laughably goofy - is at least more engaging than the first one's wet fart of a killer unmasked scene since we never met the character, and has a shockingly good cast of supporting characters, making it more to my liking despite its rampant silliness. Nothing in it may be as exciting as Helen's chase scene in the original, but I tend to prefer a movie that's consistently OK throughout over one that has high highs and low lows. Oh and it's raining this time when Jennifer Love Hewitt screams into the sky, so that's another plus.

Also it had been so long since I watched it that I was misremembering plot points about the film's location and how they ended up there. For some reason, in my memory, they won a trip to Rio by naming it as the capital of Brazil, and I thought it was some epic 4D chess on Ben Willis' part to arrange everything around a wrong answer she might have gotten right. But instead she could have said anything (including the right answer) because the trip is to the Bahamas, and our characters certainly aren't smart enough to question why they'd be asked about one geographical location in order to win a trip to another. I also forgot that Bill Cobbs' character is tipped off to the ruse when Julie tells him how they won, since he knows the answer is wrong, and also that the "radio station" calls them, not the other way around. So while there's still some dumb stuff about the whole thing, it's not nearly as stupid as I had built it up in my head to be over the years.

That remaining dumb stuff (spoiler ahead!) mostly revolves around "Will Benson. BEN'S SON!" It's fine to have a second killer, and they thankfully don't cheat - the script goes a bit overboard to paint Will as a dorky wuss, perhaps, but he never acts scared or anything when no one else is around, and the one sort of "what's going on?" look he gives is to Cobbs' character, which makes sense - he's suspicious that Cobbs knows, but the moment plays fine as a "This guy might be after us" kind of deal. But the sheer planning on him and Ben's part, in that he has to befriend Julie for months, hope like hell that her boyfriend Ray doesn't come along so that he can use the ticket, etc - all to help his dad out, despite (as we learn here) the fact that Ben killed his wife (Will's mother) at some point too. You gotta figure he asked at least once "Do we really need to buy four plane tickets and all this other stuff? Why can't we just go kill her in her house?" Then again, the whole first film revolves around Ben inexplicably trying to murder the teens who think they committed the crime he actually committed himself, rather than enjoy get out of jail free card they were inadvertently handing him, so logic and motive aren't strong suits in the ol' Willis family.

But if you look past all the bad plotting, it's actually pretty fun? Again, the cast is stacked - you get Cobbs, Jennifer Esposito, John Hawkes, Mark Boone Junior, Mekhi Pfifer, and the GOAT Jeffrey Combs all popping up and committing 100% to a silly teen slasher, which is awesome. And yes, a young Jack Black as a Rastafarian dude, which is misguided to be sure, but looking back, it's just another example of how Black is always bringing his A game no matter what the role, something that continues to serve him well 25 years later (we've all seen his tireless promotion as Bowser for this year's Mario movie). One thing I DID remember is that Combs only appeared in two scenes (three if you count finding his body - there are a couple of offscreen deaths), but I forgot how much he clearly hated these idiotic American teens flying in for a vacation during their hurricane season. Indeed, more than once I got the impression that the writers and director Danny Cannon were leaning into the idea that Julie wasn't exactly the smartest horror heroine of all time, and it kind of makes the movie work better than you might expect.

It's also fast paced, something even die hard fans of the original can't claim with a straight face. The whole second half of the movie is basically a nonstop chase, as all four of our heroes find dead bodies and spend the rest of the time running around the island trying to get help and/or outrun the killer, who doesn't bother with silly nonsense like cutting hair and leaving crabs in people's trunks. The body count here is eight (up from five) and the movie is even a minute shorter to boot - the math don't lie! Also, in a rare "smart" decision for this script, a hefty chunk has Julie on the run with two potential victims (Esposito's bartender and best friend Brandy), giving those scenes a suspense boost since you know at least one will be a goner, maybe both (while Julie is safe), so every slash of the hook actually could produce a fatality.

I felt bad for Freddie Prinze Jr though, as it almost seems like they added him into the movie at the 11th hour. He only has a single scene with Julie before he goes off to be in his own side adventure of trying to get down to the Bahamas in time. He pals around with John Hawkes, rides a bus, trades his engagement ring (awwww) for a gun... it's all stuff that could be removed without affecting the main story at all, and without much tension since the killer is obviously on the island. Given the backstory that Ben and his family used to live in the area where the resort is, Will could have been someone they met there, and Ray could have come along from the start - the movie would be less silly as a result, and it'd give Freddie P a chance to actually interact with his co-stars. I assume the plotting was revolved around his schedule or something, but if this was their design from the start, it's needlessly damaging.

So I dunno man, I know it's dumber than it needs to be, but I think the film's bad rep has more to do with Kevin Williamson's absence than its actual quality in relation to the first. They're both kind of stupid movies with a killer whose motives make zero sense, but at least this one seems to be trying to have some fun with itself instead of being so dour and serious. Add in the colorful supporting cast, storm-ravaged hotel setting, and more proactive killer, and I have to confess that I think this is the better movie, if only in a "clears the low bar" kind of way. Sorry for being so hard on you over the past 25 (!) years, I Still Know.

What say you?


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