Terror Trash is an ongoing series celebrating and delighting in some less-than-sterling entries in the horror film genre. After several years of highlighting great films in our Century of Terror and ABCs of Horror series, it’s time for a loving appraisal of some decidedly more trashy, incompetent, or enjoyably cheesy material.
In terms of major American holidays, Thanksgiving is not exactly replete in classic horror films associated with it. There are a few technically set around the Thanksgiving window—films like 2014’s Kristy, or 2005’s Boogeyman—but they don’t give the actual holiday any prominence in their plot or themes. In terms of genuine Thanksgiving-based horror films, it’s anything but a horn of plenty, with the most notable examples being 1980s slashers Home Sweet Home and Blood Rage, along with something like the Pilgrim installment of Hulu’s anthology Into the Dark. It’s this relative lack of exploitation that Eli Roth was getting at when he shot the hilariously gory, instantly iconic “Thanksgiving” trailer sequence for Grindhouse.
Oddly enough, though, in the same year that Grindhouse was generating disappointing box office results from confused audiences nationwide, the closest thing to Eli Roth’s fake trailer was only a few months away from being released. Director Jordan Downey’s ThanksKilling is a curious creation, a semi-competent feature film made on a shoestring budget of only $3,500, destined to become a holiday classic to lovers of sleaze, obscenities and embarrassing turkey puns. A truly independent and unexpectedly well-directed bit of trash, it leverages its one central idea—a foul-mouthed killer turkey—into 70 minutes of lowbrow delights, making something like Troma’s equally infamous Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead look like Hitchcock’s The Birds in comparison, at least in terms of polish.
Granted, what makes ThanksKilling special among its extreme low-budget ilk might not be exactly clear on first inspection. The film has the feel of any number of zero-budget slasher parodies that are made on a yearly basis by well-meaning but not particularly talented filmmakers, and the same sort of amateurish actors/performances you’d expect to see in a film made for a few thousand dollars. And yet, it’s simultaneously better written and directed than almost all the other stuff you’d directly compare it to, which creates an odd sense of cinematic dissonance—is this a slickly effective parody of bad slashers, or a genuinely bad slasher? Are these performances genuinely poor, or are they skillfully translating the essence of bad acting and cringe-worthy dialogue? The reality: ThanksKilling is the best of both worlds, a rare mélange of intentional and unintentional badness. Only in the work of a filmmaker like Matt Farley of Motern Media, in movies like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You, does the tone feel recognizably similar.
With that said, ThanksKilling is much more foul than anything the notably earnest likes of Farley have seemingly ever conceived, a constant stream of tackiness and tastelessness, sprinkled with cursing, nudity and comic ultraviolence. It’s why I invoked the spirit of Troma earlier—you get the sense that Downey was probably a Toxic Avenger fan, and wanted to try his own hand at squelchy decapitations. And in that arena, the film certainly doesn’t skimp.
ThanksKilling is the story of a gaggle of dumb kids—we understand them to be “kids,” though it’s totally unclear if they’re high school or college students—as they run across the resurrected killer bird known as “Turkie,” who returns to roam the Earth “every 505 years” to avenge the horrors of colonialism perpetrated on his Native American creators. These kids hang out in the sort of cross-clique gang that only exists in the movies: One jock, one redneck slob, one nerd, one promiscuous “ditzy girl” and one virginal good girl, clearly designated as the de facto protagonist from the beginning. They chide and tease each other with offensive, shock jock dialogue, with the “good girl” even getting in on the action, telling vacuous Ali that her legs are “harder to shut than the JonBenét Ramsey case!” That same joke is then repeated several more times in the film, with the characters reacting with fresh laughter each time, as if they’ve never heard it before.
This style of strange, silly, parodic dialogue is actually the movie’s strongest aspect, subtly casting the entire world of ThanksKilling as some kind of parallel universe filled with over-the-top earnest idiots who never think to hide exactly what they’re thinking for even a moment. This is perhaps best encapsulated by nerdy Darren, who, filled with esprit de corps, makes the following vow to his friends as they set out on a Thanksgiving voyage: “I’m going to go buck wild on this trip, man. I’m going to have sex … with someone in this car. I’m gonna be the one doin’ the sexin’! To one of you!” He punctuates that promise by then wiping away a strand of snot from his ever-running nose, because he hails from the same universe where all disgusting and detestable Troma characters are spawned. Sadly, his prediction of sexin’ does not come to pass.
And then there’s Turkie, the diabolical hand puppet responsible for the group’s destruction. He’s voiced by director Downey himself, which is a plus, given that Downey seems to be the creative force who understands exactly what ThanksKilling is meant to be—it’s impressive how he manages to get all his inexperienced performers onto the same page, projecting the same earnestly stilted energy. His own performance as Turkie is a steady stream of sophomoric “bitches” and “fucks,” but it also manages to take on a sublimely absurd quality in the sequence when Turkie infiltrates the home of good girl Kristen by disguising himself as her dead father. Which is to say: He cuts off Dad’s face and wears the skin, Hannibal Lecter-style, and neither Kristen nor her friends notice that there’s anything unusual about Dad’s body being that of a one foot tall, gore-streaked turkey. “You got a haircut!” exclaims Kristen excitedly, before leading her friends to consult Dad’s “library,” otherwise known as a collection of cardboard boxes stacked in a corner of the garage. The whole thing has the feel of a South Park segment, translated to live-action.
Such is the gleeful crudeness of ThanksKilling, which Downey would later attempt to expound upon in the much more ambitious (but markedly less successful) 2012 revisit ThanksKilling 3. Where did the first sequel go, you might ask? Well, ThanksKilling 3 is actually a sprawling, borderline experimental follow-up in which a resurrected Turkie is on a quest to find the only remaining copy of an already existing ThanksKilling 2—a meta concept that sounds funny in theory, but spins completely out of control in practice. Shedding any genuine reverence for the slasher genre, ThanksKilling 3 and its army of puppets hardly even register as a horror film at all, but more an indication that Downey was quite ready for bigger and stranger horizons. Unfortunately, it all falls apart under the weight of its own absurdity and dedicated attempts to up the ante.
As an artist, Downey has long since left the specter of ThanksKilling behind, having most recently directed 2018’s critically acclaimed, moody indie horror-drama The Head Hunter. It’s a far cry from Turkie delivering lines like “You just got stuffed!” or “Now that’s what I call fowl play,” but it seems safe to say that the director might derive just a bit more satisfaction from his art these days, than when he was marketing a slasher parody whose DVD case promises “boobs in the first second!” And yet, deep down, the spirit of that jive Turkie will presumably always be with him.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.