Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving is a Horror Holiday Movie Decades in the Making

Eric Goldman
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It’s easy to assume Thanksgiving is a movie that it’s taken 16 years to get made, given it’s based on a faux movie trailer Eli Roth created for 2007’s Quentin Tarantino / Robert Rodriguez double feature extravaganza, Grindhouse,?and there’d been talk of turning it into a full movie ever since – much like happened for Rodriguez’s?Grindhouse trailer-turned-movie,?Machete. But for Roth himself, Thanksgiving is a movie he’s truly been waiting nearly his entire life to make – a holiday horror film concept he used to discuss with his childhood friend, Jeff Rendell, while they were growing up together, which is now actually about to open in theaters, with Rendell writing and Roth directing (Rendell also wrote the 2006 trailer with Roth).

A lifelong horror fan, Roth had always felt that Thanksgiving was an overlooked holiday when it came to the genre, and Thanksgiving allows him to finally remedy that. Set in Plymouth, MA (Roth grew up in Massachusetts), the film is a whodunit slasher movie focused on a group of people who were all present for a particularly brutal and deadly Black Friday riot at a local megastore. Now, a killer dressed in a John Carver mask and pilgrim outfit is killing them one by one, with a macabre Thanksgiving touch added to many of the demises.

Speaking to Fandom, Roth explained what it was like getting to finally make his dream project – which Sony gave a greenlight to just one year ago, after other false starts through the years – and navigating the expectations set by that Grindhouse trailer. Plus, Roth gave us some of his choices for holiday horror movie standouts.

THE CHILDHOOD DREAM

Thanksgiving spoiler alert: This dude's about to lose his head

Asked how much the actual Thanksgiving movie matches what he had in his mind as the 12 year old running around with his friend Jeff Rendell, dreaming of just this sort of movie, Eli Roth first replied, “It definitely is close to what I had in mind,” before adding the caveat, “But your idea of a movie at 12 is very different then when you’re much older. But look, we always wanted to have certain things… Like a parade scene where there’s someone dressed in a turkey costume, they get decapitated and run around like a turkey with their head cut off. That was just, to us, the funniest thing. And [we wanted] a human turkey. There’s certain things that we just dreamed about.”

Regarding that childhood wish that the movie existed, Roth recalled, “Jeff Rendell and I, growing up in Massachusetts, all we talked about was how Thanksgiving was the most obvious movie. Like, ‘How come this hasn’t been a slasher film? You could kill someone this way and this way!’ so to actually see it coming out in theaters for Thanksgiving and seeing people excited to see it, it really feels like my life’s work is complete, because I wanted to fill the November horror movie gap.”

Gina Gerson and Patrick Dempsey in Thanksgiving

Roth elaborated, “When I was a kid, as soon as it turned November 1st, the rest of the year, the movies sucked. It was family movies and Christmas movies. And I’m Jewish, so Christmas movies do not apply to me. I was just getting to January, February when the horror movies started up again. So I wanted to make a movie that could come out and be sort of a Scream or a Halloween for a new generation. Give them their own slasher, but really fill the November horror movie gap so we could have horror movies year-round.”

LIVING UP TO THE TRAILER

Though Roth loved getting to make the Thanksgiving trailer for Grindhouse, he did admit that it probably raised some expectations for just what the actual film would eventually be that aren’t quite correct, given that trailer went so far in terms of its purposeful over the top exploitation movie feel.

The John Carver-masked killer in Thanksgiving

As Roth put it, for some, “We knew that no matter what you did, it’s never going to be violent enough or sick enough or accurate enough. And that sort of handcuffed us for a while, because we just found ourselves writing to the trailer even though the trailer makes no sense. It’s absurd. It’s just a bunch of ridiculous deaths. And it’s a satire. It’s like a parody of a 1980 slasher film. So you can’t really connect them in any real way because it’s not about anything.”

Roth and Rendell’s eureka moment was deciding to approach the entire thing as though they were making a reboot of an older film — even though that movie never actually existed, just the trailer Roth had made.

“We said, ‘All right, let’s pretend Thanksgiving 1980 was a movie that came out in theaters. And the day it was released, it was pulled from the theaters. It was so offensive and every print was burned. And the only thing that survived is the trailer. So this is the 2023 reboot of that.’ And once we had that, it sort of freed us up. We said ‘Okay, we can pick this death [from the trailer]. We can pick this moment,’ but we don’t have to be slavishly devoted to it. Because the truth is the original idea when we were 12 years old was never to make a joke. It was to make The Prowler, Happy Birthday to Me, Sleepaway Camp, Prom Night, Pieces… I wanted a real slasher film, albeit a holiday slasher film.”

Eli Roth on the set of Thanksgiving

And though all those examples were from his childhood in the 80s, Roth said he kept Thanksgiving in mind as he got older, noting his urge to make it continued into the 90s, as other films were coming out. “When I saw Mute Witness, I was like, ‘That’s what I want.’ When I saw Scream, I thought ‘That’s what I want to do.’ So we just went back to that feeling.”

In terms of the film’s actual storyline, Roth explained, “Once we started seeing those Black Friday videos that were going viral every year of the [store] gates going up and people saying, ‘Oh, we’re so thankful!’ at dinner and then trampling each other to death, that’s when we said alright, this can be our inciting incident. It can start at one of these Black Friday riots. We’ll have a spectacular opening and then a certain amount of time later, people connected to the beginning picked off and we’re guessing who was connected to it that’s doing the killing. And so that sort of freed us up to say, you know what, you can’t please everybody but we just have to make a great movie.”

ELI’S FAVORITE HOLIDAY HORROR

So given his encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, what are Roth’s favorite holiday horror movies? Said the director, “April Fool’s Day. People didn’t like it because of the ending but I think that is what makes it great. I think April Fool’s Day is a pretty fantastic slasher film.”

Eli Roth hearts 1980's Mother's Day

However, Roth said, “When it comes to holiday slashers, the one that I love the most is Mother’s Day,” referring to the 1980 film directed by Charles Kaufman. “That movie is near and dear to my heart. I think it’s an underrated masterpiece, written by Warren Leight, who went on to be a very major writer. But I think it’s the acting in it, it’s the photography…”

Roth elaborated on his love for the film, explaining “Mother’s Day, if you look at the character introductions, when people go ‘How should I introduce my character in a movie?’ look at the way Charles Kaufman uses camera to introduce his characters. You have one of them as the freewheeling one at the party and the camera’s moving all around the pool in this fantastic sequence. One of them, the boyfriend, is dominating her and she’s always dominated and smothered by men and the man is present in the frame and she’s in the background. And the third one is very claustrophobic and is controlled by her mother in this cramped apartment, who’s screaming ‘I’m a sick woman!’ It all mirrors the characters and what eventually happens to them in the movie. It’s brilliant filmmaking and it really shows.”

Roth also added how impressive he found Mother’s Day because of its very low budget, praising the art direction from Susan Kaufman, Charles Kaufman’s sister, while noting “The movie was made for $450,000! So it’s a great example of how you just need to put thought into a movie and creativity and you don’t need a lot of money to make it great. It’s an incredible film. It’s a brutal film. There’s hardcore stuff in it. It’s not for everybody. It’s not necessarily an enjoyable film, but it’s a pretty amazing film.”

Thanksgiving opens November 17 in theaters.


Eric Goldman
Eric Goldman is Managing Editor for Fandom. He's a bit obsessed with Star Wars, Marvel, Disney, theme parks, and horror movies... and a few other things. Too many, TBH.
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