For director Eli Roth, his journey for the Thanksgiving movie started in 2006, when his friends Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were working on their double feature Grindhouse. To add to the double-feature experience, Tarantino asked his friends – including Roth – to create fake trailers that would appeal to the Grindhouse crowd. And Roth knew exactly what he wanted to do.
In his youth and teenage years, Roth and his friend Jeff Rendell, who would co-write Thanksgiving, took in a steady diet of horror films, consuming VHS after VHS of carnage, chaos, and gore. And one special subgenre kept them busy. “We came of age in the early ’80s, the golden era of the holiday slasher movie,” he recalls. “Black Christmas, Halloween, My Bloody Valentine, April Fool’s Day, New Year’s Evil… When we saw Silent Night, Deadly Night, we cheered the mayhem while the Santa Claus killer yelled, ‘PUNISH!’ This, to us, was cinema at its peak.”
For the fake trailer requested by Tarantino, Roth saw the perfect opportunity to create a trailer for an American holiday that Hollywood horror movies had yet to celebrate: Thanksgiving. Rendell and Roth wrote it, and as Roth was completing filming on Hostel Part II, he had access to locations, actors, even fake heads from that film to immortalize it. When Grindhouse promised Thanksgiving as a preview of coming attractions, audiences loved it.
For 17 years, Roth would hear from fans wondering if he would ever make the movie for real. Roth was game, but there was just one problem: “We didn’t have a plot,” he says, noting that the fake trailer is simply a stringing together of stabbings, beheadings, and mayhem, themed to the holiday. But a trailer does not a movie make, and Roth and Rendell kept looking for ways to make it real. “We were so thrilled with how the trailer turned out, we continually found ourselves reverse engineering the story to fit in the gags. How would we decapitate a turkey at the parade? How can we roast a human turkey?” he notes. “We knew we had to make Thanksgiving a real slasher film, one that could exist whether you had seen the trailer or not.”
With that in mind, they focused on the gestalt of the fake trailer, rather than the individual sequences themselves. “We began with the working premise that Thanksgiving 1980 was the film the Grindhouse trailer was made from, and it was so shocking that every print was destroyed, and the only element that survived was the one trailer,” he says. “The new film we were making would be the reboot of that movie, starting again from scratch, but cherry picking elements we knew would work in the story we were telling today.”
During the many years of writing, rewriting, and getting it right, Roth says it is the fan sites who kept the Thanksgiving dream alive. “Each year the horror sites would trot it out and lament that we never made it,” says Roth. “I must thank them for this – it kept us going when we were burned out on the idea or couldn’t figure out how to make it great. Finally, after a few story breakthroughs, the idea really began to click, and we worked it out.”
This November, a new horror legend will emerge. Thanksgiving, starring Patrick Dempsey, opens in cinemas November 22.