By RICKY J. DUARTE
When Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double feature Grindhouse was released in 2007, who could have imagined that a spoof trailer for a holiday slasher would be the most talked about aspect of the film? While faux trailers for Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the S.S. and Machete were instant classics (the latter of which was made into not one but two features also directed by Rodriguez), it was Eli Roth’s THANKSGIVING that elicited the most yucks (and screams) from moviegoers.
It can be argued that the trailer’s authentic, grainy feel (as well as a slew of over-the-top kills) elicited more of a fan reaction in three minutes than the double feature did in three hours. Since then, fans have been begging Roth to turn the Turkey Day trailer into a full-blown feature. Well, my little gore-gobblers, the time has come. Roth has delivered an updated, modern take on the classic slasher subgenre in THANKSGIVING… giblets and all!
The film feels less like an extended version of the iconic trailer than a fresh reboot of an undiscovered franchise. Rather than a grainy, retro, low-budget affair, THANKSGIVING is firmly planted in 2023 and boasts a decidedly high-def vision of the horrors of the holiday season.
RUE MORGUE caught up with Roth and picked his brain about favorite holiday horror films, what it takes to update the slasher genre for modern moviegoers and the backward process of making a movie trailer first…
The making of this film was obviously atypical – starting with a trailer before a film. What was your process of writing an original story that had to include specific and now infamous set pieces?
“It was interesting. Jeff Rendell, who I wrote with, we grew up together. He’s my best friend from childhood. We grew up in Massachusetts, and Thanksgiving’s a huge deal there. In school, you have the Thanksgiving play. There are two separate recreation villages where you go to talk to the Pilgrims and see how they lived, and there’s the parade. It’s like everything stops for Thanksgiving. But we also were huge horror fans, and we’re going to see, you know, My Bloody Valentine, Halloween, Black Christmas, Silent Night, Deadly Night, April Fool’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day… every [holiday] had a horror movie except Thanksgiving, which was the most obvious one to us.
So the goal was always to make a Thanksgiving-themed slasher film [and] to make a real movie. And then in the ’90s, we watched Mute Witness, which is a huge influence on this film, and Scream, and we’re like, we’ve got to do THANKSGIVING.
So when Quentin Tarantino gave me the opportunity to make a fake trailer, I had it ready. It was like, Oh, I got the kills. A guy gets decapitated at the parade, running around like a turkey with their head cut off; someone gets roasted like a human turkey. We had already thought of these kills, so we just shot those kills. We added two days to the Hostel II shoot, and I went for it. Quentin saw the footage and was like, “I can’t believe this. It looks like you fucking did a parade. It looks like a real Thanksgiving movie.” We did it for $100,000 in two days, and Milan Chadima, who shot Hostel and Hostel II, shot it. But there was no story.
So the fake trailer… After that, people said, “When’re you going to make the film?” and I’m like, “Why bother?” We already did the best parts. There was sort of no reason to. And then, over the years, the fans kept nagging, and every single interview, people were like, “When’s THANKSGIVING? When’s THANKSGIVING?” and we thought, you know, man, we should get serious about this.
But what are we going to do? How do we top that trailer? And then, we went back to us as the 12-year-old version… It was never about Grindhouse and the trailer. It was always about making a real slasher film. So, what can we do? And then around that time, the viral video started appearing of these Black Friday tramplings. Not only did that give us an inciting incident, but it also gave us a theme, which is the commercialism from Christmas bleeding over into this day of being thankful and appreciative of their family and then running out and trampling and killing someone for a flat-screen TV. That, to us, was interesting. Now, the killer has a reason. And we have a reason to make the movie that we can start to build the story around.
But the intention was always to make Mute Witness or Scream or a real slasher movie … The Prowler is one of my favorite movies. Or Prom Night or Pieces or Happy Birthday to Me or Sleepaway Camp. I love those films. I wanted to do a 2023 version of a great slasher film and give a new killer to a new generation. I love Ghost Face and Freddy and Jason, but it’s time for some new blood.
This leads perfectly to my next question. You just named all these incredible films. THANKSGIVING has a very classic slasher feel, but it’s also very current and contemporary. What goes into updating the slasher genre?
[W]hen you’re writing the film [you have to] pretend that everybody in the movie has seen every horror movie. They’re not going to do anything stupid. They can’t behave like they’re in a horror film from the ’80s. It’s going to feel dated. These have to be modern kids.
While Jeff is doing the police research in the writing, I’m talking to 17-year-olds. All my friends’ kids are in high school and college now. So, when I write a scene, and they’re making decisions, I sit and talk with them. I read the scenes with them. I say, “Read this over. What feels fake?” They’re like, “I would never do that.” I go, “What would you do? When you have a viral video, what are you posting?” “Oh, I would do this; I would do that.” I’m very much in touch with teenagers because I want to know how they think. I want to know how they behave. I want to know how they’d react in the scene. And you kind of test it out with them. You go, “This is the intention. I need to get them from here to there. But what would you do?” They’re like, “Well, I would just post this. I would do that. I wouldn’t do that. That’s too stupid. It doesn’t make sense.” So, when you take the time to talk to people [who are] the age that you’re writing and spend real time – not like a quick conversation – but real months and years understanding how they think and how they would approach things, then you bring in your cast.
When you think you’ve gone that far, and they can make it their own, they can add those little flourishes and tweaks. And when you have intelligent actors (we had Nell Verlaque, Addison Rae, Gabriel Davenport, Tomaso Sanelli), everyone brings their flavor to it. It all feels real. It feels contemporary. It feels authentic.
I had never seen a Black Friday riot portrayed, and it took twenty years of directing experience to get me to the point where I could pull off a scene like that in four nights. … This was a low-budget movie. We shot a fast and furious [over] 35 days, so every day it was a ballbuster, but I was ready. And, you know, I’m at the point where you shoot all night, and I go to bed; I wake up, work out, and go and shoot again. I’m there like a man on a mission, trying to make the best horror film of my career. I may never get to do it again. And this is an independent film. We didn’t know that Sony was going to release it, so every day is going to live or die on those scenes.
And you know, everybody brought the right energy – all the cast, the young kids. Patrick Dempsey wanted to do a horror movie. He was at that point where he wanted to mix it up in his career. He’s such an amazing actor. He’s from Maine and New England. He has a great New England accent that he grew up with. That is his real accent. He’s never used it in the movie before.
Rick Hoffman – we worked together on Hostel, and he lived near Toronto, so we’re like, “Come and do the movie.” And then we got Gina Gershon and Karen Cliche, she’s an amazing actress. Tim Dillon came and did a part. It was so fun to have everybody just come in and play and have fun.
And you know, you have these kids that are 30 years younger than us that are just bringing this energy, and they’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and they just want to be there. They’re having fun, And even if they’re not shooting, they’re there cheering on their friends. It was that kind of a vibe that gave all of us energy. When it was over, everyone was just sad and crying. We didn’t want it to end. So that kind of friendship, that energy, those relationships just ooze off the screen. [That] gives the movie a real life and a real feeling of fun.
You think of Scream and what makes it. It’s Kevin Williamson’s writing and Wes Craven’s direction. The characters are so rich. The cast is so good. We know Stu Macher. We know Randy. We know all these characters. We know everything about Sydney Prescott. We know Deputy Dewey. We know all of them because they’re great characters. So, what if you could give a new generation a new slasher film with those levels of characters but with our spin on it – putting the Massachusetts spin on it? It’s going to be the best.
I’m so excited. We finally watched it with a test audience, and people really are losing their minds for it. It’s great!
THANKSGIVING premieres exclusively in theaters on November 17.