As it turns out, what makes a good trailer does not necessarily make a good movie. Or, rather, what makes a hilarious and debauched fake trailer, one sandwiched between Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino at their most gonzo, does not automatically translate to modern horror cinema. This is the realization that allowed Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving slasher movie to transition from a ghoulish gag 16 years ago to the potential holiday horror staple of today, and one that is coming home just in time for Turkey Day.
“When Quentin first pitched us Grindhouse and doing these trailers, he said, ‘You guys will own the trailers… [and] if you ever want to turn it into a feature, it’s a great way to test it out,’” Roth says on a sunny morning in September. His memory is in reference to the 2007 double-feature film event, which was designed as a nostalgic return to the type of sleazy exploitation cinema that filmmakers of a certain age and sensibility grew up adoring. For Roth, this meant getting “any movie that was in the horror section that just looked completely inappropriate for 13-year-olds.” Thus between Tarantino and Rodriguez’s double bill, a handful of genre auteurs crafted their own tongue-in-cheek fake trailers with the nastiest in-jokes they could imagine.
In Roth’s hands, this became Thanksgiving, a loving satire of the crude and shameless Halloween knockoffs he and his childhood best friend Jeff Rendell rented by the half-dozen. “We’d try to budget the whole weekend on how many you could watch,” Roth explains, recalling how they’d squeeze three in on Friday night, four across Saturday, and maybe one more on Sunday. Hence the reason the faux Thanksgiving trailer was such an irresistible opportunity to indulge the ridiculousness: the sizzle reel begins with Rendell dressed as a Pilgrim beheading a Thanksgiving Day parade mascot and ends with the same nameless killer abusing a family’s dinner turkey in the most intimate of ways. If it actually came out in 1980, it’d be a wonder if it didn’t get the X-rating.
The making of the faux trailer was the easy part, however, with the pair banging out a script and shooting it in a couple of days for very little money. Roth likens the experience to film school. But actually turning that into a feature stumped them draft after draft.
“We spent a long time thinking about ‘how are we going to turn this into a feature film,’ and we realized that we were just writing filler scenes between the moments in the trailer,” Roth says. “That’s not really a great way to go about writing a scary movie.” For more than a decade, the Grindhouse trailer felt as much like a trap as it did an opportunity. That is until Roth had an idea that opened the movie up: What if the faux Thanksgiving trailer was for a movie that actually existed—and his new film would be the 2020s reboot?
“Thanksgiving was a movie that was made in 1980 for real,” Roth explains while a laugh begins to gather across the corners of his eyes. “It was so violent and offensive that the day it was released, every print was destroyed; they were ordered burned, and every print was confiscated, thrown in a pile, and incinerated because it was the most offensive movie ever made… The scripts were also burned, the director went into hiding and disappeared, never to be heard from again, and the only thing that survived was the trailer.”
Suddenly, Roth and Rendell had the freedom to make a slasher that was still a throwback to the shlock of their youth, but one which wasn’t beholden to replicating what they put together over a weekend in 2006. It could be a 2023 movie with 2023 concerns. It could even have different kills.
“When I’m recreating it with a budget, I’m going, ‘Man, we can’t get outdone by the trailer,’” Roth says. “And what if I come up with something that’s more sick, more twisted, and more crazy? [For some kills] if we can’t do it better than the trailer, we’ve got to do something different.”
The result is something that, intriguingly, hits a little closer to home for its director. In the grander sense, this is because Thanksgiving is homing in on the modern world, commenting on how what once was a holiday for family gatherings and good cheer has been co-opted by commercialism and turned into something ugly: Black Friday, long lines, and consumerism as bloodsport. Yet by setting Thanksgiving around Plymouth, Massachusetts—the final landing site for the Mayflower in 1620 and near where Roth grew up—the filmmakers opened up one of the core elements of a traditional slasher movie; it has a complex mythology and backstory.
Traditionally, a classic slasher’s mythos deals with something in the main characters’ immediate past, a crime or traumatic event that happened years ago with secrets that will not stay buried. Michael Myers killed his sister in that house over there! But in Thanksgiving, Roth was able to expand on the idea of a shared history by making it about the holiday itself.
In his own youth, before Black Friday was a thing, Roth has fond memories of school plays about the Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing bread during the first Thanksgiving. But when he asked about the smallpox blankets, he was told not to focus on that; they could go to a tourist site called Plymouth Plantation instead. (The name has since been changed.)
Says Roth, “So we started looking into these themes of Thanksgiving and what it originally was and why it happened… researching Plymouth and the historical Massachusetts, and the foundations of America, and we learned that the first governor was called John Carver.” The smile returns to the director’s eyes. “He came over on the Mayflower and was the first Governor of New Plymouth Colony. So the mask is him.” As the director concedes, sometimes “history’s handing you a gift.”
That’s right: when an ax-wielding masked serial killer starts stalking the residents of Plymouth, he’ll be wearing the visage of one of their most prominent ancestors. It’s an amusingly perverse idea which added to the film’s entire backstory.
Explains Roth, “It was the 400-year anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival in 2020, and they would’ve made all these masks [of John Carver]. So there’s a bunch of masks lying around. They can’t give them away. Everyone in town has a John Carver mask, so it’s literally a mask anyone can get.” Which means the killer can be anyone, at least in Plymouth.
Roth ruefully imagines that one day, “Some kid will watch this movie and maybe want to write a report on John Carver based on the fact that they love Thanksgiving so much.”
In the end, though, Roth hopes he made something that lived up to the original trailer and the idea of creating a slasher movie that is still as timeless as the stab-a-thons he grew up loving. In an ideal world, he’d even like to imagine it existing in the video section of a video store. “Right between Halloween and Silent Night, Deadly Night would be Thanksgiving,” he says. A murderer’s row for the whole season.
Thanksgiving opens on Nov. 17, 2023.