16 years ago, audiences caught a glimpse of the best slasher movie never made.
The fake trailer for Thanksgiving, released as part of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’ Grindhouse double-feature, promised bloody carnage, up to and including the beheading of a human turkey. In the years since, director Eli Roth has been consistently approached by fans wondering when they’d get the rest of the film.
The only problem? Roth saw that as the culmination of an idea he and screenwriter Jeff Rendell had when they were just 12 years old, with no need to make a feature-length movie.
Roth told Zavvi: “We grew up in Massachusetts, which is the birthplace of Thanksgiving, and it’s a bigger deal there than anywhere else – you do plays in school, go to recreations of pioneer villages where you see them churning butter, and it all ends with a parade. And we always thought, as horror movie obsessed kids, it was weird that this was the one big holiday that didn’t have a slasher movie attached to it, when there’s so many for Halloween or Christmas.
“We jumped at the idea to make the trailer, but we thought we were done after that – we’d staged all of our favourite kills, it would be overkill to stretch that out.”
The pair forgot about the movie for a few years, until inspiration struck in the most unlikely of places.
“Sometime around 2012, viral Black Friday videos started appearing everywhere, where you’d see these stampedes happening at gigantic superstores, people trampling over each other to get to the sales. It was such a wild juxtaposition; at Thanksgiving dinner, you’re saying how grateful you are to have your family, then two hours later you’re trying to kill them to get a flat screen TV!”
A department store massacre is the inciting incident in Thanksgiving, a Scream-style slasher in which a group of teens are picked off one-by-one by a masked killer one year after the tragedy, which they were all present at and didn’t do anything to stop. You could call it I Know What You Did Last Thanksgiving, but the director has a more extensive list of inspirations for his horror comedy.
“My favourite kind of slasher movie is one where the action takes place years after the inciting incident, which makes it harder for the characters trying to guess who the killer is, or what their motive is. I love movies like Prom Night, The Prowler and Pieces, which were the blueprint for the kind of slasher movie I wanted to make.
“People have seen Halloween, but there are so many out there that haven’t got that level of attention. Another movie that I watched right before making this is a British film called Mute Witness – that inspired me in other ways, it’s an overlooked gem that needs seeking out.”
As you’d expect from one of Tarantino’s best friends, my conversation with Roth led me to constantly return to my Letterboxd profile, adding new movies to my watchlist. However, he may be influenced by the genre’s classics, but he wanted the movie to feel contemporary, refusing to mimic the 1970s-style Grindhouse aesthetic of the original trailer.
“Grindhouse was an opportunity to try out the idea, but when we were kids, the dream was always to make a real movie. If you stretched that trailer out on its own for 90 minutes, it wouldn’t function as a slasher movie; the trailer is a fun, ridiculous joke, like a movie from 1980 that had been lost to time.
“As a kid, the main reason I wanted to make this movie is because Halloween marked the end of horror movies, after November 1st, it was family and Christmas films the rest of the year. That was true torture, and not just become I’m Jewish and couldn’t care less about Christmas – two whole months waiting until the next horror film to be released!
“But I’ve grown to appreciate those holiday movies, and I wanted to pull from them here, so it would still scan as a holiday movie. A Christmas Story was an influence on the look, but I was looking at everything from Porky’s for the high school scenes, to Five Easy Pieces for the look of the diner – it was just a case of making those references scary and fun.”
Of course, as with any slashers, bringing the kills to life proved the most fun part of the job, with Roth setting himself the goal of not merely repeating the same ones from the trailer, opting to execute them on a grander scale instead.
“There are elaborate kills with puppeteering and fake guts, all of which we brought to life with the help of Adrien Morot, a brilliant makeup artist who won the Oscar for The Whale. In fact, it was the stupidest, simplest idea that was the trickiest to pull off, where a character is killed with corn holders in the ears.
“It’s so cheap to do, you just jam in the air, then reverse the film – the kind of kill you’d make as a 10 year old with a camera. The only problem is the actor has to act being killed in reverse, and that’s when the crew starts looking at you like a lunatic, you’re doing multiple takes of the silliest kill, which nobody can quite visualise, but pulling scenes like that off gives me a deep, perverse satisfaction as a director!”
Throughout our chat, Roth is upfront about his desire to transform Thanksgiving into a slasher franchise – whether that’d be with these characters, or a brand new story taking place on America’s annual holiday, is up in the air. However, he does have a pitch for a movie that might be more relatable for British audiences.
“The way I unwind is by watching The Great British Bake-Off. The tension I feel when contestants put stuff in the oven is more than I feel with any horror movie – having Prue and Paul Hollywood come around and judge my baking? I’d be terrified!
“Setting a horror movie in the Bake Off tent would be really fun. People always ask me what movies I watch to get scared, but honestly, I just watch people’s cakes falling apart, it’s heartbreaking and it stresses me out like nothing else.”
It would make for a far different viewing experience than Thanksgiving – but if you want some cakes after your turkey, then rest assured, it’s an Eli Roth-approved double bill.
Thanksgiving is in UK cinemas on Friday, 17th November.