Eli Roth Takes a Stab at Thanksgiving Horror

For almost every holiday, there’s a horror movie, from “My Bloody Valentine” to “Black Christmas.” Thanksgiving, too. But the turkeys-beware holiday gets its own namesake movie with Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving,” featuring an ensemble cast that includes Addison Rae, Patrick Dempsey and Gina Gershon.

The movie (now in theaters) is based on the gory faux trailer Roth made all the way back in 2007 for “Grindhouse,” Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s homage to exploitation cinema. “Thanksgiving” centers on a masked killer who dresses like the pilgrim John Carver and terrorizes modern-day Plymouth, Mass., a year after a deadly Black Friday department store doorbusters riot.

In a recent phone interview, Roth said that he and Jeff Rendell, a childhood friend and his screenwriter on the new film, have been itching to make a Thanksgiving scary movie since they were kids.

“There was that lull between October and mid-December when it was all family films,” said Roth, who’s from Newton, Mass. “We were just waiting for another horror movie to come out. Our dream was to fill that void.”

Roth also talked about Thanksgiving weaponry, why you may never look at a corn cob the same way after this film and more. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

“When you think of all the ways to kill people with Thanksgiving-themed weapons, it’s the details that get you,” Roth said.Credit…Adali Schell for The New York Times

Let me get this question out of the way: What took so long?

We wanted to get it right. We couldn’t crack the story. The fun thing about doing a fake trailer is that you get to do the best parts of the movie and nothing has to make sense. For years we were thinking, why would someone dress like a pilgrim and go on a killing spree? How do you go from one kill to another without it feeling like a 90-minute version of the trailer?

Then it occurred to me: What if we pretend that a Thanksgiving movie from 1980 was really made, and the day it was released it was so shocking and offensive that every print was pulled from the theater and ordered destroyed. The only thing that survived was one copy of the trailer that’s been lurking around the darkest corners of 4Chan. This is the 2023 reboot of what that movie might have been.

A scene from “Thanksgiving.” Credit…Pief Weyman/TriStar Pictures/Spyglass Media Group, LLC

The film is a horror-movie love letter to Plymouth.

A lot of horror films, whether it’s “Friday the 13th” or “Don’t Go in the House” are true regional horror films. They have very specific accents, even if they’re pretending to be in America. It’s part of the charm. We had a great time on set just talking like Massholes. It was the most fun I’ve had on set probably since the first “Hostel.”

And the original governor of New Plymouth Colony was named John Carver. When history throws you a softball like that, how do you not knock it out of the park? You need an iconic pilgrim killer and the governor was named John Carver? It just sounded like a great slasher movie villain.

Fans of the trailer will be relieved to know that one of its most gruesome scenes, involving a cheerleader, a trampoline and a knife, is back. Why does that scene have staying power?

We’re doing the most horrible thing you can do to a cheerleader. It’s taking someone in this totally innocent, fun, sexual moment and having this Freudian death. They say in all slasher films, the knife penetrating the victim — my father’s a Freudian psychoanalyst so he can tell you a lot better than I could — there’s sexual overtones. It’s just something very specific that gets us to this visceral, deep place.

“My goal is to ruin everyone else’s Thanksgiving dinner,” Roth said.Credit…Adali Schell for The New York Times

The other sick scene that really got me has to do with corn cob holders in ears.

When you think of all the ways to kill people with Thanksgiving-themed weapons, it’s the details that get you. “Evil Dead” taught me this. For all the evisceration and the heads being chopped off, it’s the pencil in the ankle that sticks deep in your bones. We were thinking, what is something we can do that’s iconic to Thanksgiving that’s just awful but also hilarious? It’s taking something pure — something there to protect your fingers from getting burned from hot corn — and perverting what you’re doing with it. The audience went crazy for any death directly connected to Thanksgiving dinner.

Have you ever gone to a doorbuster event?

No. The nice thing about being Jewish is Hanukkah is way more chill about that stuff. People are doing it because they have to get Christmas gifts for their kids, and I understand that. Being Jewish, I was always exempt. I’ll let everyone else trample each other.

What are you doing for Thanksgiving?

A big Thanksgiving dinner at our house. My wife’s Italian and an amazing cook, and we have a pizza oven. Everyone is excited about the turkey dinner, but we promised we’re going to make wood fire pizza as an appetizer.

Nothing like the horrific final meal in your movie.

My goal is to ruin everyone else’s Thanksgiving dinner.

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