Growing up in Newton, Eli Roth would often visit Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Patuxet (then called Plimoth Plantation) with his best friend, Jeff Rendell. But even then, as 12-year-old kids, the aspiring filmmakers’ conversations veered away from historical appreciation and toward leveraging the quaint New England settings for horror movie mayhem.
”Oh man, what if you put someone in a butter churner?,” Roth recalled during a recent Zoom interview. Other ideas quickly unspooled between the two friends.
Dreaming up these holiday-themed nightmare scenarios was the genesis for “Thanksgiving,” Roth’s new slasher flick that hits theaters Nov. 17. Set in Plymouth, the film follows a serial killer dressed as John Carver (yes, the Mayflower pilgrim and first governor of Plymouth Colony), seeking revenge during the turkey-eating festivities against the local townies who participated in a deadly Black Friday riot.
Starring Addison Rae, Rick Hoffman, Gina Gershon, Nell Verlaque, and Maine native Patrick Dempsey, “Thanksgiving” features the over-the-top body horror that fans have come to expect from Roth, whose past films include 2002′s “Cabin Fever” and 2005′s “Hostel.”
This time around, the director and Rendell, who wrote the screenplay and co-wrote the story with Roth, wanted to put a holiday spin on the scary movie genre in the vein of 1974′s “Black Christmas,” 1978′s “Halloween,” and 1980′s “Mother’s Day,” a favorite of Roth’s that he first watched at his bar mitzvah.
“Going to see ‘Silent Night Deadly Night’ in Allston with Jeff and his dad was one of the seminal experiences of our childhood,” Roth said. “I want some kid out there to go, I saw ‘Thanksgiving’ in the theater opening weekend way too young and I had the best time of my life.”
When asked if another goal was to create the most Massachusetts horror movie ever with “Thanksgiving,” Roth replied with an emphatic “absolutely.” From jabs at Hanover and Methuen to name-dropping Papa Gino’s, frappes, and jimmies, the film has no shortage of regional references.
And while there have been other horror flicks set in New England, the director noted there hasn’t really been a major slasher movie that features the Bay State and its lovable locals.
“I wanted to see Massholes in a slasher film,” Roth said. “That had always been my dream, to kind of mash up that genre. Like, how do they deal with Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger?”
Fans got a peek at Roth’s “Thanksgiving” vision in the 2007 horror action double feature “Grindhouse” by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Roth was tapped to create a fake trailer scene that was featured in the movie, which ended up being an early take on “Thanksgiving” and was filmed in Prague during production on 2007′s “Hostel: Part II.”
“We had the time of our lives doing it,” Roth said. “After that I was like, all right, we’re good. We did it. I don’t have to make the movie now.”
“But it was the fans over the years badgering me and guilt-tripping me, and it worked,” he added.
Years later, Roth finally found time to make “Thanksgiving” into a full film and was set to start production in Plymouth in 2019, but “the movie fell apart.” He got another shot to work on the movie in 2023, teaming up with Toronto’s Cream Productions to film in Canada.
“We found Port Perry [in Ontario], which was a really nice double for Plymouth,” Roth said. Rendell also visited the real Plymouth to research and write the movie, finding Cordage Park and the area’s “underground tunnels,” which are portrayed in the film.
Plymouth’s Cordage Museum, which was featured in a scene ultimately cut from “Thanksgiving,” is where Rendell learned about Carver, the pilgrim who served as inspiration for the film’s villain.
“He called me and was like, ‘Dude, his name is John Carver, is there a better slasher name than that?’” Roth said. “And then we found an image of him, and that’s how the mask came together.”
But most important was finding the right actors who could pull off a Massachusetts accent. Roth revealed that he was initially hesitant to cast Dempsey, who played Sheriff Newlon, until he realized the actor was from New England.
Dempsey reached out to Roth for a role in the film because his sons are horror movie fans. He also “loved the idea” of doing a movie that made use of his Maine accent, a first for the actor, who had to lose it for 1987′s “Can’t Buy Me Love,” according to Roth.
“This is the first time he’s ever acted with his childhood accent,” Roth said.
While Roth held casting sessions in Boston, he found Amanda Barker, a Bay State native living in Toronto, in Canada. Roth said she ended up being perfect for the role of Lizzie, a diner waitress, because of her humor, “wicked accent,” and the fact that she’s originally from Hanover like her character.
“Not only is she from Hanover, she’s a direct descendant of the real John Carver,” Roth said. “So we had a John Carver blood relative on set being murdered by John Carver in the diner. And she loved it.”
A lot of the townsfolk featured in the film are named after people Roth and Rendell grew up with, like Detective Peter Chu (played by Russell Yeun), christened after a friend in the Boston Police Department, and Scuba (played by Gabriel Davenport), named after a high school classmate.
“That’s what I wanted, is to have that small, New England feel in the movie,” Roth said.
But for Roth, the true horror of “Thanksgiving” (both the movie and the holiday) lies in its “dark undercurrent” of commercialization rooted in the rise of Black Friday. The annual shopping bonanza serves as the catalyst for the film’s opening scares, which were inspired by “viral videos” of actual Black Friday incidents.
“People say how thankful they are, then they run and trample over each other for a flat screen TV,” Roth said.
“And there’s a darkness under that because people aren’t paid enough money,” he added. “There’s a few people at the top getting rich sitting in their mansions, watching everyone in these gladiator games.”
Roth found the holiday to be a perfect backdrop for a horror film that he hopes will inspire serious discussions around the Thanksgiving table.
“You could make this and watch this as a fun slasher film, but I want a movie people can, literally, dissect, carve up, eat, devour,” Roth said. “I want the movie that’s going to launch a thousand film-school theses.”
Matt Juul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.