Saturday, February 14, 2009
I’ve made no effort to hide my admiration for the films of Eli Roth here at Moon in the Gutter, specifically his vastly undervalued Hostel Part II, a work that I consider the most underrated genre film of the decade. As much as I admire his three feature films though, perhaps everything I love about Roth can be found in a certain two-minute plus trailer that is currently unavailable on Region 1 DVD.
Grindhouse continues to be one of the most discussed and disagreed upon films of the decade. It seems the only thing everyone is in agreement about are the amazing set of trailers produced to accompany the film. All the filmmakers involved from Edgar Wright to Rob Zombie delivered brilliantly effective tributes to the exploitation films of their youth, but none were more potent than Roth’s incredible Thanksgiving trailer, a perfectly realized and rendered short film that shows him as one of the most uncompromising and individualistic directors of his generation.
Eli Roth’s out of sight ode to the American Slasher films of the early eighties had its origins in his teenage years when he dreamed of a slasher fit for everyone’s favorite getting stuffed holiday. The director explained in the essential Grindhouse companion book that, “Growing up in the 80s, it seemed like every holiday had its own horror film” and that “it was only a matter of time until the Thanksgiving horror film would come”, but for whatever reason it never came to be and by the mid eighties the Slasher film was sadly on the wane.
Roth’s dream of seeing a Thanksgiving inspired Slasher film began to take shape in 2005 when Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez began planning out what would become Grindhouse. Roth recalled, “when they asked me if I wanted to direct a faux exploitation trailer, it was not just the chance of a lifetime, it was the perfect way to shoot some scenes from Thanksgiving.” That dream came to fruition in Prague of all places in November of 2006, when Roth and crew took two days after completing Hostel Part II to make the trailer for his still un-filmed dream project.
Joining Roth and his dedicated crew were his friends and frequent actors Jordan Ladd and Jay Hernandez, who both offered to stay on two extra days to help the director with his pet project. Charismatic Terminator star Michael Biehn asked to come on board as well, and lovely Czech model Vendula Kristek (Vendula Bednarova) joined in for what would become one of the trailer’s most outlandish and memorable moments. Armed with the legendary KNB effects team of Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger and the extraordinary cinematographer Milan Chadima, Roth’s Thanksgiving came together in a whirlwind of activity that would produce an undeniably masterful two minute short film.
Scripted by Roth and Jeff Rendell, Thanksgiving tells the tale of a Massachusetts set 'turkey-day' gone seriously haywire. Featuring an audacious Parade sequence with a cast of local extras unprepared for the carnage Roth and KNB had in store for them, a funny fifties inspired make-out scene in perhaps Prague’s only vintage convertible, a crazed gym sequence featuring one of the most simultaneously funny and grizzly deaths in Slasher history, and a dinner scene that would make even the most die-hard gore hounds squirm, Thanksgiving is a perfect and loving tribute to an often maligned but much loved genre.
Several things impress about Thanksgiving, with one being the incredible way that Roth manages to make the film feel like an authentic trailer, as well as making it a satisfying short film in its own right. In just over two minutes, Roth manages to capture a mood, create a memorable backdrop, and tell an interesting story. It’s not an easy feat, and the fact that it was done in just a couple of days makes it even more noteworthy. Thanksgiving is a fun, sincere, and twisted little valentine from an artist who really loves the genre he is working in.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about Thanksgiving is just how authentic it feels. I have watched the film several dozen times probably, and it still feels like an actual trailer to a lost film from the early eighties. Chadina’s incredible washed out photography combined with Nathan Barr’s terrific score play right into Roth’s undeniable love and understanding of the genre, and for hardcore horror fans it is just a joy to watch. It’s so good that I almost don’t want Roth to ever make a full version of it, although I think if anyone could pull the full film off he could.
Reading Roth’s terrific chapter on the making of the film in Grindhouse, one gets the sense of passion everyone brought to the production, from the behind the scenes players, to the extras, to the cast. You also get a sense of the kind of fun that seems absent from most film productions today. Roth perhaps summed up the experience best when he wrote how infectious the act of filming, “the total absurdity of 60 year old men dressed as pilgrims kicking around a decapitated turkey head with five year old majorettes” was, and it’s that kind of loveably absurd quality that makes Thanksgiving such a winning short film.
I admire Grindhouse very much and doubt that I will have more fun in a theater again this decade. While I am grateful to have both the long versions of Planet Terror and Death Proof, the splitting of the films for Region 1 DVD and the loss of some of the key trailers was unfortunate to say the least. Eli Roth, like all great directors with a very distinct and personal vision, will continue to have his critics but he’s one of just a handful of American filmmakers who have come out this decade that I really celebrate, and Thanksgiving is one of his great works.