A couple of weeks ago, in the comments section for my retrospective piece on John Carpenter’s The Fog where I highlighted Roger Ebert’s negative review of the film, a commenter asked a simple question: “Has Roger Ebert ever given a positive review to a horror film?” The answer is “Yes.” For instance, Ebert was an early champion of Carpenter’s Halloween, long before the rest of the critical masses started praising Carpenter as the next coming of Hitchcock. However, the Chicago Sun-Times film critic has a tumultuous relationship with the slasher films that followed in Halloween’s wake.
Famously, the outrage started by a Milwaukee association (made up mostly of overprotective mothers) surrounding the release of the killer-santa classic Silent Night, Deadly Night, was backed by Ebert himself. On his massively popular review program, “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies,” Ebert and fellow critic Gene Siskel tore into the holiday slasher. After Siskel calls out the filmmakers by name for making such a “contemptible” product, Ebert chimes in to say, “I would like to hear them explain to their children and their grandchildren that it’s only a movie.” Ultimately, the duo viewed the film as a genuine cause for concern with the potential to damage the minds of impressionable youths.
They even devoted an entire episode to trashing “women in danger films” (read: slashers) by honing in on what they felt was rampant misogyny aimed squarely at titillating perverse male audience members. Surely, there is truth to their analysis in regards to some of the seedier crash-grabs of the time. Of course, this completely disregards the power of the final girl trope. Even, as an example for their argument, they spotlight one of the most tame films of the era, When a Stranger Calls. The episode is available in its entirety on YouTube (I’ll include at the end of this article), and it’s well worth a watch for those interested in the critical temperament of the slasher Golden Age.
“I think a lot of people have the wrong idea. They identify these films with earlier thrillers like Psycho or even a more recent film like Halloween, which we both liked. These films aren’t in the same category. These films hate women, and, unfortunately, the audiences that go to them, don’t seem to like women much either…To sit there [in the theater] surrounded by people who are identifying, not with the victim but with the attacker, the killer – cheering these killers on, it’s a very scary experience.” – Roger Ebert, “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies”
Let’s get this straight, this is in no way an article meant to bash Ebert. As a kid, before the major boom of the internet and the flurry of film related websites, I looked to the local paper every Friday for the critics’ reviews. I watched “At the Movies” often in hopes of hearing about the smaller indie films that may have flown under my radar. I trusted Ebert’s opinion, even if I didn’t always agree. That’s the power of film criticism, it is alway going to simply be one person’s opinion. It’s up to you as the reader to decide if the points the critic makes hit a chord in line with your personal taste.
In regards to a film like When a Stranger Calls, it’s most likely the nerve hit by theses films in the eyes of Siskel and Ebert was exactly the endgame as set out by the filmmakers. Horror is confrontational and difficult to watch. It can also represent some of the lowest common denominator sleaze, as well. However, it’d be hard to say that Roger Ebert just “didn’t get it.” The man had a brilliant mind and was capable of bringing the world of highfalutin film criticism into the homes of everyday people. That said, I thought it would be fun to take a look at Ebert’s reviews for some unquestionably classic horror films. Did the great reviewer “get it right” in terms of general horror fandom’s appreciation of a certain picture, or was he far off the map in his despisal?
“One of the pleasures of the movies, however, is to find a movie that chooses a disreputable genre and then tries with all its might to transcend the genre, to go over the top into some kind of artistic vision, however weird. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator is a pleasure like that, a frankly gory horror movie that finds a rhythm and a style that make it work in a cockeyed, offbeat sort of way.”
3 out of 4 Stars
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
“Horror and exploitation films almost always turn a profit if they’re brought in at the right price. So they provide a good starting place for ambitious would-be filmmakers who can’t get more conventional projects off the ground. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre belongs in a select company (with Night of the Living Dead and Last House on the Left) of films that are really a lot better than the genre requires. Not, however, that you’d necessarily enjoy seeing it.”
2 out 4 Stars
A Nightmare on Elms Street 3: Dream Warriors
Review: February 27, 1987
“All the characters seemed adrift in a machine-made script, a script devised as a series of pegs to hang the special effects on. The story involves the surviving ‘Elm Street children,’ whose parents, we learn, were vigilantes who cornered a child-killer down in the old junkyard and burned him alive.”
1 1/2 Stars out of 4
Review: December 20th, 1996
“In a way, this movie was inevitable. A lot of modern film criticism involves ‘deconstruction’ of movie plots. ‘Deconstruction’ is an academic word. It means saying what everybody knows about the movies in words nobody can understand. Scream is self-deconstructing; it’s like one of those cans that heats its own soup.” Remember that? Those were scary times, y’all.
“…As a film critic, I liked it. I liked the in-jokes and the self-aware characters. At the same time, I was aware of the incredible level of gore in this film. It is *really* violent. Is the violence defused by the ironic way the film uses it and comments on it? For me, it was. For some viewers, it will not be, and they will be horrified.”
3 out of 4 Stars
Friday the 13th Part 2
Review: January 1, 1981
Ebert notoriously hated the Friday the 13th films. I couldn’t find a review for the first, but I’m sure it would have been equally negative. In fact, he ends this write-up with “*This review will suffice for the Friday the 13th film of your choice.”
“The pre-title sequence showed one of the heroines of the original Friday The 13th, alone at home. She has nightmares, wakes up, undresses, is stalked by the camera, hears a noise in the kitchen. She tiptoes into the kitchen. Through the open window, a cat springs into the room. The audience screamed loudly and happily: It’s fun to be scared. Then an unidentified man sunk an ice pick into the girl’s brain, and, for me, the fun stopped…This movie is a cross between the Mad Slasher and Dead teenager genres; about two dozen movies a year feature a mad killer going berserk, and they’re all about as bad as this one. Some have a little more plot, some have a little less. It doesn’t matter. “
1/2 Star Out of 4
Review: November 9, 1988
“Child’s Play is a cheerfully energetic horror film of the slam-bang school, but slicker and more clever than most, about an evil doll named Charles Lee Ray, or ‘Chucky’.”
Ebert goes on to explain the “False Alarm,” such as the cat scare, and how such a moment is just a setup for the real terror. “Child’s Play is better than the average False Alarm movie because it is well made, contains effective performances, and has succeeded in creating a truly malevolent doll. Chucky is one mean SOB.”
3 Out of 4 Stars
There you have it, folks. Despite his reputation as a hater of all things horror, it appears Ebert had no qualms on singling out quality pictures when he saw them. His voice in film criticism is one that will always be missed.