R.I.P. Roger Ebert (1942-2013)
Although some horror fans know him best from his and Gene Siskel’s anti-slasher campaign of the early 1980s, the longtime film critic, who died today in Chicago, could also be a passionate supporter of genre fare.
A film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, Ebert achieved a level of fame rare for his profession when he teamed up with Chicago Tribune reviewer Siskel on a show initially called SNEAK PREVIEWS for local public broadcasting station WTTW. It went national on PBS in 1978, and two years later, the duo devoted a special episode to condemning what Ebert deemed “a disturbing new trend”: the “women-in-danger movies” that were then dominating the horror genre, epitomized by FRIDAY THE 13TH, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and their ilk.
Yet even as Ebert and Siskel were excoriated by horror fans for taking this tack, the duo weren’t really the enemies of the genre many made them out to be. (“We’re not knocking scary pictures,” Siskel said on the episode, “just a certain kind.”) Both men were among the early supporters of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, awarding it four stars. Ebert also gave his highest rating to George A. Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, writing, “It is gruesome, sickening, disgusting, violent, brutal and appalling. It is also (excuse me for a second while I find my other list) brilliantly crafted, funny, droll, and savagely merciless in its satiric view of the American consumer society. Nobody ever said art had to be in good taste.” Subsequently, Ebert was a supporter of the likes of Stuart Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR, Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD II, Jim VanBebber’s THE MANSON FAMILY and many other cult favorites; he named Alex Proyas’ DARK CITY the best film of 1998, and Guillermo del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH the best of 2006.
And he sometimes disdained knee-jerk criticism of horror movies; he was one of the few critics who, when the teen shocker/comedy IDLE HANDS opened in the wake of the Columbine massacre, refused to draw a direct line between such violent fare and the real-life tragedy. “The only thing this movie is likely to inspire a kid to do,” he wrote, “is study FANGORIA magazine to find out how the special effects were achieved”—one of several shout-outs he gave Fango over the years. His appreciation for non-mainstream cinema, of course, had roots in his collaborations with Russ Meyer, for whom he co-wrote BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE ULTRA-VIXENS.
Ebert and Siskel took their show to syndication in 1982 under the title AT THE MOVIES, then moved to Buena Vista Television with SISKEL & EBERT & THE MOVIES. After Siskel died from complications of surgery to remove a brain tumor in 1999, Ebert continued with other co-hosts, most notably Richard Roeper. He had been battling thyroid cancer since 2002, and had surgery in 2006 that removed a portion of his jaw. Yet he remained active in criticism right up until the end.