The Definition of a Slasher Film
The definition of a slasher film varies depending on who you ask, but in general, it contains several specific traits that feed into the genre’s formula. Author Vera Dika rather strictly defines the sub-genre in her book Games of Terror by only including films made between 1978 and 1984. In other words, she saw it as a movement. When someone describes Brick, they don’t define it as a noir, but instead neo-noir. So does one consider Scream a slasher film or a neo-slasher, or simply put, a modern slasher?
Some consider Thirteen Women to be the earliest slasher – released all the way back in 1932. For my money, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) is the mother of all slasher films. The film’s plot centres around a man who kills women while using a portable movie camera to record their dying expressions. It also happens to be a major influence on the found footage genre and one of the best films ever made. The film was immensely controversial; critics called it misogynistic, and thus the film was never theatrically released. When Alfred Hitchcock was informed that Powell’s film was banned, he decided to cancel all press screenings for Psycho, in fear that it too would be blackballed from having a theatrical release. It was a wise decision, and three months later Psycho hit the big screen, and the rest is what they call history. So is Psycho a slasher? Is Peeping Tom a slasher? In theory, yes. In Psycho, for example, there is a body count (even if only two), the film features a mystery killer, a knife-wielding maniac, a ‘stalking’ camera technique, and even a twist ending – but no one defined Psycho as a slasher film when it first was released, nor Peeping Tom.
What are the Best Slasher Films of the 70s and 80s?
Horror films in the 1970’s were largely influenced by the emergence in the previous decade of the psychological horror films, but if we were to include Psycho and Peeping Tom, then why not consider the dozens of other films that featured psychosexual killers from before their time, most notably Fritz Lang’s expressionist German masterpiece M (1931), a film featuring Peter Lorre has a creepy child murderer. If anything it simplifies my life to consider these as proto-slashers and so maybe one day I will write up a list of the films that were the biggest influence on slasher films made after 1970.
When Black Christmas and Texas Chainsaw Massacre were released, the term slasher wasn’t attributed to those films either. It was only around 1981 that “slasher” became initiated as a true sub-genre. So technically Vera Dika has a point. As with Film Noir, Giallo and any other sub-genre of film, it took a few filmmakers and a wave of similar movies to develop a terminology to distinguish them apart from other films. So while Psycho and Peeping Tom incorporated what later became the traditional slasher formula and were the biggest influence on future filmmakers, I am not including them on the list. Instead, I’ve decided to limit this list according to Dika’s terms – only stretching the time frame from 1970 – 1990. Anything prior to 1970 would be considered proto-slasher and everything after neo-slasher or simply modern slashers.
Before I get to the list, there is still one thing I have left to mention. Giallo films will also not be included. Like slasher films, Giallo was also a movement, and while they bear many similarities, Giallos actually have more in common with American noirs from the 40’s and 50’s – albeit with a pile of gore and gallons of blood. In fact, for Italian audiences, the term ‘Giallo’ is used to refer to any kind of thriller, regardless of where it was made. Thus American or British thrillers such as Hitchcock Psycho and Vertigo or Basil Dearden’s The Blue Lamp and Sapphire are, for Italian-speaking audiences, examples of Giallo.
Finally, many lists online include such films as The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hitcher and I Spit On Your Grave. I don’t consider these slasher films, but instead “backwoods horror” (Hills), action-thriller (Hitcher) and rape-revenge (Spit).
For now, I present to you the best slasher films made between 1970-1990 split between four pages. Enjoy!
The Best Slasher Films
39. The Silent Scream (1980)
The Silent Scream was actually made in 1977 but was only released in 1980, after the filmmakers revised the script and did several re-shoots. The film takes place in an old creepy mansion, (the sort that hides secrets in the basement) and stars Barbara Steele who makes a welcome return to the genre after a long absence. Rounding out the cast is fellow genre lead Cameron Mitchell. The Silent Scream isn’t a great film but it is capably made, and a solid effort, worth mentioning.
38. Tower of Evil / Beyond the Fog / Horror on Snape Island (1972)
You will notice most American movies on this list were released in 1981/1982. However, in the UK they were a decade ahead. The first of a few UK slasher films to appear on this list (all released in 1971/1972) is Tower Of Evil, also known as Beyond The Fog or Snape Island. Tower is an equal opportunity exploitation flick, one of which I remember mostly because it features many scenes of both women and men completely nude, albeit for no reason. The film is odd, vulgar, cluttered with devilish plot twists that never amount to a lick of sense and even features a ton of gore. There is even a supernatural element at play, only again, we are never sure why. Good, it is not, but fun it is.
37. Mil gritos tiene la noche / Pieces (1982)
Pieces comes from Spanish exploitation director Juan Piquer Simon, who also goes by the alias J.P. Simon and also Juan Piquer. Simon is known for his cheaply made ripoffs of American successes and Pieces is a prime example of this. Even the VHS cover claims the film is made by the producer of Friday the 13th– which is a total fabrication. Pieces is his most notorious film, a film so bad that some consider it good enough to recommend for laughs. This whodunnit set at a Boston college campus in where everyone is a suspect was actually shot in and around Spain and later dubbed in English dialogue which of course is laughable, though less so than the story and acting. There is a ton of red herrings, Giallo-inspired cinematography, and an effective opening in which a young boy hacks his mom to death with an axe after she punishes him for piecing together a jigsaw puzzle featuring an image of a naked woman. The boy then decapitates her and hides in the closet until the police arrive. One might assume that this opening scene explains the title of the film. Perhaps the movie will follow around a maniac who collects women’s body parts and pieces them together like a jigsaw puzzle. Nope. That would have been too clever. Instead, Pieces is a routine hack and slash gore-fest, overloaded with gratuitous and graphic violence, dodgy effects and awkwardly staged slasher set pieces. Once the killer is revealed, he pulls out a chainsaw in which we assume he was hiding in his coat and attacks his victim in an elevator. There is also a hilariously strange scene where Linda Day is attacked by her kung fu professor, who quickly passes out only to awaken and explain, “I am out jogging. Next thing I know, I am on the floor. Bad chop suey.” I’m not making this up. Pieces is best described as a provocative and sleazy parody of contemporary campus life. If Tommy Wiseau ever directed a slasher film, it would look something like this. Pieces also features the most ridiculous rapid-fire twists in all of slasher films – and an utterly brain-dead plot turn. It is, however, incredibly entertaining if you are sitting around with a group of friends during a horror movie marathon drinking some beer.
36. Fright / Night Legs (1972)
Fright is considered the first film to come up with the popular horror convention of a lone babysitter terrorized by a psychotic murderer and is pretty much a blueprint for When A Stranger Calls, Halloween, and countless other slasher films. This is a well-paced British suspenser that benefits from fine, strong performances, some bizarre dance/sex sequences, and great sound design. There is, of course, a fair number of plot elements that would become cliches of the slasher genre a decade later – but I’m pretty sure back then, it was still something relatively new. You have to wonder if Bob Clark or John Carpenter were inspired by these early 70’s British slashers?
35. Curtains (1983)
Curtains began started filming in 1980, but the production was plagued with problems and was shelved for over a year during which re-writes, re-shoots, and at least one re-casting was done. The film was finally completed and released in 1983, but almost nobody saw it when it came out. When the movie begins, it seems to borrow a bit from the plot of Samuel Fuller’s masterpiece Shock Corridor but then drastically takes a left turn and offers up an Agatha Christie type slasher film – and a Canadian one to boot. What sets Curtains apart from the dozens of slashers being produced during the heyday of the sub-genre is its smart screenplay, the use of one of the creepiest masks ever worn by a villain, and the talented cast which included popular Canadian horror leading ladies Samantha Eggar (The Brood) and Lynne Griffin (Black Christmas).
34. Massacre at Central High / Blackboard Massacre (1976)
This cheaply made exploitation film gathers interest because of its offbeat quality and the murderous solutions by the main characters – two qualities which classify it as a precursor to Heathers. What makes Massacre at Central High rise above most slasher films is its unusual level of political metaphor: an intriguing allegorical premise amongst a dreamlike and nightmarish, presentation, inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm. There are two other elements that set it apart from most entries in the genre: First, the killer actually starts out as the hero and then slowly becomes a threat to any student standing in his way, and secondly, the film is void of any adults. There are no teachers present, and the police are never called in to investigate the deaths.
33. The House on Sorority Row (1983)
This was Mark Rosman’s first feature after working as Brian De Palma’s assistant for years. The House on Sorority Row is stylish and well crafted, albeit formulaic, and remains a cut above the typical slasher. It also features one hell of a jump scare in the final scene. Trivia: The film found a loyal cult following years later when it was selected by Quentin Tarantino for the First Quentin Tarantino Film Fest in Austin, Texas, 1996.
32. Deadly Blessing (1981)
While I am not including The Last House On The Left and Hills Have Eyes on this list (since I consider them “backwoods horror”), Wes Craven does have one more film apart from A Nightmare On Elm Street that is mentioned here. Deadly Blessing is Craven’s fifth film and a supernatural-themed slasher that isn’t as bad as some claim it to be. Unlike Summer Of Fear, his made for TV disaster, Blessing is a curious discovery, set in the Amish community. The film still boasts a few of Craven’s best jump scares and a terrific score courtesy of James Horner. The film is beautifully photographed and features a terrifying sequence with Sharon Stone trapped in a barn by seemingly supernatural forces. The downside: Deadly Blessing also has a convoluted story that suffers from shoddy editing.
31. Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
Scripted by lesbian erotica novelist Rita Mae Brown and directed by Amy Holden Jones, Slumber Party Massacre was praised in some circles for its reputed feminist angle. Men are spineless and the women are sexually liberated, smart and usually in control of the chaos that ensues. The final confrontation culminates with symbolic imagery of castration and rape. Slumber Party Massacre also features one of the most underrated villains in any slasher film – the driller killer. Unfortunately, the sequels featured copycat killers, none of which could match the intensity of the original.
With ‘Road to Perdition,’ Sam Mendes showed another side of Tom Hanks
In his long, distinguished career, one thing Tom Hanks hasn’t done a lot of on screen is dispassionately shoot people. Sure, in Bonfire of the Vanities he hit a kid with his car, and in Cloud Atlas he threw someone off the roof of the building. And yes, he played a soldier in both Saving Private Ryan and the Vietnam part of Forrest Gump, and there was a third-act gunfight in his 1989 cop/dog comedy Turner & Hooch. But the one and only time Hanks has played a full-on murderer was in Road to Perdition, director Sam Mendes’ 2002 meditation on fathers, sons, crime, and the legacies of violence.
Naturally, Hanks being Hanks, Mendes’ film positions his Michael Sullivan not as an irredeemable monster, but rather a humanized character who may not be beyond redemption (the film’s poster tagline was “Pray for Michael Sullivan.”)
Set in the 1930s and adapted from a first-rate screenplay by David Self, Road to Perdition tells the story of Sullivan, a mob enforcer in Rock Island, Ill., who works for local crime boss Rooney (Paul Newman), the man who raised him. Frequently dispatched to bump off Rooney’s rivals, Michael is committed to not allow his young son, Michael Jr. (future Arrowverse actor Tyler Hoechlin), to go down the same path in life he did.
When the young Michael witnesses his father committing a murder, it leads to a chain of tragic events that has the two Michaels on the road to Chicago to make a deal with Al Capone’s crew (in the person of his henchman, played in one scene by Stanley Tucci), and eventually on the run from a rival hitman (Jude Law.) Meanwhile, Rooney’s jealous son, Connor (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), schemes against him.
Road to Perdition attaches a violent crime plot to considerations of sin and specific references to Catholicism, which is something that directors from Martin Scorsese to Abel Ferrera have done for decades. But Mendes’ film finds a new way to tell that particular story by focusing it on the gangster’s young son.
Road to Perdition, which came out in the summer of 2003, was Mendes’ second film, and his first after 1999’s Best Picture-winning American Beauty. It’s the better film, thanks to a strong script and the work of a great cast, but more than that, it’s absolutely visually stunning in a counter-intuitive 1:33 to 1 aspect ratio. The film’s final sequences, of both the rain-drenched gunfight and the denouement on the beach, are among the most beautiful cinema of the 2000s.
The film won a Best Cinematography Oscar for Conrad L. Hall, the third of his career, although sadly Hall passed away before the Oscar was awarded; it was accepted on his behalf by his son, Conrad W. Hall. Hall’s Oscar was the only one the film won after it was nominated for six, although not including Best Picture or Best Actor.
Road to Perdition came at the front end of Hanks’ nearly 20-year Oscar nomination drought, between Cast Away and this year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor. But Road to Perdition is an underrated Hanks performance. Even beyond all the murder, it’s very understated, and much more strong/silent than is typical of Hanks’ work. He also wears a hat most of the time, which Hanks doesn’t often do.
Paul Newman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for what would be his final on-screen role, although his voice continued to be used in Pixar’s Cars movies, even after his death. As for Daniel Craig as Connor, he’s playing a character who in today’s parlance would be called a “failson,” and it’s a role that he undoubtedly have been too big a star for just a few years later.
Sam Mendes has had something of an uneven career. His first film, American Beauty, won Best Picture, but its reputation has somewhat suffered over time for reasons fair and unfair. He’s directed great James Bond movies (Skyfall), and not-so-great ones (Spectre.) He’s made small films that were decent (Away We Go) and big ones that were disastrous (Revolutionary Road). But while he’s getting some of his best attention for 1917, which has emerged as an Oscar frontrunner, Road to Perdition stands as his most complete and satisfying work.
‘Color Out of Space’ is Pure Cosmic Horror
Festival de Nouveau Cinema 2019
Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.
Even before a meteor streaks out of the sky, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space firmly establishes an atmosphere of alien, otherworldly dread. Opening on a fog-shrouded forest dripping with foreboding atmosphere, Stanley evokes the spirit of the controversial author in a way few filmmakers have, and the use of direct quotes from the short story further cements this as a love-letter to Lovecraft and his work. But Color isn’t just a slavish ode to the influential writer and his cosmic horror creations; the South African director also injects just enough of himself into the film to create something that builds upon the core of Lovecraft’s story, maintaining that kernel of pulp horror while introducing elements that feel wholly personal to the filmmaker. For this and many other reasons, Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, and one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
The film by and large maintains the narrative core of the original, recombining elements to suit the change in medium, but staying quite faithful otherwise. Nic Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, who has moved his wife and two children to a secluded country home to get away from urban life. The Gardner family’s pastoral bliss is interrupted by a meteor that strikes their farm in the dead of night, and both their home and their very bodies begin to change soon after.
Unsurprisingly for a film with the hands of Lovecraft, Stanley, and Cage on the wheel, Color is often quite a strange experience, rife with disparate influences and odd touches. Nathan’s daughter, Lavinia, is a practicing witch, which is a story element that could only have come from Stanley, a magician himself. The Gardner family are also trying their hand at Alpaca farming — a bewildering plot element that feels like it could have been one of Cage’s notoriously eccentric fancies, right down to the brief lesson in Alpaca milking. Of course, Lovecraft’s passion for unknowable cosmic terrors is draped over all of this. There’s a wonderful atmosphere of dread and the unknown, about as pure an expression of Lovecraft as one could hope for in a contemporary setting. You’d think it would all make for a disjointed mishmash, but it all gels quite nicely, with the quirky family coming off as endearing more often than not.
Color Out of Space is one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
There are a few distracting, odd moments, like Lavinia’s turn to self-scarring in a desperate ritual to avert disaster. It largely isn’t commented on, and her sudden appearance with arcane runes carved into her flesh doesn’t end up feeling like the important story or character beat it probably should have. Likewise, Cage’s performance is on the eccentric side, with odd mannerisms and a truly strange accent taking over as the Gardner patriarch begins to go off the deep end. But then, that’s half the fun when it’s Cage we’re talking about.
Like so much of Lovecraft’s work, Color Out of Space deals with the intrusion of the unknowable and alien into the mundane waking world. While other works have had this manifest in the form of eldritch space gods or croaking fish-people, Color instead uses an alien environment as the intruder. While Stanley clearly isn’t working with a massive budget, this idea is still used to create some stunning environments as the Gardner farm’s transformation progresses, with the climax offering some of the most engaging visuals in recent memory. There’s also some truly unsettling body horror, more gruesome and explicit than anything from the story, but an organic fit for the material. Color Out of Space is Stanley’s first feature-length fiction film in around fifteen years, and by all indications, he hasn’t lost his edge. For both fans of Lovecraft and the director’s own works, there’s much to see and love here. The visuals are breathtaking, the atmosphere sumptuous, and it’s Lovecraft to the core with just enough original madness thrown in.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 14, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema.
The Career of Roger Ebert
Every Film Critic Owes A Bit to Roger Ebert
I recently wrote a profile on the late, great Robert Mitchum. In the course of researching the piece, I came across the fun tidbit that Mitchum had been a favorite of film critic Roger Ebert.
The mind rarely works in a linear fashion, and I suspect mine may even be more chaotic than most. That item pinballed around the ol’ noggin, and, somewhere in all that bouncing here and there, triggered a bit of nostalgia. Probably because I was working on the piece during Oscar season, the mention of Ebert reminded me that there had been a time when this would’ve been the point in the year I’d be looking forward to the annual “If We Gave Out the Oscars” (or something like that) show done by Ebert along with his on-screen partner of nearly two dozen years, fellow film critic Gene Siskel.
That first Ebert/Siskel memory triggered others, and as they bubbled up and percolated a bit, they started to gel together and bing: Gestalt light bulb.
Roger Ebert, and the long-lasting TV presence he’s had, particularly in association with Siskel, has been such a visible part of the media landscape for so long that he’s taken for granted; viewed as an institution with a sense of was-is-and-always-will-be.
Which, as is the case with any institution, is hardly true. There was a time before, and the difference between then and what came after is so stark as… Well, you wouldn’t think it, but when Ebert and Siskel hit the air, the changes they wrought on the public face of film criticism, were – dare I say it? Yes, I dare! – nothing less than revolutionary. And if it doesn’t seem so today, that only testifies as to how some revolutions, in time, become the new long-standing status quo.
As late as the 1970s, and, arguably, even into the 1980s, the public face of movie criticism — … Well, it didn’t have a public face. Not much of one, anyway.
According to Gerald Peary’s 2009 documentary, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, in which Ebert is a prominent talking head, up to that period most people didn’t know reviewers, not by name, anyway, nor did they much care what they had to say.
Not that there weren’t a number of critics out there flexing considerable intellectual muscle. Several were, in fact, among the all-time heavyweight champs of American film criticism, like Pauline Kael at The New Yorker, and her rival Andrew Sarris at The Village Voice, or Bosley Crowther over at The New York Times, to name just a few.
They were more than just reviewers. Their passion went far beyond recommending a good watch for the weekend. They appreciated film in-depth, in a way extending past what was at the movies that week. They wrote articles and essays and books which seriously contemplated the larger issues – corporate and aesthetic, and that area where they overlapped or bumped into each other – in cinema. When I took my first film study class in high school, Kael’s novella-length essay “Raising Kane” – the story behind the making and an appreciation of Citizen Kane – was our text. Later, as a film student in college, Sarris’ The American Cinema was a much-dog-eared reference work, a landmark as the first aesthetic overview of the body of all significant American directors up to that time compiled outside of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd.
They had their notable triumphs, too. Kael’s support for Bonnie & Clyde is – at least by some — considered the beginning of the commercial turn-around for that ground-breaking piece of 1960s moviemaking. She fired the first volley in a critical cannonade which turned what had been a sputtering, often panned release into one of the major commercial hits and artistic highpoints of the decade.
These were serious appreciators as well as serious students of film, writing seriously about – as often as they could – serious films and serious filmmaking. But as such – and Bonnie & Clyde notwithstanding — they had little to say to less serious Joe and Joan Average, or at least little Joe and Joan were interested in hearing…or could possibly want to make an effort to understand. Kael, for instance, managed to get herself fired from an early gig at McCall’s by – according to her editor Robert Stein – “…panning every commercial movie from Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago to The Pawnbroker and A Hard Day’s Night.”
We film students – a rather serious lot, too, or so we considered ourselves — knew who many of these critical leading lights were, read their work, argued about what they had to say, but beyond that… Not a lot of echo out there with all those Joes and Joans who were only looking for a fun movie for date night. Kael and Sarris and that crowd wrote and mused in something of an intellectual bubble, and it was easy to imagine they were really only talking to each other; their true – and possibly only – peers.
There were a few reviewers who did manage to connect with the general public, and I suspect that some in the critical community at that time wished they hadn’t.
Like Rex Reed. Reed, who still writes for The New York Observer, was a semi-regular guest on the talk show circuit back in those days. Draped lazily in a chair opposite Johnny or Merv, wallowing in an air of boredom and bare tolerance, he was colorful as hell, a real-life Waldo Lydecker – a professional snob. He vindicated every suspicion the general public had of film critics as something vastly removed from themselves, coming off, as he did, as effete, arrogant, condescending, and skewering most movies and the general public who enjoyed them with volleys of acid-tipped bon mots.
Still more public and recognized was NBC’s resident film reviewer, Gene Shallit, who presented as something of a cross between a kiddy party clown and a bad Borscht Belt comic. He wore goggle-sized eyeglasses and garish bowties, had an electro-shocked head of hair with a face-bisecting mustache to match. His one-two minute reviews, delivered with a frozen grin and a tone of malicious delight, were line after line of groan-inducing puns and corny one-liners. I recall times when it seemed Shallit had been so committed to being funny, in his groan-inducing corny way, that I hadn’t been able to tell if he’d ever actually gotten around to saying if the movie he’d been reviewing had been any good or not.
But that was the thing with Reed and Shallit and others like them. They weren’t there to inform or edify as much as entertain. I’ve always fancied people were more interested in watching them “perform” than in hearing if they had anything of value to say. And the way they entertained was with a flair for a well-honed but gratuitous bitchiness in their reviews, an edge sometimes bordering on a nastiness and cruelty simply for the fun of being nasty and cruel.
The Artful Roger Ebert
And this was, more or less, the lay of the land – at least as I remember it — when, in 1975, a Chicago PBS affiliate teamed up the film critics from the city’s two leading newspapers on a movie review show: Roger Ebert – the first, and I believe, only film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize — from The Chicago Sun-Times, and, from the competing The Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel.
The format of what was then called Sneak Previews was staggeringly simple. The two men, seated in a mock cinema balcony (remember movie house balconies anyone?), would screen clips of the week’s releases, opinionate on each movie and conclude with a recommended/not recommended vote of thumbs-up/down.
It was also staggeringly effective. In 1978, PBS picked the show up for national telecast. Come 1982, the duo would leave PBS for the still-larger audience – and more lucrative paychecks – of syndication with At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and then later, in 1986, come out with yet another incarnation in Siskel and Ebert and the Movies. The show would be nominated seven times for prime time Emmys, and the two critics would become so recognizable they graduated to the tier of talk show-worthy guests. In 2005, Ebert received what must be considered the ultimate recognition of his prominent standing in the movie universe: a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Try to find another film critic there.
Pairing up the critics did something for the public that stand-alone reviews by stand-alone reviewers didn’t do: it gave viewers the ability to compare and contrast two sensibilities as the reviewers argued the merits – or lack thereof – of recent releases. It seems simple enough now, but that kind of back-and-forth was unique at the time.
It helped that they were accessible. Ebert and Siskel didn’t talk over viewers’ heads, but didn’t talk down to them either. Their passion for movies was obvious, especially when they found one they liked, and, more particularly one they both liked.
Conversely, as much as they might hate a particular title to the point of denouncing it with scalpel-sharp sarcasm, they still lacked the bitchy cruel-for-cruelty’s sake of a Reed or Shallit. For Ebert and Siskel, it wasn’t about showcasing their wit as much as it was about making a point.
Whether they were arguing or in rare communion, in the back-and-forthing the show also displayed what any successful TV show has: that ephemeral, unpredictable, often accidental, yet essential quality called chemistry.
Ebert and Siskel were perfect for each other. They were intellectual peers, so it was always a fair fight and, frankly, when the sparks flew was when the show was at its best…well, at least at its most fun. I know some people watched the show waiting for a spat the way some NASCAR freaks watch races hoping for the excitement of a crash. There were times the dueling duo were so impassioned in their clash of opinions it seemed they were just a hair’s breadth from “Jackass!” “Pinhead!” and throwing Milk Duds at each other.
They even looked great together. People who couldn’t remember their names still remembered them, even if it was by the rather politically incorrect labels of The Skinny One and The Fat One. They were the Stan & Ollie of film criticism; iconic.
Stephen Whitty, film critic for New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger, understands the nature of the lightning in a bottle Roger and Gene caught. Asked about it, he says they “…did more than anyone to popularize (film) criticism, and show people just what fun arguing about movies could be…”
And, I suppose, that was the thing. They were fun to watch, but they weren’t entertainers. They sometimes stumbled when they talked, they weren’t always particularly glib; it wasn’t about them. It was about movies. The fun in watching them sometimes go at each other was knowing it came from the absolute cocksure commitment on each of their parts that they thought the other one – on this one, particular occasion – had his head up his ass. I think that honesty was what people connected with, and what they responded to, and why the show – combined with their unique chemistry – was such a success.
I suspect Ebert – and I’m only guessing here – probably had more mainstream fans than Siskel because he approached movie reviewing from a different perspective. Siskel more or less judged movies against an absolute, whereas Ebert understood some movies were, well, they were what they were…and that was ok. It wasn’t about an absolute good or absolute bad, but whether or not a movie did what it set out to do. He explained his philosophy in a 2004 review of Shaolin Soccer:
“When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to Mystic River, you’re asking if it’s any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then The United States of Leland clocks in at about two.”
As the show grew in popularity and became more entrenched in the media landscape, the two critics used it as a bully pulpit to regularly bring attention to the small, low-profile art house flicks most average moviegoers didn’t even know were out there. Better, they tried to make the case for those movies expressly to that average moviegoer; to demystify for Joe and Joan out-of-the-mainstream flicks, and show they could be just as entertaining, if not more so, than the star-filled big releases taking up three and four screens at the multiplex.
They expanded the format of the show to include occasional one-offs, like their annual Oscar show, or focusing on films of a particular actor, genre, etc. A personal favorite I’ve always remembered was a compare-and-contrast show they did between the films of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, then the two kings of the movie comedy heap. It was a great layman’s lesson in the evolution of two ultimately opposite comedic sensibilities; the kind of opportunity to broaden mass audience sensibilities TV and TV pundits rarely take.
Gene Siskel died in 1999 of complications from surgery for a cancerous brain tumor. Ebert continued on, first with a rotating series of co-hosts before settling on his Chicago Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper. Roeper was – and is – a capable enough critic, but Siskel’s absence showed just how much of the show’s charm had been about the spark between he and Ebert. One only had to look at their PBS replacements – Neal Gabler and Jeffrey Lyons (Gabler would leave in 1985 and be replaced by Michael Medved) – to see that as easily as the Ebert/Siskel format was to reproduce, the Ebert/Siskel dynamic was one of a kind. The PBS show was finally cancelled in 1996 while Roger and Gene were still a syndication staple.
And if it proved impossible to follow their act, they still opened a door, making talking about movies something of popular interest. As it happens, while working on this piece, I heard an interview with actor Topher Grace on a New York radio station. Grace knew Bosley Crowther; the critic had introduced Grace’s parents. Grace unknowingly told me the difference between pre-E&S and today: “There were, like, a billion less critics in those days.”
Everything from Robert Osborne’s one-on-one chats on TMC to Rotten Tomatoes, Peter Bart and Peter Guber dissecting the current state of Hollywood on AMC to the bazillion websites devoted to movies (including this one) are all branches of the family tree first planted by Roger and Gene on Sneak Previews.
Between 2002 and 2006, Roger Ebert underwent several surgeries for cancer in his thyroid, salivary glands, and jaw. Complications from the surgeries robbed him of his voice, his ability to eat and drink forcing him to be nourished through a feeding tube, and left him seriously scarred. He no longer regularly appeared on TV. But, as he once said, though he may not be able to speak, he can still write.
It is the paradox of our visually-driven age, Roger Ebert will probably always be known – most for his TV presence. But before then and during the remainder of his career, he was first and foremost a journalist, a chronicler of movies and the business of movies. He may be famous for being on TV, but his reviews, essays, and many books are probably his more substantive contribution, and one he amazingly continued despite his travails. He’s put out at least a half-dozen books over the years. It’s impossible – even for those who question his taste – not to be impressed by Ebert’s choice to follow the passion that so obviously drove him. “I’m still in awe of his work ethic even into his last days,” says Steven Whitty. “The only thing more remarkable than Roger Ebert’s influence…was his indomitability. It’s not just that he kept at it, after more than forty years and a host of ailments worthy of Job – it’s that he worked harder and with more enthusiasm than writers half his age. He was an inspiration to everyone.”
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