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The History of The Grudge: The Beginning of the Curse

31 Days of Horror

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Ju-On, or The Grudge, is an iconic J-horror franchise with some of the most chilling films the genre has to offer. The first entry, Ju-On: The Grudge came out back in 2002, and the series is still going today. With several reboots and a few spinoff films, there is a lot to unpack when digging back through the franchise. As it’s a series that any horror fan should make themselves familiar with, I’ll be putting together a history of The Grudge, from its short beginnings all the way to its possible future, detailing the history of not only the Ju-On films but also the timeline and victims of the curse itself — as well as how it develops as that infinitely dark mark left in that house grows and grows.

Needless to say, spoilers abound.

To set things up, a young and aspiring filmmaker by the name of Takashi Shimizu was attending the Film School of Tokyo in 1998. He studied under one Kiyoshi Kurosawa (a filmmaker with his own fame, but completely unrelated to Akira Kurosawa), who invited him to assist with making a horror anthology. This is where the curse begins…

‘4444444444’ & ‘Katasumi’

The first two shorts in the Ju-On story are around three minutes each, and are more like single concepts backed by the idea of the curse. Originally, Takashi Shimizu had planned on more to contribute to the horror anthology film Gakko no Kaidan G (or, School Ghost Story G), which these two shorts became a part of. It’s possible that some ideas brought forward to the followups of Ju-On: The Curse 1 & 2 were ones he had played around with in the making of “4444444444” and “Katasumi.”

Whilst the two are singular entities that can stand on their own as concept shorts, Takashi Shimizu himself does see these as the beginning of it all, referring to them as “almost like the true prequel of the story.” If you’ve not seen these two before, they’re highly worth the time, and can be tracked down on YouTube easily enough. It’s also really satisfying to go from these to The Curse and see how the narratives fit in together.

The ‘Toshio’ side of the shorts actually showcases some talented control over camera angles and framing.

“4444444444” deals with the technology aspect, with the ringing phone bringing a student riding home to his demise. After finding a strange phone left beside some junk in an alleyway, he sees that it’s getting a call from the number “4444444444.” The number might seem a bit odd to Westerners, but the number 4 is closely associated with death in Japan (due to the similarity between one reading of the number, “Shi,” and the word for death, also “Shi”) and is considered unlucky. Upon answering, he’s met with…

A cat meowing. Somehow, Takashi Shimizu makes a cat meowing creepy, with an odd and almost pained vocalization. Cats making prank calls aside, the student hangs up, a little frustrated, but instantly gets another call. Frustration with the cat prankster turns into unease as he starts to believe whoever is on the other line can see him. After asking as much, a voice replies in the affirmative.

And here’s Toshio! It’s the first appearance of the franchise’s weird naked boy ghost. Whilst the ending of “4444444444” is pretty goofy and smacks of student filmmaker, there are a lot of little elements that would be polished and brought forward through the entire series. We get the technology influence, the pained cat, and Toshio (who appear together most of the time), in addition to some solid camerawork. It’s the weaker of the two shorts, but still has merit.

Takashi Shimizu’s other contribution to the horror anthology, a bit more ambitious in approach.

“Katasumi” also exists within a single space, but this time there are two female student characters tending to the school rabbits after everyone else has gone home. Broadening the static (but well-placed) angles that Takashi Shimizu focused in on in his other short, he he employs voyeuristic handicam shots that break up the simple dialogue. After Kanna, one of the girls, somehow manages to cut her finger on a clipboard by picking it up, the other, Hisayo, goes off to find a bandage. She soon returns to find her friend missing.

Whilst “Katasumi” doesn’t present many iconic elements that would continue on, there’s one major part that went on to be the core of the series. We get our first look at Kayako Saeki (played by Takako Fuji) stalking out from the shadows. The actress played Kayako all the way until Grudge 3, and made the character terrifying. Her unnatural movements, iconic look, and dedication to creating the character carried Kayako Saeki to becoming a genre icon.

Seeing Kayako for the first time is amazing, but the weird noise she makes is somewhat…off. It’s still creepy, but the ragged outtake of breath that went on to be so closely associated with the character lends itself to subtlety a bit more. Not that Kayako doesn’t make a similarly strange moaning sound later on in the series, but the croaking is much more commonplace here. On the topic of sound, we see that Kanna has succumbed to the curse, and is now manipulated by it (another element Shimizu holds onto strongly as the series continues), as she turns and makes some sort of dinosaur-like sound. It’s an odd choice, but these little bits of jank make for a charming start, and set up so much that Shimizu would hone as he developed his vision.

In the end, Gakko no Kaidan G featured four segments, with Shimizu contributing to less than 10% of the runtime, yet it’s his segments that gave birth to greatness.

Ju-On: The Curse 1 & 2

The curse begins, two halves to make a whole as evident by the covers.

The first film in the Ju-On catalogue weaves in the events of “4444444444” and “Katasumi,” rather than simply bouncing off the ideas. Throughout Ju-On: The Curse those two shorts come together as a part of the whole narrative, and things start to make a lot more sense when context is provided. Whilst it jumps around in timeframe, it should first be noted that The Curse 1 & 2 were released to V-cinema (Japan’s straight-to-video catalog) and theaters in the same year, and feel like two halves that make a whole. Hell, even the first thirty minutes or so of The Curse 2 was lifted directly from the ending of the first in order to catch viewers up.

The Curse gets audiences caught up with the events that transpired within the Saeki family home that led to the Grudge forming, though in no clear, direct way. It’s a non-linear experience that expertly moves between characters as we fill in the story, taking place over three distinct time periods. This is truly where the mythos begins, getting into the swing of things with a chaotic but incredible piece of J-Horror cinema that helped define the genre.

Kayako is one of the pillars of that ‘long haired ghost girl’ image so synonymous with J-Horror.

As the film progresses, it is revealed that in a particular house Takeo Saeki was driven into a jealous rage that resulted in him brutally murdering his wife, Kayako, son Toshio, and the family cat, Mar. Only a little bit of backstory of Kayako herself is revealed, and in a subtle way as to never plot-dump. When she was at university, she fell head over heels for a man named Shunsuke Kobayashi; unfortunately, due to being shy and seen as rather creepy by those around her, she couldn’t act on her love before Kobayashi began dating Manami Midorikawa. So instead, Kayako met and married Takeo, who seemed to be the only one who understood her.

Her obsession for Kobayashi only grew over the years, and she journaled her borderline-stalker inner feelings long into her marriage with Takeo. Once Takeo found out, he flipped, and an argument ended with him viciously attacking her. As we get into the remakes later, the origin of the curse is flipped a bit, but in the original it comes from the intense way Takeo sees to the end of Kayako’s life. The actual act isn’t clearly shown throughout these two films — only hinted at — but it appears as if she was stabbed to death. This evolves over time, and her death directly relates to the way in which she manifests, but for the moment all we get is repeated stabbing.

The main thing to take from the The Curse is the forming of the curse itself through this violent act, with Toshio’s fate as of yet unknown, outside of dying around the same time as his mother (the same can be said of Mar, as it’s revealed in a future film exactly what went down with those two). Takeo’s murder spree leaves a dark imprint of tragedy upon the house, and even extends out to Manami and her unborn child as well. This is how the Grudge itself begins, and how the franchise sets off on its path. Two more families eventually occupy the Saeki home over the course of this film — the Murukami family, and the Kitada couple — with the Murukamis meeting quickfire ends through the curse claiming them, whilst there is a glimpse of Kayako possessing Yoshimi Kitada.

The Curse brings forth the very non-supernatural tragedy Takeo inflicts upon his own family as well as the Kobayashis, and that fetus-in-a-bag is a terrifying detail.

Despite its CG aging and the lower film quality (even for 2000), there’s so much iconic J-horror flavor bursting forth that The Curse is well worth tracking down. Sure, Ringu set the bar for J-horror pretty high, but Shimizu was up to the task at putting forward his own induction to the genre. Having this alongside the two short films creates a fantastic jigsaw that fits together so well (with the children of the Murukami family being the subjects of the two prior shorts), and it’s a joy to piece together as the film goes on. Whilst the series really hits its stride later on, with Ju-On: The Grudge itself, The Curse has that special something that makes this whole series such a satisfying one. Its interconnectedness — those non-linear segments that slowly reveal the big picture as time goes on — is something that sadly is forgotten the further into the series one goes.

Meanwhile, The Curse 2 has a lot more imagery that doesn’t hold up very well, though it maintains that incredible atmosphere for the most part. However, there are some absolutely shining moments that deserve mention, like Kayako standing in the rain in the distance, a few great shots of her moving around almost unnoticeable in the background, and the many Kayakos scratching at the windows.

Most of the more effective imagery comes late in this second film.

The Curse 2 also introduces a new mechanic, as the Grudge grows ever stronger and is now is able to spread through it’s victims, affecting those who haven’t even set foot in the house itself. Tajii and Fumi Suzuki — mother and father of the real estate agent in charge of selling the cursed house, Tatsuya Suzuki — are taken by the lingering spirit infecting their daughter, Kyoko (who did enter the house, though her parents did not).

Another interesting element put into the curse — which is never explored again through this individual — is that of Manami. The woman murdered by Takeo whilst she was heavily pregnant has her own grudge, and curses Nobuyuki Suzuki, the son of Tatsuya, while he lives in her old apartment. Her grudge has the same overbearing presence and deadly end for him as the Saeki family one does, but despite Manami’s curse being on him, he is still haunted and eventually succumbs to Kayako herself.

Manami’s curse is also upon Kyoko, even possessing her, but ultimately the spirit of Kayako overtakes it. It’s possible that Kayako’s curse is just far stronger, and it takes on other ‘Grudge’ scenarios and feeds on them. Throughout these two Curse films, Kayako’s influence and ability only grows stronger and stronger, and she finds she can reach out well beyond the limitations of those who set foot inside the central location of the curse. Whilst the sea of Kayako clones looks pretty goofy (outside of that one amazing shot of them all scratching at the windows), it gets over the cyclical and never-ending nature of the curse, and really hammers home the inevitability of this consuming all around it.

Despite the over the top hammering of spooky imagery the finale of the film presents, there’s some understated but certainly effective shots as well.

These films laid the groundwork for what would become the series, with two solid and memorable J-Horror installments building towards what would be the breakout hit of Ju-On: The Grudge in 2002. Shimizu’s shorts impressed enough that he got a few producers interested in funding a two-part, full length project. Releasing them as V-Cinema minimized the risk, putting them comfortably amongst other lower budget horror flicks whilst having a limited theater showing alongside the release. And hitting audiences almost as hard as Ringu put Shimizu’s name out there, as well as showed his growing prowess at building eerie tension alongside some genuine scares.

Up next we’ll hit the glory years of The Grudge, with the phenomenal success of the next film in the series inspiring not only another sequel, but also an American remake series to explode forth. Stay tuned for the next part in our detailing of the history.

THE CURSE: Victim Timeline

Every victim of the curse, and the events that caused it, in chronological order. MAJOR spoilers follow, but it’s interesting to lay out everything the curse consumes over these films. And, hell, let’s rack up the body count as well.

Kayako & Toshio Saeki, Mar – Kayako is murdered viciously by Takeo, creating the curse. Mar the cat is also murdered. It’s worth noting that Takeo also killed Manami and her unborn child, but they did not figure directly into the curse. On the note of Toshio, however, despite Takeo leaving him in the attic to die (a scene not yet shown, but it’ll come later down the road), it’s Kayako’s spirit that graces him with a quicker death and brings him into the curse.

Manami Kobayashi & her unborn daughter – The heavily pregnant and soon expecting Manami is killed by Takeo, along with her unborn daughter.

Shunsuke Kobayashi – The object of Kayako’s secret affections, a school teacher who comes to the house in order to check up on Toshio, as he’s been absent for some time. Kobayashi is the first victim of the curse, not counting the murder commited by Takeo before becoming a spirit. Kayako and Toshio show their Onryo side, and Kayako, in a very rare moment, actually speaks and calls his name. It’s right before killing him, but still, a nice final gesture.

Takeo Saeki – Kayako takes final vengeance on her murderer, though vengeance is not enough to quell the incredible power of the curse itself.

Yuki – Tutor and friend of the Murukami daughter, Kanna. With the Murakami’s being the new owners of the Saeki house, she unfortunately finds herself alone for a few moments inside. Investigating that iconic croaking sound, Yuki comes face to face with Kayako in the attic.

Kanna Murakami & Hisayo Yoshida & Noriko Murakami – Kanna forgets that she needs to go to school to feed the rabbits, and leaves her tutor, Yuki at her house whilst she goes to do it. These events are detailed in the short film “Katasumi,” as Kayako finds her and her school friend, Hisayo Yoshida, meeting their gruesome end. It could be argued that Kanna, as she appears bloody and missing a jaw later on, survived for longer than the next two victims. However, what is much more likely is that this severely abused form was her body piloted by The Grudge itself, rather than her surviving to stumble home. Seeing as her mother, Noriko — the one that finds her — also disappears, it’s safe to say the curse claimed her through Kanna.

Tsuyoshi Murakami – Not knowing what has happened just one room over from his own, the Murukami’s son, Tsuyoshi, decides to go to school to meet his girlfriend. Along the way the events of “4444444444” happen, with him finding a phone ringing. Toshio is the spirit that appears before him, and is implied to be the one claiming him for the curse.

Mizuho Tamura – Tsuyoshi’s girlfriend, searching for him at school. A teacher tells her that no one is left, despite his bike being there. Whilst the teacher searches the school once more, Mizuho gets a call from the same number, and once again Toshio is there to collect.

Kyoko Suzuki & Yoshimi Kitada – Kyoko is the sister of the real estate agent in charge of selling the Saeki house, and is also conveniently sensitive to spirits. An odd one to place on a timeline, but she — as well as the newest resident in the Saeki home, Yoshimi Kitada — is possessed by Manami and Kayako, respectively (though Kayako overtakes Kyoko’s possession as well). As soon as the possession takes hold, there’s no real hope for either of them, so they’ll be placed as victims here.

Hiroshi Kitada – Victim of frying pan to the head from his wife. Yoshimi was possessed by Kayako, however, so she racks up that point.

Tatsuya Suzuki – The real estate agent, checking up on the new residents. Once again, the possessed Yoshimi Kitada kills him, and once again the point going to Kayako.

Tajii & Fumi Suzuki – Briefly seen parents of Kyoko and Tatsuya. The curse emanates from the possessed Kyoko, and presumably it is Kayako’s presence that appears to frighten them to death.

Yoshikawa & his wife & Kamio – Detective Yoshikawa is in charge of working out all the murders linked to the house, and is seemingly driven mad by his investigation. He and his wife are taken out by Kayako, who then moves on to another investigator, Kamio, whom she brazenly attacks right in the police station, showing that there is no safe place from her curse.

Noboyuki Suzuki – The final member of the Suzuki family — and final body count for these two films — is ruthlessly pursued through school and claimed by Kayako. Potentially due to his similar appearance to Toshio, Kayako holds him like a child, and his skin goes the same pale color as Toshio’s is.

Despite possession playing a large part in the second film, the first doesn’t make any real allusion to it, and thus Kanna still gets her point, as it appears that her spirit was drawn into the curse, and lashed out on its own. So, there we have it: 23 victims down, and pulled into the grudge. Here’s a quick scorecard, to see the exact weight of murder throughout the series at this point.

Kanna – 1
Toshio – 2
Takeo – 4
Kayako – 16

Shane Dover is a Melbourne, Australia based freelance writer contributing to Japanese punk news site Punx Save The Earth, punk publication Dying Scene, Diabolique Magazine and Goomba Stomp. Not just a fan of punk music, he's spent most of his life obsessed with the horror genre across all media, Japanese cinema, as well as pop culture in general. He plays music and writes fiction, check out his Twitter (https://twitter.com/Karzid) for updates on those projects. Follow him on Twitter, and check out his work every Wednesday on Dying Scene.

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With ‘Road to Perdition,’ Sam Mendes showed another side of Tom Hanks

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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. 

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Festival du Nouveau Cinema

‘Color Out of Space’ is Pure Cosmic Horror

Festival de Nouveau Cinema 2019

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Color Out of Space Review

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.

Color Out of Space

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.

Color Out of Space

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.

Color Out of Space Review
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The Career of Roger Ebert

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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.

Siskel and Ebert At the Movies

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.

Pauline Kael
Pauline Kael

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.

Gene Shallit
Gene Shallit

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.

Roger Ebert Walk of Fame

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.

At the Movies

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.”

Roger Ebert

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.

Ebert and Roeper

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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