Friday, October 23, 2009

Siskel & Ebert & Slashers & Horror

It was eight days before Halloween 1980, a date which should not resonate with contemporary horror film fans, but almost thirty years ago it was a watershed moment. It was a Thursday evening, and viewers who tuned in to the wildly popular PBS series Sneak Previews expecting to hear Chicago-based film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert opine on a handful of new releases, heard something very different instead. They heard the two critics declare War on Horror.

Sneak Previews had started life in 1975 as Coming Soon to a Theater Near You, a bi-weekly examination of new films as debated by Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times and Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune. Originally telecast only to the Chicago market, within two years it was made available bi-weekly to PBS affiliates nationwide and under the new title Sneak Previews. By 1979 it became a weekly series airing on Thursday nights (and often repeated during the weekend), and was the most-watched show on the network. Siskel and Ebert were not quite the household names they were later to become, but they were well on their way to assuming their roles as the most influential film critics in Ameri
ca. Their contentious on-air chemistry captivated viewers, and by 1982 they were popular enough to break away from WTTW and PBS, and enter syndication with shows that put their names in - and above - the title.
Over the years, the pair had developed a complicated relationship with the Horror genre. Ebert had scarcely been on the job at the Sun Times for two years when his January 1969 account of a screening of Night of the Living Dead was abridged and published in the June 1969 issue of Readers' Digest. In it, he tells of watching a Saturday matinee of the unrated horror film with a group of children, describing their traumatized reaction to what they were witnessing onscreen. The movie received more notoriety from Ebert's article than it had during its theatrical release to that point, as readers who had no intention of ever seeing the film were now aware of its elements of zombies, cannibalism and matricide. I was one of those; my mother frequently visited with a neighbor who subscribed to the magazine, and on a day she took me along to visit, I read that review and was stunned by his recounting of a little girl slaying her mother with a trowel. Thanks to the archival efforts of Frederick over at My Monster Memories, you can read the entire article here.

However, Ebert had also been a champion of one of the most graphic and controversial horror films of the 70s - The Last House on the Left. He had gone so far as to include it among his "Guilty Pleasures" in a 1978 issue of Film Comment, and he reprised his pick when the pair of critics did a similarly-themed show on Sneak Previews. Among Ebert's other choices were Inframan, Invasion of the Bee Girls and the soft core porn of Emmanuelle. That he was such a champion of such an unremittingly bleak and nihilistic film as TLHOTL is worth remembering as we follow the events that later unfolded.

Whereas Ebert could be more unpredictable in his tastes, Siskel almost never met a low-budget horror film that he liked (Halloween being a notable exception,) and when Sneak Previews closed
each show with an appearance from Spot the Wonder Dog, there to introduce the Dogs of the Week, each critic's selection of the worst movie in theatrical release, horror films were Siskel's obligatory choice. Included in his condemnations were films like David Cronenberg's acknowledged classic The Brood, which Siskel cited as objectionable for its use of children as instruments of terror. Horror films with higher budgets got a fairer, though seldom favorable, treatment, but independent fright features were non-starters for the critic.

Siskel had also generated considerable outrage among horror fans during the summer of 1980 when, while reviewing Friday the 13th and unable to conceal his outrage at the
film's violence, he went so far as to give away the film's ending so as to discourage moviegoers from seeing it. He affirmed that his ability to do that was a power that he did not take lightly, and requested his followers to trust him to never do so with a cavalier nature. He even went so far as to encourage his readers to write letters of outrage to star Betsy Palmer for her decision to appear in the film. Palmer later said that his attempt to provoke a letter campaign came to no avail, as the only missives she received were from fans telling her how much they enjoyed the movie. Palmer was furious with Siskel for taking such umbrage over what was her bread and butter as an aging actress with increasingly-limited opportunities for a paycheck.

When Sneak Previews went from a bi-weekly to a weekly show in 1979, the pair of critics soon discovered that there were weeks when not enough films were released to justify a full half-hour of reviews. This necessitated the creation of "Take Two" shows, in which they examined trends and issues in the movies. Among the more popular shows of this nature were the aforementioned "Guilty Pleasure" installments, as well as their yearly "Memo to the Academy," trumpeting films and performances they felt were worthy of Oscar consideration.
On October 23rd 1980, Siskel and Ebert decided to turn their attention to the recent spate of slasher movies in an effort to expose them as the misogynistic fare they felt them to be. Among the films singled out for derision were, of course, Friday the 13th, as well as Don't Answer the Phone, He Knows You're Alone, Silent Scream, When a Stranger Calls, and what the pair deemed as the most objectionable of the lot, I Spit on Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman); Ebert was later to designate ISOYG as the Worst Movie of 1980, making the second time in three years that a horror film had received that dubious honor (1978's The Medusa Touch, in which Richard Burton used telekinesis to commit a series of ever-escalating disasters, was the other). They included clips and trailers from these movies to illustrate their disgust with filmmakers who shot their films from the killer's viewpoint, all the while placing young women - often scantily-clad - in situations of danger and imminent death. They believed these films were a reaction to the Woman's Movement of the 1970s, and that the killer's point of view approach appealed to the baser instincts of a largely-male moviegoing audience.

Now, my posting here is not an attempt to debunk that viewpoint, as that has
been done by so many others very effectively in the subsequent three decades. What I want to call to attention are those moments in the telecast in which the pair tipped their hand as to their true feelings about the genre. For example, while Siskel was presenting a montage of film posters to illustrate his point about these films treating women as merely objects for slaughter, included in the examples was a poster for the yet-to-be-released Joe Dante werewolf movie The Howling. Setting aside the fact that its subject matter could not possibly be more removed from that of the slasher films, consider the image. It's one of the most memorable and effective posters of the era, and I cannot conceive of a mind that would view this image to be excessive, extreme or inciting of violence against a woman. Indeed, it is a model of restraint even by 1980 standards. Its inclusion in the show was not merely premature; it was supremely wrongheaded.

Also held up for scorn was the 1980 feature The Bogey Man, which, while certainly containing elements similar to slasher films, was deeply rooted in supernatural horror. The show presented a goodly chunk of the movie's trailer, with the loudest tsk-tsking reserved for the sequence in which strips of a young actress' clothes were being ripped away. Scantily-clad women in horror films...why, whoever had heard of such a thing? At no point in the show was mention made of the fact that nudity had become de riguer in all films during the 1970s, with the actresses in the Roger Ebert-scripted Beneath the Valley of the Dolls displaying far more of their pulchritude than in, say, When a Stranger Calls.

As if to anticipate the backlash that they were going to receive from their protests, they cited their admiration for 1978's Halloween as evidence that, no, theirs was not a knee-jerk anti-horror reaction. Here, taken from the Criterion release of John Carpenter's classic, is footage from that show praising its virtues...

It almost goes without saying; the elements in Halloween that the pair found so admirable were also evident in a majority of the films - admittedly, many of them knock-offs and rip-offs - that followed in its wake.

There was one more objection from the pair, and this smacks of Ebert, a critic fond of reviewing the audience on those occasions when he did not see a movie in a press screening. They expressed their displeasure with young men who shouted encouragement to the killers, evidence that the films were striking an unpleasant chord within their viewers. Allow me to offer some anecdotal evidence to counter this; in all my years of attending slasher films during this first wave of popularity, I can not recall a single incident of an audience member cheering on the killer, and certainly in not such a misogynistic way. I do not claim that such reactions never occurred, but I merely say that they were neither automatic nor guaranteed. And it is also worth remembering that Chicago is notorious for having some of the most vocal - and ill-mannered - audiences in the nation, something that I certainly experienced during my five years of living in the city.
That October 23rd telecast was repeated by PBS a number of times during the next few years, as the slasher sub-genre continued to grow in popularity, and horror fans expressed their indignation at these ad hominem attacks against the genre that they loved. In 1981 Fangoria #15 conducted an interview with the pair, who were unapologetic about their criticism - and always quick to raise Halloween as a solitary line of defense. However, despite their continued proselytizing on the subject, slasher films continued to be released until, as must happen to all film boomlets, audience interest waned and the Horror genre entered a period of mid 80s doldrums. However, the pair was able to claim some responsibility in the nailing of one cinematic scalp upon the wall, as their clarion call against the 1984 killer Santa movie Silent Night, Deadly Night fanned the flames that got ads for the film pulled and the movie extracted from the nation's theaters.

In subsequent years the pair no longer overplayed their hand in criticism of Horror, and their preoccupation with the slasher genre is now largely seen as a reflection of American conservatism during the Reagan era. (Note how both of their broadsides occurred within days either before or after a GOP landslide.) Film philosophers now embrace the empowering concept of the "Final Girl" - that is, the tendency for slasher films to feature a plucky female survivor left to her own devices to dispatch the killer. That's quite the contrary to the fears that Siskel and Ebert raised in 1980, and while the tape of that October telecast has apparently disappeared, and the brouhaha of the time has been long forgotten, the films that the pair railed against are now accepted as a legitimate chapter in the history of Cinematic Horror.


Jeff Allard said...

Great write-up on a critical furor that amounted to a blip on the radar but at the time seemed like part of an all-out cultural war. As a kid, I loved watching Siskel & Ebert but their constant and irrational attacks on the horror genre eventually soured me on them.

Given how extreme horror has become in the years since, it's funny to look back on the alarmist attitudes that S&E brought to their discussion of slasher movies - especially when those films seem so tame compared to today's genre fare.

I Like Horror Movies said...

I am going to have to break this one down into 2-3 installments, but I absolutely love it. The only review I have sat down to listen to was their public humiliation of SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT. I shall return for more shortly, thanks for the awesome article your Senskiness

Old Folkie said...

Interesting article, never been too fond of Siskel & Ebert to start with but now I got a reason! (cue: maniacal laughter)

I wonder if, concerning "The Howling", he wasn't channeling a hatred against the book which opens with a completly unnecessary rape sequence.

Anonymous said...

I love watching siskel and ebert.

But Siskel's comments about some movies are SO RIDICULOUS sometimes (example: "Indecent Proposal" "Unlawful Entry" "Lethal Weapon 2) it just shows he was an awful critic.

He makes up arguments which make no sense whatsoever.

As for Ebert, even when I disagree with him, his point of view is so articulate and well thought out that I'm in awe of his insight.