The Slasher Witch Hunt part 1: Roger Ebert

ebertThis is the first in a series of articles that will showcase the people, organizations, companies, and government agencies that tried to ban slasher films in the early 1980s.

The first member of our rogues gallery is film critic Roger Ebert, who savaged the slasher film in his columns for The Chicago Sun-Times and on the television programs Sneak Preview and At the Movies.

Before I go further I would like to point out that this isn’t a personal attack against Roger Ebert. His protests against the slasher film have made him a part of the genre’s history and should be recorded. I do own several of his books and enjoy reading his reviews for slasher films no matter how negative they may be. His writing can be extremely funny even if it does border on elitist snobbery when discussing slashers.

The Critic’s Crusade started with I Spit on Your Grave (a.k.a. Day of the Woman) before taking up arms against Maniac, Friday the 13th, and all of the other slashers released during the genre’s golden age. Attacking a film one finds offensive is understandable, but Mr. Ebert often crossed the line by savaging theater owners for showing the films and the audiences for attending the screenings. He refers to the I Spit on Your Grave audience as “vicarious sex criminals.” On television, Ebert labeled slashers as dangerous films for dangerous minds. These depraved films appealed to the dark, deranged underbelly of society and would only lead to societal decay if left unchecked.

Mr. Ebert’s attacks against slasher films did have an impact on box-office receipts but not in the way he had hoped. Day of the Woman bombed when it was originally released but made a fortune after a title change and Ebert’s rants in the media. The attacks on Maniac helped the film turn a profit for investors shortly after it was unleashed in theaters. All of this rapid money making caused other producers and directors to crank out even more slasher films in the hopes of generating fast cash. Perhaps this is what most offended Mr. Ebert, slasher films made money while the art films he loved vanished from theaters after one week.

It seems rather ironic to me that Roger Ebert, a film critic, would get so involved in an effort to ban slashers just because he hated the genre. Ebert was born in 1942 which means he lived through the witch hunts that targeted Communists in Hollywood, horror comic books, and rock & roll during the 1950s. He had to know lives, careers, and companies could be ruined if his crusade succeeded.

A great deal has changed for Roger Ebert in the nearly thirty years since he lead the charge against slasher films. His very public battle with cancer has left him without a physical voice. Soon, Mr. Ebert may find himself without a media voice as well. The television shows are gone. His newspaper, The Chicago Sun-Times, is in so much financial trouble that it could either go bankrupt or become nationalized by the US government. In a completely unexpected yet strangely poetic twist , the slasher films Roger Ebert despised in the 1980s are being remade, which means he has to watch them all over again.

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11 Responses to “ The Slasher Witch Hunt part 1: Roger Ebert ”

  1. I tried posting a video last week of Siskel & Ebert condemning Silent Night Deadly Night. Here’s the link anyway –

    Great work Thomas, really enjoyed this read! Some suggestions that may work looking into; Mary Whitehouse, The Daily Mail, James Ferman.

    One amusing thing I find about Mr. Ebert is that he wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a cheap exploitation T&A piece directed by ‘cleavage king’ Russ Meyer. The hypocrite!

    Excellent article!!

  2. Great topic for discussion!

    I like how you call it a Rogue’s gallery – awesome.

    And as they say: They never built a monument for a critic.

  3. Great idea for a slasher site article, explore the other side of the fence (did I just smash 3 metaphors into one sentence?).

    I think it’s worth mentioning the tirade against “Friday the 13th” and Ebert’s failed conscience-questioning letter campaign to Betsy Palmer for her participation in the film. According to her, he released her industry contact information to rally viewers into sending her letters, questioning her judgement in taking the role. She said she never got a single one.

  4. ‘Day of the Woman bombed when it was originally released but made a fortune after a title change and Ebert’s rants in the media.’

    Moral watchdogs never learn that the best way of ensuring that “trash” disappears is to simply ignore it. Time and again, railing against questionable things only generates an interest disproportionate to merit.

  5. I love when filmmakers use a critic’s negative review as marketing. Like I think Siskel and Ebert said Lost Highway was the worst movie they’d seen and that quote ended up on the poster. Or when Rex Reed said the Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the sickest film he’d ever seen and there’s the quote on the vhs!

    I like Ebert a lot, regardless of his opinions. He’s a great writer and has a true passion for film, even if we disagree at times.

    Great article Thomas. Very interesting and enjoyable!

  6. Despite his views against the Slasher genre (it’s hard to say his opinion on the horror genre in general), I’m not quick to say his health or the Chicago-Times going under are karmic signs. I myself wanted to be a film critic back as a teen, but somehow deviated away from it to focus more on watching the industry as it is and from afar, balancing between my opinions and what the industry does what it does. If I was a figure in this debate, I would side with the issue of personal responsibility and societal responsibility when to comes to violence, the line between reality and fantasy of film depictions, etc.

  7. I want to thank everyone for their positive comments, feedback, and suggestions. I hope you all enjoy the next chapter.

    To Alison- I didn’t mean to imply that his health problems were caused by his dislike for slasher films. Actor, director Vincent Gallo has taken credit for “cursing” Mr. Ebert with cancer after Ebert gave Gallo’s The Brown Bunny a negative review. The final paragraph was only ment as a type of “Where are they now” conclusion to the article.

  8. I have always followed Ebert’s reviews and enjoyed reading his opinions even I don’t agree with him. His hatred for “Alligator” makes no sense. The film was never meant to be taken that serious. But I always felt negative reviews work in favor of a slasher film?

    The other thing that is hysterical is that Quentin Tarantino steals elements from these films. Which most critics probably have not sat through. His films are met with rave reviews for stealing from films that nobody wanted to see. Ebert even did a tribute show to him. The funniest thing is the reamke of “Inglorious Bastards” a film that starred Fred “The Hammer” Williamson now stars Brad Pitt. How many people want to bet Ebert will give it a rave review?

  9. Well-written, sober article.

  10. […] Part of my disdain for these films was due to the franchise element. I’ve always despised a lack of originality in movie making. It seemed that most slasher movies were either sequels, remakes or ripoffs of other slasher films. I also took issue with the mindless violence and gore. To me, an effective horror film could convey terror at the threat of violence without resorting to graphic, repetitive depictions of violence. And then there was the lack of character development. Most characters in slasher films exist as victims first, characters second. In many cases, they don’t even get to utter a single line of dialogue before being dispatched by a brutal and often unseen killer. Combine this lack of interest in human development with visual depictions of human lives being (literally) destroyed, and you can see why the slasher movement was deemed offensive or even threatening to many in the early 1980s. […]

  11. Ebert doesn’t hate slashers, he just dislikes the ones he felt were in poor taste. He gave good reviews to Last House on the Left, Halloween, the Devil’s Rejects, Motel Hell, and although he only awarded it two stars, he admits the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an incredibly well made and effective film.

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