Roger Ebert and Horror Movies: A Remembrance

Jason McDonald

It’s no secret that the horror genre and film critics rarely mesh well together.  As horror fans, we typically use the argument that critics just don’t “get” the appeal of horror films.  In many ways, I think that’s a valid argument.  Film critics and horror fans come to this genre for two different reasons.  If you apply the same critical thinking you would use to dissect a movie like Shawshank’s Redemption to a horror movie, you’re going to walk away more disappointed than not.

However, if there was one critic who inspired enough respect as he did ire, it would be Roger Ebert.  Many of us probably grew up with Ebert being a household name.  Perhaps a lot of us took time out of our weekend to make sure we caught the latest ” Siskel and Ebert At The Movies.”  In an era before the internet, Siskel and Ebert informed us on what movies to spend our precious allowance on.

If they loved a horror movie than you knew you just had to see it.  If they hated it, though, then you definitely knew you had to see it and not tell your parents about it. They weren’t the biggest fans of the horror genre, but when it came to analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of our favorite films, they could be pretty spot on even if we didn’t want to admit it.

Ebert may not have always “got” why we loved horror films, but I’ve always respected his opinion and admired his work as a critic.  I think, at some point, anyone who has ever written a review has looked towards Siskel and Ebert as an inspiration for how to write.

I was truly devastated to hear that Ebert passed away today at the age 0f 70.  I find it hard to even think about writing horror news today without thinking “I wonder what Ebert would’ve thought about this movie.” So I thought I’d take the time to remember Ebert and explore what he thought about some of the biggest horror movies of the past few decades.

Roger Ebert tackles the 1982 version of The Thing. This review will probably cause a few heads to explode.

“The Thing” is basically, then, just a geek show, a gross-out movie in which teenagers can dare one another to watch the screen. There’s nothing wrong with that; I like being scared and I was scared by many scenes in THE THING. But it seems clear that Carpenter made his choice early on to concentrate on the special effects and the technology and to allow the story and people to become secondary.

Because this material has been done before, and better, especially in the original “The Thing” and in “Alien,” there’s no need to see this version unless you are interested in what the Thing might look like while starting from anonymous greasy organs extruding giant crab legs and transmuting itself into a dog.

In this review of 1996’s Scream, Ebert drops a bomb: He actually enjoyed the film.

What did I think about this movie? As a film critic, I liked it. I liked the in-jokes and the self-aware characters. At the same time, I was aware of the incredible level of gore in this film. It is *really* violent.

Is the violence defused by the ironic way the film uses it and comments on it? For me, it was. For some viewers, it will not be, and they will be horrified.

Which category do you fall in? Here’s an easy test: When I mentioned Fangoria, did you know what I was talking about?

Ebert paid what was probably the biggest compliment he has ever given to a horror movie in his review of Halloween

Period: That’s all I’m going to describe, because “Halloween” is a visceral experience — we aren’t seeing the movie, we’re having it happen to us. It’s frightening. Maybe you don’t like movies that are really scary: Then don’t see this one. Seeing it, I was reminded of the favorable review I gave a few years ago to “Last House of the Left,” another really terrifying thriller. Readers wrote to ask how I could possibly support such a movie. But it wasn’t that I was supporting it so much as that I was describing it: You don’t want to be scared? Don’t see it. Credit must be paid to filmmakers who make the effort to really frighten us, to make a good thriller when quite possibly a bad one might have made as much money. Hitchcock is acknowledged as a master of suspense; it’s hypocrisy to disapprove of other directors in the same genre who want to scare us too.

A couple of years later, Ebert revisited the original Halloween and discussed why he enjoyed it so much with Siskel:

Siskel and Ebert dissect why the Psycho remake didn’t work and it’s a pretty fascinating discussion:

And with the Evil Dead remake looming upon us, it seems appropriate to end this retrospective on Eberts thoughts about the 1981 version.


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      1. Flay Otters April 4, 2013 at 10:04 pm

        Very good job – excellent writing. Both men were very important to many of us movie nuts even from a young age. With Ebert I’ll always remember his unabashed championing of Iron Giant in his column years ago – putting his money where his mouth was. Much respect.

      2. Dread World (@dread_world) April 6, 2013 at 4:05 am

        Whether you agreed with Ebert or not, that’s your prerogative. As a horror fan, I had a hard time accepting Ebert for a long time. Then i started reading his non-horror reviews and I realized something : Roger Ebert is a great writer. Regardless of Eberts opinion, no one wrote about it the way he did. He was fearless in his criticism. He was genius in his prose. In a world full of vassals, he was the king. We all pay tribute to him. Godspeed Mr. Ebert.

      3. Herner Klenthur April 6, 2013 at 5:36 pm

        Roger Ebert LINKED to an article I wrote… that is my biggest claim to fame to date.