On Siskel and Ebert’s Trashing of the Horror Film

I wrote the following in response to comments made by critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on an episode of their show Sneak Previews, which aired in September 1980.

sneak previews 1980

I don’t know about other parts of the world, but in the United States, people have an almost irrational fear of going to a movie (or going anywhere or doing anything) alone. Horde mentality kicks in pretty quickly. The person sitting in a slasher film ‘cheering on the villain,’ as Ebert describes it, could be cheering to impress his friends. Perhaps he has no clue about how to behave in public. Perhaps the person is mentally retarded and believes that the characters in the movie can hear him when he speaks. Perhaps he learned the behavior from his parents. The behavior could be the permutation of several things. You’ll never know. To chalk up audience behavior with a blanket statement such as ‘the audience hates women’ is presumptuous, naive and stupid (how’s that for namecalling?). Saying that you overheard someone making comments at the screen is not evidence to support the claim that ‘slasher films are made by and for men who hate women.’ Ebert just sounds ridiculous.

When they speculate as to the cause of the large supply of slasher films in the last third of the 1970s, Siskel states: “I am convinced that it has something to do with the growth of the women’s movement in America in the last decade. I think that these films are some kind of ‘primordial’ response by some very sick people, of men, saying ‘get back in your place, women.'” Ebert states: “In a traditional horror movie, we often saw things from the victim’s point of view, but that’s no longer [sic]. Now, we look through the killer’s eyes. It’s almost as if the audience is being asked to identify with the attacker.”

With these statements, they completely ignore -or reveal their failure to understand- how North American film markets work. What Siskel and Ebert are seeing in the autumn of 1980 is a wave of American horror films attempting to capitalize on the success of John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween -a film that, ironically, both critics loved. Halloween was made for about $300,000 (a little over $1,000,000 today), and grossed over $47,000,000 (a little over $170,000,000 today) upon its initial release in the United States. Carpenter’s film popularized the ‘business model’ of horror and exploitation films with American studios. The studio system is ruled by market forces much more so than by cultural forces, whereas these critics claim otherwise, perhaps because it’s easier for a television audience to consume hyperbole than it is for them to understand basic economics. Nevermind that shots filmed ‘from the point of view of the killer’ are as old as the film medium itself.

More generally, the fact that both critics strongly disliked any slasher film that wasn’t heavily canonized (that is, any film that isn’t Psycho or Halloween) is well-known. They were speaking from their own personal bias against the genre. Both men were also populist critics who made careers out of ghettoizing certain genres. Watch the episode closely and pay attention to Ebert’s body language when he disparages the slasher film: He’s merely listing off some staples of the genre, but while doing so uses a dismissive and negative tone, as if the filmmakers in the genre are making films ‘badly’ or ‘the wrong way.’ He knows exactly what he’s doing.

For the two to blame a single genre for a much larger problem is narrow-minded, conservative thinking masquerading as heroic liberal thinking. It is narrow-minded and conservative in that when the two are presented with a problem, they do not suggest any possible solutions to the problem, but tell their audience who to blame for the problem (perhaps some other time I’ll talk about how in the early 1980s, Ebert lobbied to get various films he didn’t like banned in the United States -his idea of a solution I suppose). Again: What Siskel and Ebert said on their show is narrow-minded, conservative thinking masquerading as heroic liberal thinking. They’re witch hunters. They dress up their language to sound authoritative and impartial about the subject (“Today we’re going to examine the nature of this trend…”) but in the end they’re just voicing unsupported opinions.

I’ve said this before, but reciting platitudes and soundbytes about ‘where you stand on an issue’ doesn’t fix anything. It only further inflates your own narcissism. Unless you are actively working toward a solution to a problem, you’re just adding more noise. Again: If you are a genuinely progressive person, you would be out there working toward a solution. Whining in public is merely a ‘fashionably progressive’ activity.

[Originally written October 2014]


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