13 Thumbs Up Horror Movies From Roger Ebert
Article By: Ben Raphael Sher
Fans often say that mainstream movie critics just don’t get it when it comes to horror films. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert (the subject of the recently released, critically acclaimed documentary Life Itself) was an exception to this rule. True, he adamantly hated horror flicks that many of us hold near and dear. In his review of the original Friday the 13th (1980), he encouraged his readers to send Betsy Palmer angry letters criticizing her for starring in such a film! Yet you could always sense Ebert’s great joy when he came across a horror movie that he loved. In today’s Friday 13, we highlight some of Ebert’s favorite movies from our most beloved genre. Some of them may surprise you!
1. Cat People (1942)
Ebert cited this early psychosexual thriller as one of the “great movies.” He wrote: “Cat People wasn't frightening like a slasher movie, using shocks and gore, but frightening in an eerie, mysterious way that was hard to define; the screen harbored unseen threats, and there was an undertone of sexual danger that was more ominous because it was never acted upon. Its heroine is a beautiful woman who never sleeps with her new husband (indeed she never even kisses him) because she fears that passion could turn her into a panther. The film magnifies her dread by exploiting the fear some people have of cats: They're sneaky and devious and creep up on you, and are associated with Satan.” He also loved Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake, which starred Natassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell.
2. Peeping Tom (1960)
The immense controversy over Peeping Tom, a proto-slasher film about a mentally disturbed young man who films his victims’ faces while he kills them, practically destroyed the career of acclaimed filmmaker Michael Powell. Ebert was one of several critics to reclaim the film, which is now considered a classic. He wrote: “Other movies let us enjoy voyeurism; this one extracts a price…[Powell] was a virtuoso of camera use, and in Peeping Tom the basic strategy is to always suggest that we are not just seeing, but looking. His film is a masterpiece precisely because it doesn't let us off the hook, like all of those silly teenage slasher movies do. We cannot laugh and keep our distance: We are forced to acknowledge that we watch, horrified but fascinated.”
3. Last House on the Left (1972)
Ebert was likely the only mainstream critic to praise Wes Craven’s debut feature, which depicts two teenage girls getting raped and murdered at the hands of a vicious gang, and the bloody revenge enacted by one girl’s parents. New York Times’ critic Howard Thompson walked out in the middle of the film! Ebert’s review has been cited as one of the major factors contributing to the Last House’s huge financial success and ultimate influence on the genre. He wrote: “Wes Craven's direction never lets us out from under almost unbearable dramatic tension…The acting is unmannered and natural, I guess. There's no posturing. There's a good ear for dialogue and nuance. And there is evil in this movie. Not bloody escapism, or a thrill a minute, but a fully developed sense of the vicious natures of the killers. There is no glory in this violence.”
4. The Exorcist (1973)
When watching The Exorcist, Ebert found himself shrinking back in his seat “from the direct emotional experience [director William Friedkin’s] attacking us with.” He wrote: “It may be that the times we live in have prepared us for this movie. And Friedkin has admittedly given us a good one. I’ve always preferred a generic approach to film criticism; I ask myself how good a movie is of its type. The Exorcist is one of the best movies of its type ever made; it not only transcends the genre of terror, horror, and the supernatural, but it transcends such serious, ambitious efforts in the same direction as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is a greater film--but, of course, not nearly so willing to exploit the ways film can manipulate feeling."
5. Halloween (1978)
Ebert was hugely enthusiastic about John Carpenter’s masterpiece, even though he hated most of the slasher films that emerged in its wake. He wrote: “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…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.”
6. Dawn of the Dead (1979)
In his famous review of Night of the Living Dead (1968), Ebert praised the film for its terrifying, depressing, graphic depiction of the beginnings of a zombie apocalypse. However, he was shocked to see the film during a kiddie matinee in a Chicago theater! He described watching, deeply disturbed, as the movie traumatized a theater full of unaccompanied children. He was even more impressed by George A. Romero’s 1979 sequel, which he gave a rave review. He wrote: “Dawn of the Dead is one of the best horror films ever made -- and, as an inescapable result, one of the most horrifying. It is gruesome, sickening, disgusting, violent, brutal and appalling. It is also (excuse me for a second while I find my other list) brilliantly crafted, funny, droll, and savagely merciless in its satiric view of the American consumer society. Nobody ever said art had to be in good taste.”
7. Wolfen (1981)
Ebert urged readers to see the under-publicized Wolfen, which he described as “not about werewolves but…about the possibility that Indians and wolves can exchange souls.” He wrote: “What is perhaps most interesting about Wolfen is that the story remains plausible, given its basic assumptions, of course. This is not sci-fi, fantasy or violent escapism. It's a provoking speculation on the terms by which we share this earth with other creatures. This seriousness reportedly did not impress the releasing studio, United Artists, which would have preferred a sleazy exploitation picture (and is releasing Wolfen as if it were one). That's a shame. Love, thought, care and craftsmanship have gone into this film, which is now, so to speak, being thrown to the wolves.”
8. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Made in 1986, Henry did not reach theaters until 1989. Its grim, straightforward depiction of violent murders kept it from getting an R rating, and its production company finally released it unrated. The film inspired tremendous controversy, and many found it unendurable and morally questionable. Ebert disagreed, writing that: “It is a chilling film that - fair warning - will horrify many viewers and is intended to illuminate, not entertain. But it also is a very good film, a low-budget tour de force that provides an unforgettable portrait of the pathology of a man for whom killing is not a crime but simply a way of passing time and relieving boredom.”
9. Santa Sangre (1989)
Ebert adored legendary director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s stylish film about (to put it succinctly) the violent inner-workings of a shabby touring circus in Mexico, and a boy’s perverse enslavement by his mother. He gave it four stars when it premiered in 1990, and then re-visited it as part of his “Great Movies” series in 2003. In the latter review, he wrote: “To call Santa Sangre (1989) a horror film would be unjust to a film that exists outside all categories. But in addition to its deeper qualities, it is a horror film, one of the greatest, and after waiting patiently through countless Dead Teenager Movies, I am reminded by Alejandro Jodorowsky that true psychic horror is possible on the screen--horror, poetry, surrealism, psychological pain and wicked humor, all at once.”
10. Body Snatchers (1994)
The cold war era classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1954) has had unusually good luck with remakes. Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers, the second remake of the film, moved the familiar story to a Southern army base, and told it from the perspective of a teenaged girl dealing with her dysfunctional family. Ebert wrote: “There is horror here - especially in the gruesome scenes that show us exactly how the pods go about their sneaky business - but there is also ordinary human emotion, as Marti and her boyfriend deal with the fact that people are changing into pods all around them. Ferrara and his writers are also clever in placing the body snatching story in the middle of a pre-existing family crisis. Marti and her stepmother do not get along, and there is a sense in which the teenage girl already feels that her "real" mother has been usurped by an impostor, and her father subverted. Even her little brother is an enigma: She likes him, but resents having to share love and space with him. So if some of these people turn out to be pods, the psychological basis for her revulsion has already been established.”
11. Anaconda (1997)
Ebert had a great sense of humor and a taste for really fun popcorn movies. For proof of this, look no further than his review of Anaconda, which he called “an example of one of the hardest kinds of films to make well: a superior mass-audience entertainment. It has the effects and the thrills, but it also has big laughs, quirky dialogue and a gruesome imagination. You've got to like a film where a lustful couple sneaks out into the dangerous jungle at night and suddenly the guy whispers, ‘Wait--did you hear that? Silence!’”
12. May (2003)
Ebert described May, which chronicles a troubled woman’s slow descent into madness, murder, and mutilation, as “disturbing and oddly moving.” He praised the film’s star, Angela Bettis, “who plays a twisted character who might easily go over the top into parody, and makes her believable, sympathetic and terrifying.” He wrote: “It follows the traditional outlines of a horror or slasher film, up to a point--and then it fearlessly follows its character into full madness. We expect some kind of a U-turn or cop-out, but no; the writer and director, Lucky McKee, never turns back from his story's implacable logic. This is his solo directing debut, and it's kind of amazing. You get the feeling he's the real thing.”
13. The Descent (2005)
Ebert’s review of The Descent, Neil Marshall’s terrifying epic about a cave-diving expedition that goes monstrously wrong, demonstrates his giddy enthusiasm at coming upon an exhilarating genre film. He wrote: “The Descent works (and plays) not only with movie imagery, but with the stuff of myth and dreams as well. It evokes hellish visions, from famous paintings (Goya's Black Paintings, Fuseli's The Nightmare) to gothic gargoyles and Dore's engravings for Dante's Inferno. These almost subliminal references help drive The Descent, and give it a powerful mythic energy. It grasps when and how to draw upon these images to create just the right tone of hallucinatory fear, and set it reverberating in your head. The movie's not pretentious or derivative, it's just uncanny about knowing what to borrow and how to use it…This is the fresh, exciting summer movie I've been wanting for months. Or for years, it seems.”
To find reviews of more horror films that Roger Ebert loved, including Nosferatu (1922), Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), Psycho (1960), Jaws (1975), Alien (1979), The Dead Zone (1983), Let the Right One In (2008), Paranormal Activity (2007), and more, visit www.rogerebert.com.
For more information about Life Itself, visit: http://www.kartemquin.com/films/life-itself
Ben Raphael Sher is a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in Fangoria, Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, and Back Stage. He is a co-host of the podcast Retro Movie Love. You can read more of his work here.