Anybody who has read any amount of horror film criticism probably knows how much the legendary Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert hated slasher movies. He dubbed them “Dead Teenager” movies, and constantly criticized their immoral attitudes and slipshod construction. In fact, Ebert and his longtime TV co-host Gene Siskel engaged in a misguided anti-slasher campaign in the 1980s [read all about that here and watch their slasher-themed episode of SNEAK PREVIEWS], which included publicly shaming Betsy Palmer for appearing in FRIDAY THE 13TH and publishing a list of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT’s cast and crew in their pan of the “killer Santa” flick.
As a hardcore slasher fan, it’s tough to see that kind of criticism from a reviewer you respect, but the fact that Ebert so vehemently hated the genre accidentally created a very elite group of films that any enthusiast should check out immediately. You see, Ebert did give good reviews to a small handful of slasher flicks — generally ones that broke significantly from the typical formula. While he certainly approached the subgenre from a different perspective, that kind of thing is also what veteran horror experts are trying to seek out: slashers that bring something new and exciting to the table.
Some of the entries he liked are hallowed classics that shouldn’t be surprising — we’re talking films like PSYCHO, SCREAM, DRESSED TO KILL, and CANDYMAN. But I’d like to take a moment and sift through some of the more obscure and interesting titles he awarded with a coveted positive review!
[Note: The star ratings that appear alongside these titles are on Ebert’s normal scale out of four stars.]
PEEPING TOM (1960) ****
PEEPING TOM, a film once so controversial it nearly derailed the career of legendary director Michael Powell, has certainly come up in the public estimation since it was released (when it got caught in the massive shadow of Hitchcock’s era-defining PSYCHO). But this harrowing tale of a voyeuristic cameraman who murders beautiful women is a classic in its own right, and the more people that get an opportunity to check it out, the better horror fandom will be for it.
In Roger’s own words:
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.
MOTEL HELL (1980) ***
Just look at that image! Ebert actually liked this movie, which may come as shocking to longtime followers of his horror-hate. But the man was smart, and he recognized that what MOTEL HELL is working with is unlike any movie before or since; the tale of cannibalistic farmers who turn people into jerky is a sparkling, hilarious send-up of grindhouse sleazefests that is chock-full of imagery you’ll struggle to erase from your brain.
Ebert had this to say about the film:
What MOTEL HELL brings to this genre is the refreshing sound of laughter. This movie is disgusting, of course; it’s impossible to satirize this material, I imagine, without presenting the subject matter you’re satirizing. But MOTEL HELL is not nearly as gruesome as the films it satirizes, and it finds the right stylistic note for its central characters, who are simple, cheerful, smiling, earnest, and resourceful cannibals.
PSYCHO III (1986) ***
It’s not at all a shock that Ebert was a fan of the original PSYCHO — but this might just be the only slasher Part 3 he had anything nice to say about. And PSYCHO III deserves it — although it works more in the milieu of the slasher than the original’s psychological thriller vein, it’s a stunning and stylish motion picture chock full of gonzo, unpredictable scenes, and a talented ensemble of ’80s actors.
A choice Ebert quote:
Any movie named PSYCHO III is going to be compared to the Hitchcock original, but Perkins isn’t an imitator. He has his own agenda. He has lived with Norman Bates all these years, and he has some ideas about him, and although the movie doesn’t apologize for Norman, it does pity him. For the first time, I was able to see that the true horror in the PSYCHO movies isn’t what Norman does… but the fact that he is compelled to do it.
JACK’S BACK (1988) ***
What drew Ebert to this story of a murderer following in Jack the Ripper’s footsteps on the famous London murderer’s 100th birthday was the central performance from (then) up-and-coming actor James Spader. Who could possibly blame him?
According to Ebert:
All of this sounds contrived. Of course it is contrived. A movie like this is nothing without contrivance, and one of its pleasures is to watch the plot gimmicks as they twist inward upon themselves, revealing one level of surprise after another.
I, MADMAN (1989) ***
I, MADMAN, which recently hit Blu-Ray via Scream Factory, is a tragically underrated film. Jenny Wright stars as a voracious reader whose reality begins to blend with the horror novel she’s reading. It’s one of the best of the post-ELM STREET supernatural slashers, and Randall William Cook’s twisted make-up effects are killer (pun absolutely intended).
What’s original about this movie is the fun it has with the thin line between reality and imagination, between what Virginia is reading and what is really happening.
Honorable Mentions (all of these received three stars out of four):
- CHILD’S PLAY
- FINAL DESTINATION
- SCREAM 2
- WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE
- AMERICAN PSYCHO