In 1980, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert devoted an entire episode of their groundbreaking series At the Movies to the perils of horror movies positing a relationship between depictions of violence and actual violence against women. In retrospect, the condescendingly titled Women in Danger is a textbook example of “mansplaining” that clearly put the lauded critics on the wrong side of cinematic history.
The episode gave both men prudish reputations, but while Siskel never shook a perceived air of superiority throughout his career, Ebert proved himself a much more partial analyst than his postulations in Women in Danger would have you believe. Ebert was hardly a genre hater, and the list of horror movies he loved is extensive.
So, while it may be of little surprise to hear that Ebert loved Silence of the Lambs (I mean, who didn’t?) some of the films he gave his iconic “Thumbs Up” to might surprise you. You may even find yourself questioning everything you thought you knew about the Pulitzer Prize winner who passed away in 2013.
All review excerpts are courtesy of RogerEbert.com. Have a read and let us know what you think in the Comments section! Which one of these films are you most surprised to hear that Roger Ebert actually liked? Let’s discuss!
Child’s Play (1988, Directed by Tom Holland)
Considering I gave Ebert the business for calling Child’s Play 2 “sick, unwholesome, and completely malignant”, you might be surprised to know he actually liked the first entry in the now iconic franchise that made Chucky famous. Here’s what he thought:
Roger Ebert (3 Stars): Child’s Play is better than the average False Alarm movie because it is well made, contains effective performances, and has succeeded in creating a truly malevolent doll. Chucky is one mean SOB.
The movie also has an intriguing plot device, which is that nobody, of course, will believe that the doll is alive. Little Andy tries to tell them, but they won’t believe him. Then his mom realizes that Chucky is moving and talking, even though his batteries were not included. They won’t believe her.
The Descent (2005, Directed by Neil Marshall)
Ebert didn’t just like The Descent—he loved it, giving the film 4 stars. Suddenly the man’s taste in horror seems pretty solid, no?
Roger Ebert (4 Stars): In an American studio picture (which, fortunately, The Descent is not), each of the women would be assigned one “problem” to work through, and one related personality characteristic to distinguish her from the others. I’m grateful that “The Descent” doesn’t waste much time on obligatory schematic elements. It just takes the plunge — damn the character development, full speed into the void.
Candyman (1992, Directed by Bernard Rose)
Candyman has built a tremendous cult following over the years, but it wasn’t really celebrated in its time. Roger Ebert was one of the few critics to recognize how progressive this film was at the time of its release.
Roger Ebert (3 Stars): [Bernard] Rose is a director who likes stories about supernatural invasions of real life. His brilliant Paperhouse (1989), about a young girl whose drawings seemed to influence the life of a boy in her feverish dreams, used images of razor-sharp reality to suggest that the dreams were as real as the rest of the movie. Candyman, from Rose’s own screenplay, based on a Clive Barker story, does the same thing. We think we’ll discover that the Candyman is actually a real, live human being – a killer using the legend as a cover. What we do discover is more frightening, and more intriguing. He may literally be a product of the imagination.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990, Directed by John McNaughton)
I was truly shocked to discover Ebert appreciated Henry; it’s not because I didn’t love it, I just can’t believe a wholesome critic like Ebert would give props to such a gritty and unsettling movie. It’s a testament to his ability to recognize great cinema, even when it’s ugly to look at.
Roger Ebert (3.5 Stars): Unlike typical “slasher” movies, Henry does not employ humor, campy in-jokes or a colorful anti-hero. Filmed in the gray slush and wet winter nights of Chicago’s back alleys, honky-tonk bars and drab apartments, it tells of a drifter who kills strangers, efficiently and without remorse. The movie contains scenes of heartless and shocking violence, committed by characters who seem to lack the ordinary feelings of common humanity.
May (2003, Directed by Lucky McKee)
May was such an underground, sleeper film, I was surprised to learn that Roger Ebert even saw it much less loved it.
Roger Ebert (4 Stars): [Angela] Bettis makes May peculiar but fully human. There are scenes here of such close observation, of such control of body language, voice and behavior, evoking such ferocity and obsession, that we are reminded of Lady Macbeth. It is as hard to be excellent in a horror film as in Shakespeare. Harder, maybe, because the audience isn’t expecting it. [Jeremy] Sisto‘s performance as Adam is carefully calibrated to show an intelligent guy who is intrigued, up to a point, and then smart enough to prudently back away. He’s not one of those horror movie dumbos who makes stupid mistakes. Notice the look in his eye after he asks her to describe some of the weird stuff that goes on at the animal hospital, and she does, more graphically than he requires.
Last House on the Left (1972, Directed by Wes Craven)
It’s hard to believe that the same man who droned on about Women in Danger was a fan of Wes Craven’s seminal shocker Last House on the Left, but it’s true. He saw the film for what it was: Brutal, bleak, and powerful.
Roger Ebert (3.5 Stars): Wes Craven’s direction never lets us out from under almost unbearable dramatic tension (except in some silly scenes involving a couple of dumb cops, who overact and seriously affect the plot’s credibility). 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.
The Devils Rejects (2005, Directed by Rob Zombie)
Okay, this one really surprised me: Ebert was a fan of The Devil’s Rejects—although he did qualify his positive review:
Roger Ebert (3 Stars): OK, now, listen up, people. I don’t want to get any e-mail messages from readers complaining that I gave the movie three stars, and so they went to it expecting to have a good time, and it was the sickest and most disgusting movie they’ve ever seen.
Santa Sangre (1990, Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky)
Bizarre, transgressive, and disturbing are only a few adjectives commonly used to describe Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre, but Ebert gave it a perfect score. If you’ve never seen the film, the 4-minute trailer above will give you a glimpse at the film’s depravity.
Roger Ebert (4 Stars): The first half of the film is filled with Felliniesque exuberance, celebrating the circus with its tawdry charms and sad clowns. The second half is somber and creepy, as in a scene where Fenix and four young men with Down syndrome are taken on a movie outing that ends (not unhappily) with cocaine and a visit to the red-light district.
Se7en (1995, Directed by David Fincher)
Everyone loved Silence of the Lambs, but only those with a taste for horror loved David Fincher’s Se7en.
Roger Ebert (3.5 Stars): Se7en is unique in one detail of its construction; it brings the killer onscreen with half an hour to go, and gives him a speaking role. Instead of being simply the quarry in a chase, he is revealed as a twisted but articulate antagonist, who has devised a horrible plan for concluding his sermon. (The actor playing the killer is not identified by name in the ads or opening credits, and so I will leave his identity as another of his surprises.) “Seven” is well-made in its details, and uncompromising in the way it presents the disturbing details of the crimes. It is certainly not for the young or the sensitive.
Dawn of the Dead (2004, Directed by Zack Snyder)
Roger Ebert was down with the zombie resurgence of the 21st Century, even embracing innovations on classic undead tropes like the ability to run. It’s also good to see Ebert didn’t have a knee-jerk hatred for all remakes, rather he kept an open mind. Here’s a bit of what he thought about Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, a remake of George A. Romero’s film from 1978.
Roger Ebert (3 Stars): Dawn of the Dead works and it delivers just about what you expect when you buy your ticket. My only complaint is that its plot flatlines compared to the 1979 version, which was trickier, wittier and smarter. Romero was not above finding parallels between zombies and mall shoppers; in the new version, the mall is just a useful location, although at least there are still a few jokes about the Muzak.
Motel Hell (1980, Directed by Kevin Connor)
Motel Hell is pure sleazy fun for horror fans, and even Roger Ebert agrees!
Roger Ebert (3 Stars): Motel Hell is a welcome change-of-pace; it’s to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as Airplane! is to Airport. It has some great moments, including a duel fought with chainsaws, a hero swinging to the rescue on a meathook, and Farmer Vincent’s dying confession of the shameful secret that he concealed for years. These moments illuminate the movie’s basic and not very profound insight, which is that most of the sleazoids would be a lot more fun if they didn’t take themselves with such gruesome solemnity.
Wolfen (1981, Directed by Michael Wadleigh)
Wolfen got lost in the flood of more prominent 1980s werewolf movies like An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, and The Company of Wolves, but Ebert pegged it as a winner from the get-go.
Roger Ebert (3.5 Stars): Wolfen develops a strong, angry theme about ecological and human waste. We learn that the wolves make their headquarters in a ruined section of the South Bronx that resembles a bombed-out wasteland. Their original victim, the politician, had just visited there for a groundbreaking ceremony, vowing to “renew” the area. In killing him, the wolves are merely exercising their territorial imperative.
Orphan (2009, Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra)
Okay, this one really surprised me! I’ve always enjoyed Orphan as a guilty pleasure, something that I enjoy despite its ridiculous premise and uncomfortable climax, but Ebert really liked it. He might have liked it even more than I did!
Roger Ebert (3.5 Stars): Orphan begins like your usual thriller, with Scare Alerts and False Alarms. You know, like a nice, peaceful shot until suddenly the sound blares and something rushes past the camera and — hey, it’s only kids. We even get the old standby where Kate is looking in the medicine cabinet and closes it and ohmigod! — there’s another face in the mirror! But hey, it’s only her smiling husband.
Anaconda (1997, Directed by Luis Llosa)
I have no idea what Ebert was thinking when he gave this clunker 3.5 stars! Maybe he’s a closet N.W.A. fan?
Roger Ebert (3.5 Stars): Anaconda is 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!”
Critters (1986, Directed by Stephen Herek)
I think I like Ebert’s summation of 1986’s Critters more than the actual movie!
Roger Ebert (3 Stars): What [Critters] gives us is a truly ambitious ripoff of not one but four recent science-fiction movies: Gremlins, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), The Terminator and Starman. We get the critters from Gremlins, and from Starman we get the notion that an alien can assume the outward appearance of a human being. (That is a particularly attractive quality for an alien, especially in a low-budget picture, because then you can hire an actor and claim he is inhabited by an alien and you can save a lot of money on special effects.) From E. T., there is Dee Wallace Stone, who played Henry Thomas’s mother in that film. Here she is the equally dubious and harried mother of young Scott Grimes, a plucky kid who goes into battle against the invaders.