Roger Ebert’s Bloody Ax:
An Examination of the Film Critic’s Elitist Dismissal of the Horror Film
by Michael “Egregious” Gurnow
On June 29th, the illustrious Roger Ebert inserted his foot squarely into his mouth. Of course this is not the first occasion in which we find the esteemed critic mumbling as he picks bits of shoelace from between his teeth. However, the audacious arrogance and presumptuousness on this particular occasion is a new low for the Chicago reviewer in that his sentiments upon horror unabashedly display the critic’s elitist mentality (replete with support from his readership) as he dismisses an entire subgenre while reaffirming his bias for the genre as a whole.
On June 21, shortly after the American Film Institute released its revised edition of their “100 Years, 100 Films” listing, in an article titled “AFI 100: ‘Kane’ Still Number One,” Ebert haughtily conjectures, “To take a hypothetical possibility, if you were to see all 100 films on the AFI list, by the end of that experience, you would no longer desire to see a Dead Teenager Movie.” We’ll overlook the fact that, in at least one case--Yours Truly--a person has opted to, not only go out of his way to view such a film, but made a career in watching Dead Teenager Movies. And, to Ebert’s undoubtedly agaped dismay, I so after having sharpened my teeth on AFI’s celebratory film catalog while in college. In short, this horror critic has seen each and every film on, not only the charter list, but the revised, ten-year edition as well. To meet a conjecture with a theory, I hesitate at the thought that I am the only person to which this case readily applies.
However, eight days later in the Q & A section of Ebert’s website, in an article titled “Dead Teenage Wasteland,” Nate Yapp, the editor of an online database of horror criticism, Classic-Horror, appears with the following grievance: “I disagree with your [Ebert’s] contention that, after having seen all 100 movies on the American Film Institute’s ‘greatest’ list, one would no longer have the desire to see a Dead Teenager Movie. Such a statement does a disservice to the ranks of dedicated horror fans and critics who could intelligently construct arguments for why many of these movies are quite worthwhile. There is a baseness to them, certainly, but horror’s essential function is base -- to create a sinister echo in the darkest wells of our psyche. Dead Teenager Films add a layer of exploitation that makes the experience easier to digest, but the chord they strike is necessary. There is room for both the cinematic elite and movie sleaze in the moviegoing experience. To quote the great horror icon Vincent Price, ‘A man who limits his interests, limits his life.’”
Ebert pithily retorts, “And to paraphrase Pauline Kael, the movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, there is no reason to go. I’d draw a distinction, however, between the classic horror genre, which has produced masterpieces from ‘Nosferatu’ to ‘The Silence of the Lambs,’ and the Dead Teenager Movie, which I define as a movie that starts out with a lot of teenagers, and kills them all, except one to populate the sequel. However, DTMs have their defenders; Alex Jackson of Logan, Utah, writes: ‘There are a handful that I definitely prefer to Hitchcock’s cowardly ‘Vertigo’ – ‘Friday the 13th’ Parts 2, 4, 5 and 8; ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street 4,’ and maybe 5, and ‘New Nightmare’; ‘Sleepaway Camp’; ‘Dr. Giggles,’ and ‘Halloween’ (you yourself gave this four stars!). [Ebert again]: ‘Vertigo’ is cowardly? I think it is relentlessly brave. I agree that ‘Halloween’ is great, but disagree that it is a DTM.”
The immediate problem at hand is a journalistic faux pas which the Chicagoan should be well beyond: selective citation and (not-so-subtle) implicative association. By taking the concern of Yapp, obviously a well-versed individual--not only in the field of horror, but in all of cinema--and placing it alongside what is commonly referred to in the genre of horror as “fanboy” criticism, that is, enthusiasm for the stereotypical and oftentimes shallow, exploitative facets of the medium--frequently seen in the guise of arbitrary gore and nudity--is embarrassing. Such would be analogous to refuting a blurb by Ebert via someone who only likes films based on true stories. I will state, as many of my genre colleagues will undoubtedly concur, that, yes, a large percentage of cinematic produce yielded by the realm of horror is, to put in bluntly, schlock. However, for a mainstream critic to readily affirm this while turning a blind eye to the fact that every single genre of film posits an equal or greater number of celluloid bombs is, to quote an apparently reactionary phrase, cowardly. For every Some Like It Hot, we have a handful of Date Movies; for every Star Wars, we have a hundred Starship Troopers; for every Casablanca, we have a gaggle of Giglis; for every Stagecoach, we have a gross of Wild, Wild Wests. Nonetheless, this is merely the tip of the aesthetic iceberg for Ebert. Despite this myopic omission, Ebert’s vendetta against horror rages on.
The trademark phrase “Dead Teenager Movie” was coined in Ebert’s 1981 review Tom DeSimone’s Hell Night. It has since been integrated into the critic’s reviews only sporadically until its reintroduction in James Wong’s Final Destination. After reviving the expression, Ebert has since implemented his favored acronym-in-arms in the front line of his attack against the genre as a whole.
The critic ends his reply to Yapp with the befuddling utterance that he doesn’t consider Halloween a Dead Teenager Movie. On the surface, this seems to be calling vanilla chocolate for John Carpenter’s film is, in many horror scholars’ estimation (yes, they do exist and they are many), the mold upon which the succeeding decade of DTM imitators was broken (some of us contest its genesis to be Bob Clark’s Black Christmas). Yet, over the course of a quarter of a century, the credential for a DTM remains the same by Ebert’s decree for he opens his review of Final Destination with “‘Final Destination’ observes the time-honored formula of the Dead Teenager Movie: It begins with a lot of living teenagers and dooms them.” Nevertheless, in his reply to Yapp, and in lieu of his reiteration of the term and his affirmation of its legislation--for apparent reasons other than those he’s given, Ebert still contends that Halloween isn’t a DTM.
However, even if we overlook Ebert’s logistic and historical confusion, he seems to have never bothered to closely examine that which he so readily lambastes, for the basis upon which terror is achieved, first and foremost given its titular label, is through fright. Granted, thought Ebert does say “I’d draw a distinction, however, between the classic horror genre, which has produced masterpieces from ‘Nosferatu’ to ‘The Silence of the Lambs,’ and the Dead Teenager Movie [ . . . ],” the unspecified distinction is nonetheless arbitrary because the underlying agenda of such films remains constant. As most everyone will agree, the “ultimate fear” in this regard is the anxiety experienced at the prospect of one’s life ending prematurely and, at that, painfully. Such is readily established by witnessing other gruesome deaths as the field is narrowed down to a person whom we have come to sympathize by way character identification. Yet it seems all too convenient for Ebert to focus upon the Slasher film and its format (the staple venue for the traditional DTM) for, by this principle, most every horror film encompasses (or a variant of) such dread.
As such, it becomes a matter of moot degree and minor quibbling whether one dies by the butcher’s blade or any other sharp, pointy object (Halloween, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Michael Powell’s Peeing Tom), eaten alive (Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, or George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead), strangulation (Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari), beat to a pulp by way of a man-made monster (James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein) or an anomaly of nature (Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong), or drained of one’s vital fluids (F.W. Murnau Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula).
Undoubtedly the examples I have cited have not been lost on too many readers for the aforementioned films are considered by many to be, not only great horror films, but great works of cinema. Even Ebert, who readily upholds AFI’s listing, finds himself at a loss as Hitchcock’s serial killing epic clocks in at Number 14, our overgrown ape at 41, Spielberg’s aquatic terror at 56, and the ominous dread of Hannibal Lecter at 74. Removing ourselves from potential objections on grounds that those films are the exact same ones which Ebert would elect be struck from the hallowed record, the critic personally champions Powell, Hitchcock, Whale, Spielberg, Browning, and Cooper’s work in his Great Films register.
Returning to the immediate issue at hand, given the manta of critical objectivity shouted on high by the critic, Ebert’s flippant dismissal as such would--if this were the standard--allow one to disregard Chaplin and Keaton because Dumb and Dumber is the majority in the field of comedy. Furthermore, if we use Ebert’s evaluative yardstick by way of Alex Jackson, such becomes that much easier to validate so long as we can locate one person who complains that Modern Times is too slow, is in black and white, and doesn’t have sound while reinforcing his or her preference for the now-quantifiable Norbit. Hence, yes, a large number of horror films--much like every other medium of cinematic expression--are formulaic affairs whose only agenda is to appease general audience expectation. But to assume that because we have one-over-half, such exempts one from even bothering, is unconscionable. But we are only skimming the surface of Ebert’s deep-rooted grudge . . . .
If we stop to observe that the who that is being killed between the two phases of “pre-DTM” and post-DTM” horror is a factor in the contemporary belittlement of genre, we are confronted by the fact--though it should not matter whether it is a teenager or an adult’s death we are witnessing (which would thereby transform Ebert’s preoccupation from that of the DTM subgenre to the broader field of Stalker film)--a shift occurred in character demographics from the latter to the former once Hollywood executives realized that the age of moviegoers had likewise changed. Thus, the historical transition is due to the fact that, in order to more readily achieve audience identification, the characters onscreen should be of approximately the same age as their viewers. Moreover, part of a movie’s success is successfully presenting characters which the plot requires. Such is the case with many Slasher films in that few adults could plausibly be presented as possessing the naiveté (to say nothing of energy or time) to place themselves in such vulnerable situations (i.e. running up the stairs, etc.). Nevertheless, with the passing of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, mainstream critics bemoan the loss of the “mature” horror film (meaning those with an adult cast) as they ignore (or refuse to avail themselves to the possibility) that the films’ scenarios call for the prerequisite of an adult cast whereas others in the genre do not. But, again, if a viewer cannot supercede the difference in age between themselves and the characters onscreen, few would argue that we do have a mature, earnestly critical audience in our midst.
Additionally, an unspoken allegiance to genre markets is an underlying motive in Ebert’s bias. “Serious” adult audiences--those who deem their approach to cinema essentially one of a critical nature above all else--typically refuse to be associated with “lesser” genres of film, i.e those which to not regularly host meaningful exchanges with their viewer. However, this becomes ironic in that its exclusivity eliminates the possibility that something outside of drama (the prototypical “adult” or “mature” format) could posit anything of value. (As other critics have already cited, a quick review of genre in relation to AFI’s list seconds this fact, which is further reinforced by the Academy Awards having nominated only 11 horror films in one of the five major categories since its inception--an average of one nomination every seven years--while granting only one, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, the coveted prize for Best Picture, all despite the fact that the genre is one of the most prolific.) As such, mature audiences leave the other genres to “lesser” viewers. This is where the stereotype emerges that horror movies are for teenagers, sci-fi for dorks and dweebs, war and action for testosterone-addled jocks, animation for children, Westerns for rednecks, so on and so forth. Of course, we conveniently find a reluctant acceptance for the undeniably entertaining mediums of comedy and romance. But, still, we have yet to get to the crux of the matter . . . .
As more than one horror critic has expressed, the general apprehension for mainstream critics to even humor the horror film lies in the fact that such posits what we do not want to see. Indeed, it is difficult to contend with malevolence and violent death and, as such, why would people readily avail themselves to this unnecessarily? Of course, there is the adrenaline-rush of being safely scared (as much a logistic as it is psychological paradox which writers have speculated upon for countless years--most notably Noel Carroll in his seminal study of the field, The Philosophy of Horror: Why are we frightened of a knowing fiction?). But then there’s the underlying unease that comes with the cinematic rendition of an unfavorable situation. We do not like to be confronted with the idea that things are perhaps not squeaky clean, that life is less than perfect. This is why Sam Mendes’s American Beauty struck a cord: It permitted us to examine, largely through the buffer of comedy, that maybe Keeping Up Appearances might be just that, appearances.
Horror does much the same but not in as many kind words. Some viewers, myself included, admire the boldface nature in which the genre addresses humanity’s problems without sugarcoating them. Furthermore, the medium’s title serves as a metaphor for the dilemma at hand, a.k.a. “The horror of . . . .” For instance, we watch in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (another DTM) as a handful of individuals placed mortal peril as a consequence of unbridled Capitalistic greed: Our protagonists are stranded (owing to a historically-accurate fuel crisis) within proximity of an average American family that has been forced to resort to less-than-idyllic means by which to make ends meet due to the unrepentant charge of technology. Yet Ebert tells us the film has “No motivation, [gives its audience] no background, [and that] no speculation on causes is evident anywhere in the film” while imparting “It’s [The Texas Chain Saw Massacre] also without any apparent purpose.” Of course, someone falling hook, line, and sinker in respect to the old observer bias gag by filmmakers (Ebert informs us the production is “blood-soaked” though we rarely catch even a glimpse of the visceral red stuff) should not be expected to piece together the very subtle tonalities and the logistic ramifications in respect to the “How’s” and “Why’s” of Hooper’s masterfully insightful feature. Instead, the director is to feel blessed having been allotted a whole two stars from the critic after having all but wasted an hour-and-a-half of Ebert’s time. Apparently it was a good day in the Windy City.
We then have the vampiric threat of sexuality, loss of individuality by way of mindless herd mentality in zombification, cannibalism representing society literally feeding off itself, etc. etc. Yet mainstream critics such as Ebert, along with their esteemed audiences, will have none of it: If what they are being told isn’t issued with a smile and a pat on the back, then it isn’t worth having. However, the problem herein lies that just because a person doesn’t care for another’s venue for information acquisition, it doesn’t give the griever the right to belittle such because it is not his or her own. This is arguably why Halloween isn’t a DTM by Ebert’s estimation, for the unspoken rule is that no such film under said classification can present anything of substance, hence--due to the film having been accepted into the privileged ranks of “serious cinema,” i.e. film of value--it is by no means to be considered a TDM.
What results is an irresponsible, nay juvenile, mentality toward film for such attempts to apply the adage of “Out of sight, out of mind” to the literal as well as symbolic woes of the world. Far be it for a humble horror critic to remind such individuals that ignoring the problem will not make it go away, that the mere act of accepting that we have a problem places us in a better position in which to contend with the situation. Having said this, if we nonetheless give into such aesthetic demands, it becomes ironic that such individuals would willfully surrender the Puritanical cautionary tale (the preferred modus operandi of the DTM) for it promotes the mainstream ethos of justifiable anxiety at the mere fathoming of vice.
After all’s said and done, Roger Ebert’s short-sighted comments shouldn’t be a surprise for he is merely playing the role he is expected to fill: For lack of a better word, the bourgeoisie film critic. Expressly critical audiences cannot be bothered with taking the time to do their cinematic duty as it were and shift through the rough in order to find the diamonds, to say nothing of pausing to consider the historical consequences which have forced cinema to change throughout the decades or of dirtying themselves amid the common audience that is horror fans. As such, though the genre of horror is as guilty as any other mode of cinematic expression in respect to placating to the lowest common denominator--in a perverse, critically restrictive, and damaging scenario involving audience expectation--by dismissing the field as a whole, Ebert’s readers form a exclusionary support group with their author whereby they condone the Chicago critic’s lethargic, wholehearted elitist dismissal of the medium (despite the fact that it is his job to conduct unbiased assessments of what appears before him, cf. his aforementioned paraphrase of Pauline Kael). Granted, Ebert as well as the American Film Institute hasten to include their token horror (and sci-fi, animation, etc.) entries in their “Must See” lists in order to maintain the façade of objectivity but, serving as the figurehead to the mainstream mindset, the film critic’s general, unrepentant attitude speaks volumes. As such, the bastion of throwaway horror pictures, specifically those of a Slasher-cum-Dead Teenager Movie nature, are never given to rising to the challenge of being anything more if we concur with such ideas for they are merely fulfilling the readymade expectations of such critics and their audiences.
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