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Slashback! Remembering Siskel & Ebert’s Misguided 1980 Anti-Slasher Campaign

Before I launch into this week’s column, I want to make one thing very clear: I have always had and still maintain the utmost respect and admiration for America’s most famous film critics — Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

Not one episode of their PBS series SNEAK PREVIEWS, which ran from 1975 to 1981, was missed in my household — back in the day when a trip to the movie theater or drive-in was a weekly event for me and my family, and the hosts’ shared passion for cinema (combined with an intense dislike of one another) was the only kind of “Reality TV” I’ve ever enjoyed.

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While my entire family watched the show to decide what was worth seeing that week, my folks had no idea my favorite segment of SNEAK PREVIEWS was the “Dog of the Week” — in which the critics each picked their least-favorite new releases, and lambasted them mercilessly.

Invariably, the films they targeted for this segment were the kind of fare I’d eventually consider my favorites (and would regularly sneak into without my parents’ knowledge): cheap horror and exploitation flicks… and ranked highest on my must-see list were slashers, which during that period were experiencing the peak of their Golden Age.

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I didn’t care how much Roger and Gene hated those movies (in fact, it actually amused me to watch them rip apart each week’s losers like lions munching on a gazelle), but in the decades before the Internet — when magazines like FAMOUS MONSTERS and FANGORIA were just beginning to show up on the magazine stands in my home town — SNEAK PREVIEWS was often the first and only source of information about these forbidden fruits of film, and I watched the preview clips and lurid artwork with wide-eyed wonder.

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With that said, I’m well aware that generations of horror fans don’t harbor the same nostalgia, and many have taken great offense at the critical duo and their often scathing screeds against horror films of all stripes.

While their puffed-up moral outrage at modern horror cinema often crossed the line (for example, their attempt to shame actress Betsy Palmer for appearing in FRIDAY THE 13TH was rude and totally unprofessional), I believe they really thought they were doing audiences a favor in warning them away from crude exploitation… which, in retrospect, seems kind of ironic, considering Ebert co-wrote a couple of softcore features with sexploitation auteur Russ Meyer.

But Siskel & Ebert’s shrill smear campaign against slasher films of the period — many of which are now enshrined in deluxe HD restorations and draw thousands of new fans each year — managed to piss off a whole lot of horror buffs who didn’t like their faves trampled.

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You know what? I wasn’t offended at all. Not one fucking bit. Not even as a young, horror-hungry kid, who adored many of the films these two men utterly despised.

You wanna know why? Because no matter how much they hated slasher films, and no matter how strongly they urged people to avoid them, they never once made an argument in favor of banning them from theaters. Because that’s not the way a free society works… and they damn well knew that.

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Their opinions, no matter how poorly argued, were their own, and the fact that they stood in total opposition to my views did not anger me at all.

Even as a youngster, I already knew that a dissenting opinion was nothing to take personally; it never bugged me when Roger & Gene tore apart a film I happened to like… because in the end, they couldn’t take that movie or my enjoyment of it away from me.

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I’ll tell you what did bug me, though: after Gene’s death in 1999, and even more so after Roger’s passing in 2013, the web was subsequently poisoned with hundreds of vile, disgusting “serves ‘em right” posts from bitter horror fans and filmmakers alike — people whose sociopathic tendencies were finally given free reign, thanks to the Harry Potter-like cloak of invisibility the Internet seems to provide. (Sadly, it seems we haven’t evolved much as a social species since then… if you don’t believe me, just read the comments section under any post related to the new GHOSTBUSTERS.)

But enough about assholish trolls; let’s get back to SNEAK PREVIEWS and the hosts’ relentless attacks on horror and exploitation cinema… and why those attacks never, ever offended me.

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You see, the same society which allows a consenting adult to see I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE or BLOODSUCKING FREAKS also allows citizens who take offense at these films to express their outrage any way they like. According to the dictates of a free market, those same citizens can express their feelings with their wallets: they can choose to buy tickets to MANIAC or THE BOOGEY MAN, or they can go spend their hard-earned coin on something else. Roger and Gene were simply urging them to do the latter.

Okay, so they weren’t exactly level-headed in making that case. In fact, they took their self-righteous views to the ultimate extreme with a now-legendary SNEAK PREVIEWS episode bearing the clumsy title “Extreme Violence Directed at Women,” in which they dedicated an entire half-hour to explaining how omigod-so-horrible these movies were, how they consistently degraded women (I can’t say they were totally wrong on that point, but that’s another article entirely), and how sick a person would have to be to enjoy these kinds of films. (Uh… guilty?)

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Nevertheless, I watched this episode with utter fascination, digesting every film clip and mentally noting any title I hadn’t already heard about — basically doing the opposite of everything Roger & Gene were sternly warning us about: I was gonna seek out these movies ASAP, goddammit, no matter what.

Even then, it was laughable how poorly-researched this particular episode was; in their pearl-clutching hysteria, the hosts incorrectly lumped films like THE HOWLING into the slasher category (Siskel hadn’t even seen it); they commented on how female characters were punished for being brave and openly sexual (despite the fact this fate befell male characters in equal numbers); they were among the first critics to trot out the old “male gaze” cliché, noting how audiences were complicit with a male killer’s point of view as he stalks his helpless female victim… but as an example of this, they cited the original FRIDAY THE 13TH, in which the killer is a middle-aged woman.

Oddly enough, they had nothing but praise for John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, without whose success the genre’s Golden Age may never have happened.

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It was a strange experience returning to this episode so many years later, but thanks to the archive at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles, I was blasted Marty McFly-style to 1980, watching it again with much of the same wide-eyed amazement, but with an added helping of irony, thanks to having seen every single title referenced in the show, along with hundreds of others that I’m sure would have invited the same ferocious criticism from these two poor, misinformed gentlemen, pontificating in their professorial tweed jackets and V-neck sweaters.

I managed to procure a copy online, and now I’m proud to be able to share an odd, slightly annoying but nevertheless fascinating piece of my past with you…

Bear in mind that this was a much different time; viewers were far less jaded to cinematic shocks back then, and today we consider most of these films more quaint than scary (although I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE still creeps me out), with slasher films currently back in vogue on the big and small screen.

I, for one, will be raising my whiskey glass in honor of two of the world’s most outspoken and passionate film critics, all the while remembering that their opinions were not gospel by any stretch, but merely two personal points of view — regardless of whether they aligned with my own. I especially salute them for pulling back the curtain on the once-forbidden world of slasher cinema… even if the result turned out to be the total opposite of what they intended.

Sorry, guys. I love you anyway.

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