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Ebert and me… or How Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel got me into horror movies.

Written by Nic Brown

A lot of people may know that I attribute “The Fog” (John Carpenter’s film, not that crap remake from a few years back) with being one of the films that really got me into horror movies. Well it is, don’t get me wrong, but before “The Fog” ever rolled in, there was something else that helped kick start my love of cinema macabre.

 

In 1978, at the tender and impressionable age of 8, my Mom, Grandmother and I lived in Manchester, Kentucky. For those of you not familiar with Manchester, stay that way. It’s a very nice place to be from, not to visit or live in if you get my drift. It was, and still is an economically depressed small town in Eastern Kentucky and at the time it didn’t even have cable television. As a youth living in that town I didn’t have a lot to do. I wasn’t a sports kind of kid, but I did enjoy KET. Kentucky Educational Television (KET) was one of four channels we could pick up and often I found it to be the best.

 

Saturday afternoons in Manchester could be the worst. If no one wanted to play games outside, I’d try to find something good to watch on TV. All the three network affiliates ever seemed to show was sports, but not KET. That channel showed “exotic “ shows like “Dr. Who” (Tom Baker era) and “The Prisoner”.  It also showed my favorite program - Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s “Sneak Previews”.

 

“Sneak Previews” was a movie loving kid’s best friend, because the program showed clips from new movies, films that I most likely wouldn’t get to see because the one screen cinema in Manchester rarely got anything new, when it was even operating. But that was ok because the clips were enough to fuel my imagination. I saw bits and pieces of action, science fiction, and of course horror. It was “Sneak Previews” that gave me my first look at two of my favorite horror movies, long before I ever had the chance to see them myself: “Dawn of the Dead” and “Halloween”. Both of those films came out in 1978 and both of them were featured on Siskel and Ebert’s “Sneak Previews”.

 

At 8 years old I wasn’t bothered about Siskel and Ebert’s opinions of the flicks they reviewed, and I don’t remember which of them liked “Halloween”, but it seemed that if a film was interesting to me then Gene Siskel would hate it and Roger Ebert would like it. As I said, I don’t remember who liked what to be honest, but Ebert wore glasses and so did I, so I tended to favor his views, based on my second grade logic.

 

I remember them showing clips from “Halloween”, in particular the scene where Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) had just sent the kids out of the house after stabbing Michael Meyer, leaving him ‘dead’ in the bedroom. The clip ended as Laurie was leaning on the bedroom door frame in the foreground as an out of focus Michael Meyers rose up from the dead. He turned his head to look at her and the clip ended. I didn’t sleep well for a week and I loved it.

 

Another episode, and one that I remember even more clearly, covered “Dawn of the Dead”. Ebert had cut his movie reviewing teeth on a piece he wrote for ‘Reader’s Digest’ on “Night of the Living Dead” so he and Siskel spent the whole episode talking about the new film and how it compared to the old one. I was glued to the TV the whole time as black and white clips from “NOTLD” were cut neatly into the discussion. But that was black and white and I was an 8 year old boy with little time for things that weren’t in color so it was the “Dawn of the Dead” clips my young heart desired and boy did I get those!

As Siskel and Ebert talked about the underlying themes of consumerism and whether Romero’s earlier work was better than his new film, they showed a scene that stirred my imagination: the good guys  (whom I would later come to know and love as Peter, Roger, Stephen and Francine) were looking down from the roof of the mall as a hoard of zombies clawed at the doors and wandered the parking lot. The second clip was even better… inside the mall when Peter and Roger had to unlock the door of one of the stores to escape the hoard but couldn’t figure out which key. They shot zombies as they closed in around them and just barely got through the door with their skin intact before they would have been overwhelmed. I didn’t need to see the whole film; the bits Siskel and Ebert showed, while talking about zombies, ghouls and shopping malls, was more than enough to provide my pre-teen brain with ammunition for hours of entertainment.

 

To my young mind Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were two of the coolest guys around. They got to see all the movies I wanted to see and then they would come on TV and tell me about them. I rarely got to see the films they discussed, but that was OK. The dynamic duo of movie reviews gave me enough of a taste to keep me entertained and to let me know there was something more than the occasional Disney flick I got to check out. When I was older and started hitting the video store down the road, it was Ebert and Siskel’s reviews that came back into my mind as I pulled films like “Dawn of the Dead” and “Halloween” off the shelf and took them to the irresponsible clerks who let a 12 year old rent whatever he had the money for.

 

With Roger Ebert’s passing, the two men who brought action, adventure, and most importantly for me, horror, are now gone. However, their memory will not pass as I know I can’t be the only person whose choices of films were swayed by them. Not so much by their patented ‘thumbs up, thumbs down’ but more by the fact that they brought films into an entertainment starved boy’s life. They helped me escape my boring little world in Manchester, KY and enter a world of un-killable slashers and the walking dead. That may not sound like the best world to some, but for me there’s no place I’d rather be. So I give Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel two thumbs up and I hope wherever they are, they know that they will be missed.



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