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Interview with Max J. Rosenberg

A producer of horror films doesn't actually need fangs and little points on his ears, but it would help. He doesn't need to quaff blood at every meal, but...cole slaw? Dishes and dishes of cole slaw? This is a horror movie producer?

I am sitting across from Max J. Rosenberg in the Cape Cod Room, and he is eating cole slaw like crazy. He started with a big bowl of cole slaw instead of a salad. Then he told the waiter to bring him cole slaw instead of a potato with his salmon steak. Then he asked for another dish of cole slaw, when his second one was gone: "A BIG dish this time, please."

Now he is asking the waiter for another dish of cole slaw.

"The cole slaw is MARVELOUS here," Max J. Rosenberg says.

I say I think I will try some myself.

"Make that two dishes of coleslaw," he tells the waiter. "The other dish is for this gentleman here," he adds, pointing to me so the waiter will not think Max J. Rosenberg is going to eat five cole slaws all by himself.

Max is a slightly-built man, and it occurs to me that maybe I should start filling up on cole slaw.

I have never read about a cole slaw diet, but then there are months when I miss a lot of the women's magazines. There might even be money to be made in a cole slaw diet, I speculate. Corner the market on cabbage and then write a paperback book, advising people to eat cole slaw and grapefruit all day, and drink lots and lots of water...

Rosenberg is visiting Chicago to promote his latest horror movie, "Tales from the Crypt." He is a very literate, sophisticated man, and our conversation about horror movies included his quotes from or opinions of T. S. Eliot, Thomas Wolfe, Harold Pinter, James T. Farrell, Groucho Marx and Norman Thomas.

None of these gentlemen had anything directly to do with horror movies. Norman Thomas got in because Rosenberg was a member of the Socialist Party in the 1930s: "When they use to advertise Norman Thomas and others, I was the others." Harold Pinter made it because Rosenberg produced the film version or Pinter's "The Birthday Party."

Now Pinter may seem a fair distance from horror movies, but Rosenberg has produced a somewhat startling variety of films, usually in partnership with Milton Subotsky. The list ranges from "Lad: A Dog" to Richard Lester's first feature, "It's Trad, Dad."

But the horror movie genre has occupied most of the energy of the Rosenberg-Subotsky collaboration, and in a field that is currently experiencing a box-office boom, they are among the most successful.

Just take, for example, the Robert Bloch screenplays they've made into movies. Bloch, who became famous but not rich when his novel, "Psycho," was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, is considered to be the top-ranking author of horror films. Rosenberg and Subotsky are doing his screenplay, "Asylum," as their next project.

I asked idly if they'd worked with Bloch before.

"Heavens yes!" Rosenberg said. "Let's see...there was 'Dr. Terror's House of Horrors' and 'The Skull' and 'Schizo' and 'Torture Garden' and 'The House that Dripped Blood'...I think I missed a few. It's like a civil service career for Bob, he's done so many for us."

Subotsky himself wrote the screenplay for "Tales from the Crypt," which is now at the Oriental. The entire film, including the ghoulish appearance of the Old Crypt Keeper (Sir Ralph Richardson) as master of ceremonies, was inspired by the classic E. C. comic books of the early 1950s.

The comics themselves ran afoul of Dr. Frederic Wertham, whose book, Seduction of the Innocent, claimed that the graphic violence in comics - especially E. C's horror comics - was a sadistic influence on children. William C. Gaines, publisher of "Tales from the Crypt" and the other E. C. titles, killed his comic book operation and turned his satirical comic, "Mad," into a vastly successful magazine.

And that is where Subotsky comes in. "Milton was a big fan of all the E. C. comics. He's a collector of all that stuff. He has a house full of comics and old science fiction magazines, and he got the idea of paying Gaines for the movie rights to his old E. C. comics. To a considerable degree, 'Tales from the Crypt' is a film version of one issue of a horror comic. The old Crypt Keeper supplies a connecting thread by introducing each tale."

I asked Rosenberg if he were a horror comic fan himself. "Not really. That's Milton's obsession. But apparently there's an underground cult for this stuff. You know science fiction and horror have become a respectable branch of literature. Some of these writers who work with me on films, I've never heard of them. But I mention them on a campus and they're heroes."

The British horror-film industry has all but kept British film-making alive during the past two or three years, with Rosenberg and Subotsky the major producers after Hammer Films, Ltd.

But why, after all those years when horror films were out of fashion, have they made such a sensational comeback?

"I think horror films are a retreat from a violent and disorganized society," Rosenberg said. "We identify with the childlike, innocent monsters. We like them because they don't scare us. We're afraid of muggers, not monsters. We're not going to leave the theater and see Fay Wray on top of the Empire State Building."

Fay Wray. Maybe I could hire her to do TV commercials for my line of cole slaw diet foods...

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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