Flying skeletons! Actual hypnotism! Life insurance policies! The history of cinema is full of crazy gimmicks, desperately trying to get you to buy a ticket.
Some movies pack audiences into the theater the old-fashioned way, with compelling stories and charismatic stars. And if that doesn’t work, a crazy gimmick sometimes does the trick.
“Gimmick movies” have been around since the early days of cinema, back when cinema itself was still new, and considered pretty gimmicky all by itself. The gimmicks ranged from innovative storytelling techniques to outlandish marketing tie-ins, from genuine examples of ingenuity to flat-out lies. And for every gimmick that took off – like synchronized sound, widescreen filmmaking, or 3D – there are plenty that only worked once or twice before audiences caught on and realized that they were duped, or at least that there were very few practical applications for the gimmick in question.
Let’s take a look at some of the craziest movie gimmicks ever perpetrated on an audience, including several from the master of the art form, William Castle, who employed a ton of eye-catching gags to drive audiences to see his low-budget horror thrillers in the middle of the 20th century.
One of the earliest examples can be found in Abel Gance’s Napoleon, a biopic which feature a finale in widescreen, decades before widescreen became the norm in movie theaters. Gance achieved the effect by putting three movie cameras side-by-side, which also allowed the filmmaker to engage in scenes that played out simultaneously from multiple angles. After early screenings, the Polyvision effect was removed by distributors, who only screened the center frame, but Gance’s original vision was eventually recreated years later.
Life Insurance Policies
One of William Castle’s earliest movie gimmicks was for a thriller called Macabre, in which a father has only five hours to find his kidnapped daughter, who has been buried alive. The film was so scary, Castle claimed, that he was required to offer audiences a $1,000 life insurance policy just in case they died of fright. Movie theaters had people in nurse’s uniforms on standby, “just in case.” The gimmick worked, and Macabre was a smash hit.
The thriller The Horrors of the Black Museum stars Michael Gough (Alfred from the Burton/Schumacher Batman movies!) as the proprietor of a private torture museum who hypnotizes people into performing heinous acts, but when the British film was imported to America, the distributors thought it needed another selling point. So they added “HypnoVista,” a prologue in which a hypnotist attempts to hypnotize the whole audience before the movie begins.
Not every William Castle gimmick movie was cunningly brilliant. For his popular thriller The House on Haunted Hill, which starred Vincent Price as a millionaire who agrees to pay a fortune to anyone who can spend the whole night in a haunted house, he offered audiences a chance to experience “Emergo,” which was just a skeleton on a wire that zoomed over the audience at a key moment in the movie. The movie was a hit, but by many accounts, the effect was more silly than scary.
William Castle’s classic horror thriller The Tingler stars Vincent Price as a scientist who thinks he’s discovered a parasite that feeds off fear, and the only way to kill it when it attaches to your spine is to scream. At one point in the film “The Tingler” escapes, lights go out, and Price screams, “Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic! But scream! Scream for your lives!” as the film’s gimmick, Percepto!, springs into action. It’s a series of buzzers attached to random seats in the theater, surprising the audience in an attempt to get them to scream. (Sometimes it worked!)
William Castle’s 13 Ghosts is about a family who moves into a house with, you guessed it, 13 ghosts. When the ghosts appear, the screen turns blue and the ghosts reveal themselves as bright red projections. That’s where Illusion-o comes in! The audience was handed red and blue tinted visors and told that if they believe in ghosts they should watch the film through the red visor, so the ghosts become visible. If they don’t believe in ghosts they should watch through the blue visor, so the ghosts are invisible. (Or you could watch the film without Illusion-o. It’s pretty easy to see the ghosts regardless.)
No Late Admissions
Partially inspired by the gimmicky storytelling and marketing of William Castle, the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock decided to try his hand at novelty filmmaking. Not only was Psycho a twisting, turning horror thriller which killed off the protagonist in the first half of the film – breaking just about every rule in the book – but also, no one would be allowed to see Psycho if they arrived after the movie started. Showing up in the middle of a movie was common practice before Psycho came along, and this gimmick helped the practice fall out of favor.
You can see movies, you can hear movies, so why can’t you SMELL them? The thriller Scent of a Mystery featured a rather impressive cast – including Denholm Elliott, Peter Lorre and an uncredited Elizabeth Taylor – in a murderous whodunnit where the clues are often revealed via odors released into the audience at key points in the movie, like the smell of grapes, or the smell of pipe smoke.
Fright Breaks and Coward’s Corners
William Castle’s Homicidal told the story of a female serial killer, and Castle was so confident in the film that he gave the audiences a “Fright Break” towards the end of the film. If you were too scared to watch the ending, you could get your money back. The gag reportedly backfired, and refunds were actually being issued, until Castle added the caveat of the “Coward’s Corner,” where you’d have to stand in plain sight and wear a sign saying “I am a bona fide coward” in order to get your money back. The dare, and the added element of public shame, meant the film was a success.
Have you ever watched a movie and wished you could decide the fate of the characters? William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus gave the audience an opportunity to vote for the ending they wanted (with glow-in-the-dark signs) and decide whether to punish the wicked Mr. Sardonicus or be merciful. The gag was on them though: There’s no evidence that the “merciful” ending of Mr. Sardonicus was ever produced, let alone screened.
The 1973 serial killer thriller Wicked, Wicked came with a fun novelty called Duo-Vision, which showed two different film strips side-by-side. Sometimes we’d see the next victim on one side, and the killer who’s stalking them on the other. Sometimes the screen would show surprising backstories for the characters in the middle of otherwise boring scenes.
The American/Argentinean horror film Slaughter, filmed in 1971, was released, forgotten about, and then re-released four years later under a new title, Snuff. Re-releasing films was nothing new at the time, but the Snuff version featured a new ending, to capitalize on the then-topical urban legend of “snuff films,” which showed the filmmakers themselves allegedly killing someone on camera. (Spoiler alert: It’s not really a snuff film.)
Iconoclastic filmmaker John Waters brought his own version of the Smell-O-Vision gimmick to Polyester, his satire of suburban melodramas, starring Divine as a housewife whose pornography movie theater-owning husband is cheating on her. Audiences were given scratch-and-sniff cards for key moments in the movie, but in true John Waters fashion, the scents included such off-putting odors as glue, gas, and poo.
The adaptation of the classic board game Clue (aka Cluedo) was an all-star comedic farce that eventually became a cult classic, if not an outright classic. But in its initial theatrical run it also had a gimmick, where different theaters were issued different endings to the film, in which different characters turned out to be the killer at the end. When the film was released on home video and on television, the endings were cut together to fake out the audience, revealing what could have happened twice, before getting to the “real” finale.
Francis Ford Coppola directed a short film, produced by George Lucas, starring Michael Jackson and Anjelica Huston, for Disney theme parks called Captain Eo. Jackson stars as an interstellar hero who saves the galaxy with awesome dancing, in a film audiences experience in 4D. In addition to being screened in 3D, the film also featured synchronized in-theater effects like smoke and lasers, transforming a straightforward movie into a proper theme park ride.
The Blair Witch Project was not the first “found footage” movie, but it popularized the concept with its bold marketing campaign, which claimed that the movie was a real documentary, the “Blair Witch” was a real urban legend, and that the stars of the film (who were playing themselves) were never seen again. Of course, the film was such a smash hit that the gag was revealed sooner than later, and some audiences claimed to be a little betrayed, but it’s still one of the most profitable motion pictures in history, largely as a result of that brilliant gimmickry.
Francis Ford Coppola tried to reinvent the cinematic experience with Twixt, which stars Val Kilmer as an author who gets sucked into a supernatural mystery. The plan was for Twixt to be screened with Coppola at the back of the theater, re-editing the film to match the audience’s reactions, so that no two screenings were the same. Instead, the film wound up getting released in just one version, and “Remix-O-Vision” (our word, not theirs) never got off the ground.
The online horror-thriller Unfriended (and its recent sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web) takes place entirely on a computer screen, with the characters revealing themselves by their search engines and Skype calls. It’s a very specific gimmick that keys into the fact that many people practically live with that viewpoint every day anyhow. Unfriended didn’t quite invent Screen-O-Vision (our word, not theirs, again!), but it was the first big film that used it as a marketing ploy, and other films have already followed suit.
What’s your favorite movie gimmick? Let’s discuss in the comments!