The Gimmicks That Changed Cinema: Part 2

In our second Avatar inspired chapter on movie gimmickry, we delve into the stranger side of movie innovation

by | December 10, 2009 | Comments

Yesterday we marveled at the wonders of sound, color, 3-D and CinemaScope — innovations that changed the way audiences viewed movies forever. Today, it’s time to cross over to the less auspicious side of gimmickry. Behold! Odorama! Snuff! The Tingler? Will Avatar‘s blue Na’vi be remembered with such reverence?

Kroger Babb

Remember that bit in Knocked Up that had us recoiling with oh-my-God laughter at a shot of a baby’s head popping out of Katherine Heigl’s stunt double and into the world? Well, the first guy to realize the shock value of such a moment was Kroger Babb, the exploitation pioneer who most ruthlessly profited from society’s simultaneous prurience and prudishness. He wrote and produced 1945’s Mom and Dad, a “sex hygiene” flick about the dangers of premarital nookie and venereal disease. Babb courted controversy and had representatives pitch up in towns in advance of Mom and Dad, writing protest letters and getting church and civic officials steamed up about the approaching movie menace. When the film arrived, audiences were strictly segregated into male and female sessions and two nurses were on hand to assist people who couldn’t quite cope with the “money shot” of a baby being born. Each screening was accompanied by the appearance of prominent “eminent hygiene commentator Elliot Forbes”, who gave a lecture called “The Secrets of Sensible Sex”, which tied in to a book on sale in the lobby. At one point, there were 25 actors playing “Elliot Forbes” across the country. Babb’s approach was phenomenally lucrative, even by Paranormal Activity standards. His $62,000 movie was the biggest-grossing movie of 1947, and the third-biggest revenue spinner of the decade, and was still playing drive-ins as late as 1977. While exact figures are impossible to pin down, back in 1977 the Los Angeles Times put its box-office take over the decades at anywhere between… $40m and $100m. And that’s in dollars not adjusted for inflation.


Following in the footsteps of Kroger Babb, but much more famous for his showmanship, was producer-director William Caste, who used all manner of outlandish promotion to ensure folks went to see his B-movies. Castle was a veteran Hollywood director, who’d churned out dozens of now-forgotten westerns (The Law vs Billy The Kid) and adventure yarns (The Saracen Blade) for Columbia in the 1940s and 1950s. But in 1958 he struck out on his own with the $90,000 Macabre. This horror-thriller might’ve been consigned to oblivion, too, were it not for Castle’s stroke of genius: every person who bought a ticket was insured for $1000 by Lloyd’s of London against “death by fright”. And all those who survived — that is, everyone — was given a badge that declared “I’m no chicken, I saw Macabre“. Castle followed up with 1959’s House On Haunted Hill, which was promoted as being filmed in “Emergo” — in reality, a glow in the dark skeleton that sailed over the heads of the audiences while Vincent Price dealt with a similarly boney dude on screen. But Castle became a legend when he released his next Vincent Price vehicle, the 1959 movie The Tingler, in “Percepto”. What that amounted to was rigging up some cinema seats to give patrons mild electric shocks at key moments in this B-grade schlocker about a creature that thrives on fear. Other Castle gimmicks followed, including Illusion-O (13 Ghosts) and an audience-voted ending (Mr Sardonicus). As an interesting side note, it was the box-office success of House On Haunted Hill that reportedly inspired Alfred Hitchcock to try the genre in 1960’s Psycho, which came with its own gimmick in that theater owners were contractually obliged to not let anyone into the cinema after the film had commenced. Newspaper ads trumpeted this angle most amusingly. “You MUST see Psycho from the very beginning. No one — not even the President of the United States, not the theater manager’s brother, not even the Queen of England (God bless her) — will be allowed into the theater after the beginning of each showing of Psycho. By the way, after you see the film, please do not give away the ending. It’s the only one we have”. Castle repaid the favour by ripping off Psycho in 1961’s Homicidal, which reversed the gimmick by having a “Fright Break” before the finale — although any lily-livered audience members who availed themselves of this were made to stand in “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby.


Be thankful this one never took off, or James Cameron might be asking us to smell Na’vi armpit as part of the Avatar experience. The first “smellie”, named My Dream after a then-popular fragrance, was made in Switzerland in 1940, and premiered at the New York World Fair in October of that year. Hans E. Laube, “Director Of Smells” for “Odorated Talking Pictures”, had developed a process he claimed could reproduce up to 4000 fragrances and his film delivered whiffs of flowers, honey, tar and smoked meats to audiences over the course of 35 minutes. Hollywood then experimented with the notion of pumping scents into cinemas, so a Detroit double bill audience in 1943 got a whiff of tar as Errol Flynn did his thing in The Sea Hawk and a noseful of tobaaco when Clark Gable appeared in Boom Town. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t catch on. It wasn’t until 1959’s China travelogue, Behind the Great Wall, released in “Aromarama” and featuring 72 smells including spices and geese, that audiences had another olfactory cinematic experience. Running with the theme in 1960, Mike Todd Jr (his dad Mike Todd made This Is Cinerama — see yesterday’s instalment) released the 70mm Scent of Mystery in “Glorious Smell-O-Vision”. Theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago were fitted out with tubes that released 30 odours, matching the on-screen action involving wine and smoking pipes. Todd, having learned from his old man, promoted his gimmick as the next step in film’s evolution: “First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell!” His running joke was: “I hope it’s the kind of picture they call a scentsation!” Audiences weren’t impressed — the odors were released with a distracting hiss, mistimed to scenes, too stinky in some parts of the cinemas and not strong enough in others. Critics also sniffed, with Time calling it “a whodunit that lacks coherent narrative, is little more than a pastiche of festival scenes, falls on its nose.” Cult auteur John Waters paid homage to Scent of Mystery in 1981’s Polyester, which solved the pipe problem with the simplicity of a 10-smell “Odorama” scratch ‘n’ sniff card that, in fashion typical for the camp director, included a fart odor.


While 2012‘s massive destruction scenes were amazing eye-candy, they were also ear-popping, with the tectonic collapse of Los Angeles a marvel of modern sound design. You’ll also have noticed low-frequency rumbles used to great effect in this year’s Transformers sequel and Terminator Salvation. For this, we can thank Sensurround, showcased in 1974’s Earthquake. Time‘s Richard Shickel wrote that it was merely “a means of luring the credulous into paying good money for a bad picture. Sensurround consists of nothing more than a bank of woofers that emit low-pitched rumbling sounds, causing the theater to vibrate in a mildly alarming manner whenever earth tremors are seen to move, shake and ultimately destroy the Los Angeles we know and love.” Even though some patrons complained of headaches and nausea caused by the deep bass, Earthquake did well enough at the box office for a few more Sensurround movies to be made, such as Midway and Rollercoaster. But it was at this time that a more enduring sound revolution was hitting cinemas, with 1976’s A Star Is Born the first movie released in Dolby Stereo. The next major jumps forward would be THX, premiered with 1983’s Return of the Jedi, and Dolby Digital, debuted with 1992’s Batman Returns.


In 1971, Michael and Roberta Findlay, a couple known for the sexploitation “roughies”, made a Manson-inspired, South American-set hippie murderer flick called The Slaughter. It was so bad that it couldn’t get a release, even to Times Square’s 42nd Street grindhouses, which is really saying something. That was until enterprising if totally unethical schlock distributor Alan Shackleton heard the rumors about “snuff” movies and decided to cash right in. What he did was find an actress who looked like a cast member from The Slaughter and spent about $5000 on a four-minute scene in which she’s graphically disembowelled by what appears to be crew members from The Slaughter who film the murder for kicks. Shackleton tacked this fake-as-hell but awesomely gory sequence onto the end of The Slaughter, removed the opening credits and retitled the film Snuff, with poster taglines that screamed “The picture they said could NEVER be shown…” Taking no chances on controversy, Shackleton also hired protestors to picket his movie and actors to portray FBI agents who’d hassle patrons lining up to see the shock sensation of 1976. While Snuff is legendary, it also echoed a publicity ploy that literally started the mainstream movie star system. In 1910, pioneering producer-distributor Carl Laemmle created the first cinema celebrity by starting a hoax story that said “The Biograph Girl”, then the world’s biggest but still anonymous film star, had been killed in a New York City streetcar accident. Laemmle allowed the false report to flourish, and then took out nationwide newspaper ads to repudiate it — ads that helpfully named her as Florence Lawrence, showed her photograph and promoted her new movie, The Broken Oath.

Web virals

All of the technological advances and gimmicks in this series became integral parts of the promotion of the movies in question, first in newspapers and magazines and radio, and later on television. But it’s the Internet which has seen all of these converge, with the web now the place where movies are most discussed, marketed and advertised. The biggest beneficiary of this phenomenon was, of course, The Blair Witch Project, the 1999 low-budget horror film whose savvy online campaign posited the events of the movie as true and whose website offered back-story, timelines and a whole host of other “mythology” to deepen the experience. The flick grossed $241m worldwide, thanks largely to such buzz. What’s amusing, 10 years on, is to see what constituted a web smash back then. A search on around the time of release returned an “astounding” 13,659 hits; Google it today and you get 1,010,000 matches. But while the web’s grown exponentially, no non-traditional movie marketing has quite managed the same hype as Blair Witch. The closest anyone has come is Paranormal Activity, which benefited from social media’s explosion to get signatories for a petition for the movie to open wide. Other success stories: Cloverfield‘s tantalizing trailer and online puzzles and 2012‘s all-out multimedia assault. Other times, overkill has been in effect. Everyone loved talking about Snakes on a Plane so much that few bothered seeing it once it arrived in cinemas. Similarly, Funny People overloaded us with virals that seemed to decrease the audience’s desire to watch the finished picture. The best strategy of all: have a rabid following (Twilight) or a genuinely fantastic franchise (The Dark Knight) and the fans will ferret out every bit of information and share it among themselves. Another term for it: word of mouth.

Click here to read Part 1.

Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies: A Film Critic’s Year-Long Quest to Find the Worst Movie Ever Made (It Books/HarperCollins), Michael Adams’ pop-culture memoir about his search for the world’s worst movie, is in book stores next month. Read a chapter of it for free here.