Total Recall

Total Recall: Movie Gimmicks

With Saw 3D hitting theaters, we look at some of the wacky and wonderful gimmicks that have been used to lure people to the movies.

by | October 29, 2010 | Comments

Paranormal Activity 2

Another year, another Saw movie: This Friday, when the seventh installment in the series reaches theaters, it’ll extend an annual tradition that stretches back to 2004. If you’re wondering how much further Jigsaw’s legacy can possibly go, you’re not alone — but this time around, the addition of 3-D introduces a new visual component, as well as adding yet another chapter to the long Hollywood saga of using gimmicks to sell movies. It got us thinking about some of the other would-be innovations introduced over the years — and we figured if Smell-O-Vision, SignScope, and Sensurround were good enough for the studios that backed them, it’s about time they got some recognition. So step right up, ladies and gents, for the most sensational, amazingly lifelike, thrillingly spellbinding Total Recall you’ve ever seen…or your money back!



The brainchild of Mike Todd, Jr., the son of Around the World in 80 Days producer Mike Todd, Smell-O-Vision was used only once — for 1960’s Scent of Mystery, an alleged thriller starring Peter Lorre and Elizabeth Taylor (who was married to the senior Todd when he perished in a 1958 plane crash).

Using signals from the film’s soundtrack, Smell-O-Vision delivered scents via tubes leading to audience members’ seats. It was a fairly advanced system, which is probably why it didn’t work very well; if people weren’t complaining about the tubes hissing, they were complaining that the scents arrived too late or weren’t strong enough. Todd rushed to make improvements, but it was too late — both for Smell-O-Vision and the movie, which was re-released in odorless form as Holiday in Spain, only to fail a second time. (Decades later, MTV aired Scent as part of an appropriately kitschy promotion involving scratch and sniff cards; let us be thankful they haven’t tried something similar with Jersey Shore.)



Like Smell-O-Vision, AromaRama was developed by a businessman with a “junior” appended to his name: theater chain owner Walter Reade, Jr., who rushed his competing odor delivery system to market in what Variety trumpeted as “the war of the smellies.” As it turned out, Reade’s AromaRama actually made its debut a few weeks before Smell-O-Vision, but it suffered an identical fate.

The one and only AromaRama film, Behind the Great Wall, took viewers on a trip through China — something that would have seemed exotic to most filmgoers in 1959, with or without the addition of more than 100 scents. (The list included grass, firecrackers, and…horse.) Unfortunately, AromaRama’s delivery system wasn’t quite as sophisticated as Smell-O-Vision’s: scents were merely pumped in through the air conditioning vents, one after another, and the cumulative effect left filmgoers wishing they could build a great wall of their own.



Pioneered by human gimmick maestro William Castle, who had dreamed up stuff like audience “fright insurance” (for 1958’s Macabre) and sent a plastic skeleton flying across the theater during House on Haunted Hill, Percepto! was an admittedly nifty — and typically low-budget — innovation that helped Castle’s The Tingler live up to its name.

Starring Vincent Price as a doctor who discovers that the physical jolt of fear is actually a spinal parasite that can only be killed by screaming, the movie used a sequence depicting the Tingler’s invasion of a movie theater to deliver a well-timed jolt to select audience members via buzzers installed under randomly chosen seats. Coupled with Castle’s pre-film warning that “a scream at the right time may save your life” — and phony nurses wheeling staged victims into a fake ambulance outside the theater — Percepto! was a perfectly cheesy B-movie gimmick that brought palpitations to more credulous filmgoers. It’s surely only a matter of time before James Cameron perfects the technology.



Another of William Castle’s gimmicks, Illusion-O helped sell 1960’s 13 Ghosts, an otherwise rather unremarkable thriller about a family lifted out of poverty when they inherit a mansion (complete with buried treasure) from a relative — only to discover it’s already home to a passel of ornery spirits. (Bonus points for guessing how many!)

Castle filmed the ghosts using a process he named Illusion-O, which basically consisted of tinting them blue; filmgoers tested their bravery by choosing to watch the movie with red glasses (thus “revealing” the ghosts) or blue ones (supposedly hiding them). The whole thing was basically moot — as anyone who’s ever watched 13 Ghosts on cable or DVD knows, the ghosts were visible without glasses — but as an example of Castle’s low-budget genius, it’s perfect.



Understandably a little freaked out about the dawn of the television era, the major studios desperately looked for ways to remind audiences that there’s nothing like going to the movies — and for a short time, it looked like Cinerama might be an answer.

During a time when even the biggest television looked hopelessly dorky next to a theater screen, Cinerama took film’s size advantage and blew it up to ridiculous proportions with a system so big it required three interlocked projectors and a special screen to show it. When it worked, it was admittedly spectacular — even the New York Times’ noted crank Bosley Crowther was impressed, describing it as “‘sensational,’ in the literal sense of that word” — but it had plenty of drawbacks, including visible seams between the films and constant parallax distortion. Cinerama was mainly used for documentaries, and its three-camera system was too expensive to continue using for more than a decade, but it sparked the development of new formats like Ultra Panavision 70 (not to mention IMAX), and with the restoration of a handful of Cinerama theaters in recent years, it’s undergone something of a revival.


Split Screen

These days, it’s used mainly to evoke a cheesy 1960s vibe, but once upon a time, split-screen cinema was a cutting edge technique, used effectively in films as varied as Woodstock and Carrie. It reached its illogical conclusion with 1973’s Wicked, Wicked, which slapped a new nickname on it (“Duo-Vision”) and used it to tell two stories, simultaneously, for the length of the movie.

Promising “Twice the tension! Twice the terror!” but succeeding mainly in delivering twice the risk of film-related migraines, Wicked, Wicked was the work of producer/director/writer Richard L. Bare, who decided that if people could pay attention to both sides of the road while driving, they could do the same thing with both sides of the screen. Amazingly, Bare was able to sell his concept to MGM; filmgoers proved a little harder to convince, and Wicked, Wicked — along with Duo-Vision — quickly fell into obscurity.



Should you ever doubt Hollywood’s cheerful shamelessness when it comes to outrageously inflated promotion, just pause and reflect on Sensurround, the 1970s gimmick that claimed to make movies more viscerally immersive than ever. How, you ask? Simple: by adding a bunch of subwoofers to the theater’s speaker system.

Developed, appropriately enough, for 1974’s Earthquake, Sensurround was initially a success, and helped further the “event movie” fad with Midway (1976) and Rollercoaster (1977). Cineplex owners quickly realized, however, that all that extra booming and rumbling had a tendency to spill over into adjacent theaters, prompting complaints from other patrons — and since the Sensurround system allowed for fewer seats anyway, its long-term prospects were pretty dim. Rival technologies like Sound 360 and Megasound persisted into the early ’80s, but the advent of ever-fancier digital audio ultimately made them irrelevant.



We’ve seen countless adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula over the years, and all manner of vampires have graced the screen — but only one of them knew American Sign Language. We’re talking, of course, about the star of 1975’s Deafula, the first and last movie filmed in SignScope.

Everything about that opening paragraph is easy to mock, but there’s something pure and noble about a movie made completely with sign language; if only the first one hadn’t been such a rambling, unintentionally hilarious mess, more filmmakers might have been inspired to follow suit. Toss in the stunningly literal voice track, which adds another surreal layer to a movie that was already plenty bizarre on its own, and you’re left with one of the more thorough — and thoroughly admirable — failures in film history. These days, closed captioning is commonplace, making it exceedingly unlikely that we’ll ever see the likes of SignScope again. Alas.



Unlike a lot of gimmicks that were sold to theater patrons as the next great wave of cinema, Odorama was developed as an intentionally chintzy stunt — which is unsurprising, considering that it sprung from the mind of director John Waters, who used it to promote 1982’s Polyester.

A subversive homage to the films of Douglas Sirk, Polyester followed the bizarre adventures of Baltimore housewife Francine Fishpaw (Divine), whose keen sense of smell led filmgoers on an olfactory journey that included flowers, pizza, grass, and, in true Waters style, poop. This was accomplished with a scratch and sniff card containing ten numbered spots; when a number flashed on the screen, viewers duly inhaled the corresponding aroma. Ironically, Odorama was better received than the more expensive Smell-O-Vision or AromaRama — and at 88 percent on the Tomatometer, Polyester didn’t stink.


Multiple Endings

Children of the 1980s will remember this gimmick well, thanks to Jonathan Lynn’s Clue — a comedic murder mystery, inspired by the classic Hasbro board game, that came to theaters with three endings.

It went down as one of the more ignominious flops of the decade, but not for lack of buzz; unlike a lot of the other gimmicks on this list, Clue‘s different endings really were sort of revolutionary, and if the critical reaction and word of mouth hadn’t been so lukewarm, people might have been inspired to see them all. In the end, though, most people didn’t see Clue at all, let alone bother to figure out which versions were playing at their local theaters. Needless to say, multiple endings never caught on, but now that DVDs have made alternate endings common — and with a Clue remake on the horizon — maybe it’s an idea whose time has come.



For the first few decades of its existence, IMAX was, for most film fans, little more than an afterthought — the expense involved in building a theater, coupled with the length limitations of the film format, meant that most IMAX features were documentaries and nature films, shown in museums, planetariums, and amusement parks. It wasn’t until Disney gave Fantasia 2000 an exclusive IMAX release that the industry woke up to its wider commercial potential.

These days, of course, a film isn’t truly a major release unless it lands on the big screen and the really big screen — and although filming mainstream releases in IMAX is still too expensive for all but the Christopher Nolans and Michael Bays of the industry, it seems safe to assume that the super-sized sequences in The Dark Knight and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen have only scratched the surface of what this particular gimmick can do for the moviegoing experience.



The dirtiest-sounding gimmick on our list is also the youngest: The first theatrical release to incorporate D-BOX technology was 2009’s Fast and Furious, which used special seats containing electromagnetic pistons to simulate motion effects. They were only installed in a handful of theaters, but it was a big step forward for the company, and another attention-getting innovation for an industry desperate to lure audiences back from home theaters.

Interestingly, the premium home theater market is where D-BOX has mostly focused its efforts, via a series of pacts with studios that have led to an ever-expanding list of video titles shipping with built-in motion encoding. At this point, you’re far more likely to see the D-BOX logo on the packaging for a new action Blu-ray, or a video game, than in an ad for a film — but who knows? The day of the 3-D IMAX D-BOX feature may not be far away.

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Saw 3D.

Finally, “Weird Al” Yankovic explaining why Smell-O-Vision is the future of entertainment: