In this two-part series, we will be taking a look at horror trailers throughout history and examine their evolution. From the silent films of the 1920’s to the tech-centric trailers of today, we will be tracking the major trends in horror trailers to see how they correlate to the genre as a whole.
There are few things in this world that bring me as much joy as a movie trailer. I think I’m solely responsible for 1.3 Million of A Star is Born’s total views. I’m the nerd who shows up to the theater way too early and waits for the trailers to begin. The custodians at my local theater all know me by name and keep a respectful distance from me at all times. For me, and for many like me, the trailers and upcoming attractions are the best part of the movie going experience.
People lose their minds when a new trailer drops. Just last year, the trailer for Andy Muschietti’s IT remake earned 197 Million views in the first 24 hours alone. A few months later, the first trailer for Avengers: Infinity War was watched by over 230 Million people in the same timeframe. These are astrological numbers that prove that the movie trailer is the most important part of film advertisement. This hasn’t always been the case, however.
Just as film itself has evolved over the past 100 years, so has the art of movie trailers. This is especially true with a genre like horror, where oftentimes it is the government or a ruling body that controls their content and not the viewer’s sensibilities. Let’s take a look at the history of the horror trailer and see just how far we’ve come since the early days of cinema.
The Early Days
The first movie trailer graced the silver screen all the way back in 1913. At this point in history, theaters were operated much differently than they are today. You would pay your admission price and stay in the theater for as long as you pleased. This led one enterprising man to slice advertisements in between the features. Nils Granlund, an advertising manager for Marcus Loew theaters, created a promotional short for a Broadway play that featured rehearsal footage. This became a huge success and led to the practice being adopted by other theaters across the country.
These “trailers” (the name comes from the practice of playing these ads after a film. Get it? They “trailed” the film? Clever, I know) became standard practice and were mostly produced by the theaters themselves. That is, until the studios started sniffing around in 1916. They saw this as a perfect way to control and promote their future releases. These first studio-created trailers were very basic, consisting of a few shots from the film overlaid with text announcing the cast and basic plot.
Due to a combination of the volatility of film and people’s attitudes towards preservation, very few of these early trailers still exist. Even fewer of these remaining trailer examples are for horror films. Even though the 1920’s were ripe with all-time classic horror films like Nosferatu, Häxan, The Phantom Carriage and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, very few original trailers have been recovered. One of the earliest I could find (and one of the finest examples of the trailers of this era) was for the 1925 classic The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney.
Phantom of the Opera
As you can see, this trailer shows clips from the film along with title cards to explain the plot and introduce the cast. I call these ‘Hype-Cards” as they often touted the horrific nature of the film or the acting. This trailer’s best “Hype-Card” claims that Lon Chaney’s makeup for the role of the Phantom was so extraordinary that they couldn’t reveal his face or else it would spoil your surprise. What better way to stoke the fire for 1925 audiences than to withhold his image from them. This drove paying customers to the box office in droves, contributing to the film’s financial success.
The Talkies and Universal Monsters
Everything changed in the trailer game with the release of 1927’s The Jazz Singer. This film, which has been credited as the first film to incorporate sound, also was the first film to incorporate sound into its trailer. This led to a whole new type of movie trailer, one filled with stylized writing and narration. The horror trailers that best represent this movement are the classic Universal monster movies from the 1930’s.
The first of these horror films was 1931’s Dracula, but the same style was utilized in the trailers for almost all of the other Universal Monsters. Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932) both saw trailers with the same textual fonts and narration describing the horror and the massive hysteria that the women in the audience were sure to experience.
These trailers are doing the same job as their predecessors, only with sound. Their first and only job is to describe what the movie is about and show some clips to titillate the crowd into buying a ticket. What we start to see after World War II is a gradual shift away from this type of advertisement towards a more cinematic strategy.
Alfred Hitchcock, William Castle and the Art of Innovation
Once a director begins to make a name for themselves, their presence in a trailer becomes more pronounced. Never has this been truer than more the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. The trailers for his films from the 1930’s-on all mention his name, sometimes in the place of the stars of the picture. His name became synonymous with “Thriller” and “Horror”, so the trailers focused on his involvement. This went well until the mid-1940’s, when merely mentioning his name wasn’t enough. These viewers needed to see his face.
After a time, however, focusing on his cameos wasn’t enough either. People needed to see his face and hear his voice. Couple this with the popularity of his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and you have a real demand for him to be a bigger part of his trailers. In 1956, the people got their wish with the trailer for The Wrong Man.
The Wrong Man
You don’t get to see his beautiful face, but you do get his shadow and narration. This still wasn’t enough for audiences, who earlier in the year fell in love with the trailer for William Castle’s The Tingler (more on him in a bit), so Hitchcock took a page from Castle’s book and played a much larger role in his trailers. In 1959, less than six months after Castle’s first appearance, Hitchcock showed up as a travel agent for North By Northwest.
North By Northwest
After the success of the trailer for North By Northwest, Hitchcock went all-in and gave us some of the trailers that he is most well-known for.
Alfred Hitchcock may have done it first with The Wrong Man, but he had a rival in the United States that re-invented trailers in his own right. Starting with 1958’s Macabre and running all the way through 1975’s Bug, producer William Castle thrilled audiences with gimmicks and scares. Not only were his films oftentimes interactive affairs, but his trailers followed Hitchcock’s lead and featured Castle himself introducing the film. Castle’s trailers focused on him explaining the gimmick or plot for his latest movie, breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience.
Castle would use an old trick that we last saw in the trailer for The Phantom of the Opera, where he would withhold the images of the villain (Mr. Sardonicus) or plot points of the films (The Tingler, 13 Ghosts) to build a sense of mystery around the film. Some may see it as trickery or used-car-salesmanship, but it worked. Some of his films were actually great, but there is little doubt that his gimmicks and trailer innovations helped make him the household name he is today.
Post-Code Hollywood and the Rise of the Volume
In 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code that governed what was allowed to be in the movies was eradicated. This allowed horror filmmakers to explore their darkest nightmares and to include more violence in their films than ever before. While this Code change did not affect trailers as much as the films themselves (they still had to be suitable for any audience), they did attempt to reflect the horrors you would find within. This led to bloodier, scarier, and louder trailers than Hollywood had ever seen before. The best of these came in 1973 and 1974 with the releases of The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Black Christmas.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
You can uncover your ears now. You understand now where I was going with the “loudest” comment earlier, don’t you? These trailers filled the theaters with not only promises of gore, but also the sounds of terror. They were instrumental in making these films the successes they were, and this trend would continue until the late 1970s-into the mid 1980’s.
In the next article, we will move past the audio assault of the early 1970’s and take a look at the vague trailers of the next decade. We will also be checking out the different influences that Hollywood has drawn from to make the amazing trailers that we see today.
What are some of your favorite horror trailers of all time? Join our Horror Movie Fiend Club over on Facebook and let us know. Or, you can hit us up on twitter @NOFSpodcast. While you’re at it, be sure to bookmark our homepage at Nightmare on Film Street to keep up to date on all the hottest horror news, reviews and retrospectives the internet has to offer.