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.
Do you remember the first trailer that you loved? The one that made your chest feel like it would burst? I do. It was all the way back in the stone ages of 2002, and the trailer for Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers just came out. Since I am what you might call a LOTRFreak, I immediately fired up the dial-up and downloaded the trailer onto the family computer. I watched that trailer over, and over, and over again, falling in love with it more every single time. I fired it up last night in preparation for this article and it still gave me goosebumps.
That’s the power of trailers. They can give you thrills and chills that a full length film sometimes cannot. Horror trailers are especially effective in titillating the audience and filling their heads with nightmare visuals. In the first part of this series, we went from the origins of the trailer in 1913 to the horror trailers of the early 1970’s where volume and audio disruption were the name of the game. We will be continuing our examination by taking a look at the vague and cinematic trailers of the late 1970’s.
Mysterious Trailers and The Emergence of The Slasher
Ever since we started this journey in 1913, the goal of the trailer has been to show the audience what the upcoming attraction is about and what they can expect if they see it. That all began to change in the late 1970’s. Instead of showing a few minutes of the film and narrating the plot, film studios wanted to keep the films ambiguous. They wanted to use visuals to implant an emotion into the viewer’s chest. Emotions carry more weight and are remembered for far longer than any visual could be. Check out the trailer for 1980’s The Shining:
This trailer told us absolutely nothing about the film, except that we can expect blood. I can imagine audiences in the theaters staring at the silver screens, mouths open in a soundless scream like Danny Torrance. Now, check out the iconic trailer for 1979’s Alien:
Do you feel that? Isolation, desperation, oppressive cold, terror. You don’t see the Xenomorph, but you hear the alarms. You hear the screams. Then, you get the tagline: “In space no one can hear you scream”. It’s perfect. The perfect trailer. Instead of title cards and Ridley Scott introducing the film, you are handed anxiety and terror.
Not all horror film trailers during this time wanted to be mysterious and vague. The slasher films of the late 1970’s-1980’s went the other direction and showed way too much of the film during their short trailers. Their only goal was to demonstrate how bloody, how sexy, and how brutal their film is compared all the other options in town. If you take a look at both of the trailers for Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), you get to see almost every kill in the films! They show you exactly who is going to die, entirely eliminating any subtlety or surprise from the films themselves.
Friday the 13th
The trailer for A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) isn’t as obvious as the others, but it does go through many of the kills and delivers many of the scares that you experience during the film. This is a stark contrast to how trailers used to operate. Instead of just telling you how horrific the film is and hiding the stars away from you, these new trailers want to scare you as much as the films do themselves. Although this style will be interrupted by 90’s slasher music video-style trailers, it will make a massive comeback.
Found Footage and the Ascent of the Reaction
The Blair Witch Project (1999) was certainly not the first found footage film, but it was definitely the most successful in its deception. The trailer for this film kicked off a massive marketing campaign that had gullible audience members (like me) using our dial-up to hit up the website and guessing whether it was true or not.
The Blair Witch Project
This film kicked off a rash of found footage films to emerge in the next two decades. While we eventually got tired of the sub-genre, the trailers never disappointed. Here are a few others from that period that encapsulate the “deceptive” strategy that studios were embracing during this time:
The Poughkeepsie Tapes
Paranormal Activity (2009) took this theme and injected it with 215% more realism by releasing a trailer featuring audience reactions to the film. This trend continued for a few years and was adopted by non-found footage films like The Conjuring (2013) and The Green Inferno (2015).
The Green Inferno
When horror films weren’t showing audience reactions, they were using foreign influences and bringing back a style that had been gone for over twenty years. This led to the creation of some of the scariest and most expertly crafted trailers of all time.
Asian Influences and The Search for the “Shot”
While American audiences were getting their first tastes of the slasher resurgence in the late 1990’s, filmmakers from across the Pacific were creating a new type of trailer. Much like the ones advertising the slashers from the late-70’s and early 80’s, these trailers were trying to scare you into seeing the film. Instead of counting down the kills like in Friday the 13th, however, these trailers utilized a new tactic: The Jump Scare.
These trailers from Japan and Thailand feel like horrific fever dreams. They cut from scare to scare, creating a sense of panic in the viewer. These films, and their trailers, were all remade by American studios to appeal to their English-speaking audiences, creating a new brand of trailer for all other Hollywood releases.
Current horror trailers have evolved past the jump scare to focus on one thing: The “Shot”. This shot is what will put butts in seats and dollars in pockets. It’s like the trailer studios receive three or four of these shots from the director and they build the trailer around them. Look at the trailer for 2016’s The Conjuring 2:
The Conjuring 2
There are three of these money-shots in this trailer: 1) The upside-down cross attack, 2) Valak in the hallway, and 3) Valak in the basement mirror. The rest of the trailer doesn’t matter. It’s those three shots that will get the viewers to see the film. Let’s check out one more trailer, this time from 2017’s IT remake:
This trailer, which broke records upon its release, is a series of four money-shots surrounded by filler. The first is Pennywise in the sewer drain, followed by the projector scene, then the blood geyser and the “You’ll float, too” Pennywise chase at the end. The rest of the trailer is great, but those shots are the only that truly matter and are what led to IT’s massive opening weekend.
There you have it! The horror trailer has evolved alongside the horror film for the past 100 years. We have gone from silent title cards to black and white narration. From director-introduced gimmicks to found footage trickery. From vague emotion-driven trailers to money-shot scares. No matter what your favorite era of horror film is, we can all agree that horror trailers are a gift from above. So, the next time you go and see a scary movie, leave a little early. Find your seat while the lights are still on and enjoy the show!
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