Filmmakers in the 50s and 60s (and sometimes 70s) like William Castle, not content with flashing moving images in front of cinema-goers’ eyes over the course of 90 minutes took it upon themselves to hurtle an ever more bizarre series of gimmicks and promos at the unsuspecting audience both inside and outside the theatre. In no particular order, we present the Top Ten moments when assorted objects and human bodies made over-priced popcorn seem a more attractive option.
1.SMELL-O-VISION (1960) – Sometimes a well-crafted murder mystery plot just doesn’t cut it. Your snappy dialogue won’t alert the audience to the on-screen shenanigans of Brit stalwart Denholm Elliott or noted Ren impersonator Peter Lorre. And there are times when the odour of popcorn, hot dogs, and the armpits of the guy sitting next to you interfere with the whodunnit. Enter Glorious Smell-o-Vision, the brainchild of full-time jeweller purchaser and sometime movie producer Mike Todd Snr.
Conceived shortly before his untimely death in a plane crash in the late 50s and completed at great cost by his son Mike Todd Jnr, Smell-o-Vision debuted to three lucky audiences at the Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles showings of The Scent of Mystery. Punters got a hefty lungful of over 50 aromas throughout the film via a small plastic tube located underneath their seat and left the cinema, not with a greater sense of detective work but rather a massive migraine.
John Waters put the technology to cheaper and more notorious use with Polyester (1981) via a scratch and sniff card. Just be thankful he never used this for Pink Flamingos.
2. ILLUSION-O (1960) – King of the Cinema Gimmicks William Castle went with a chicken theme for this one. Developed for black and white haunted house flick 13 Ghosts cinemagoers made a Matrix-style choice.
With a no expense spared piece of cardboard fitted with two cellophane windows (the Ghost Visualiser), they could either look at the screen through the blue hole and not see any ghosts, or be brave and peer through the red hole and wet themselves in fear. A great idea, in theory, the technology failed to shield those of a more nervous disposition as the blue-tinted ghosts on screen and the blue-tinted cellophane didn’t quite match, so outlines were still clearly visible. Sadly for shrinking violets everywhere, the 2001 remake of 13 Ghosts did away with gimmicks of any kind and demanded a stronger constitution.
3. PERCEPTO (1959) – William Castle stepped up to the gimmick plate again with The Tingler, a low-budget thriller starring Vincent Price. A small, lobster-like parasite unleashes chaos in the community and attaches itself to the spines of the unfortunate.
At the denouement of the movie, the parasite escapes, and Price breaks the fourth wall to let you know that it lurks in the cinema! Your only defence against certain death is to scream. Loud. But how do you know that you have the basis of a good Thermidor lurking in your lumbar region, I hear you ask? Why you feel that distinctive tingle! Scream your lungs out!
And if you somehow own a spine made of titanium a small collection of used aeroplane motor parts will administer a low-level electric shock via your cinema seat just to make sure. Terrified? No. Pissed off? Almost certainly. On the plus side, it trains you up for the next gimmick…
4. SENSURROUND (1974) – California. Home of Hollywood, hippies, beaches, and botox. Also home to the San Andreas Fault – an apocalyptic accident waiting to happen captured by the celebrity fest that is Earthquake. As Ava Gardner, Charlton Heston, Richard Rowntree, Marjoe Gortner and all panic and act their B-movie hearts out, vast chunks of Los Angeles crash and burn around them.
What better way to convey this terror to an audience than to crank up enormous and purpose-built bass speakers until the sonic waves are palpable?
As with all cinema gimmicks, this proved great in theory, awful in practice. Theatres lost ticket sales because the size of the speakers meant that they had to remove valuable seats. The bass rumble proved so loud and so palpable that audiences sitting next door watching The Godfather – Part II complained and demanded their money back. If you thought Victoria Principal’s fright afro in Earthquake was terrifying, try saying no to an angry mob who you’ve just prevented from watching the other Angry Mob. Not pleasant.
5.THE PUNISHMENT POLL (1961) – William Castle back again – he loved a good gimmick did Bill! – and a barometer of sorts for the audience’s inner moral compass. In Mr Sardonicus Alec Guinness plays a slimy thief whose face freezes into a creepy smile at the point of his nastiest robbery.
Castle starred in his own Hitchcock cameo at the climax of the movie, appearing on screen to ask the audience to play Emperor Nero and decide whether the thief should see the error of his ways and live – or prove a thoroughly rotten egg and succumb to a suitably grisly end. Audiences signalled this by revealing a glow in the dark thumbprint on a card, either pointed up – hurray! – or down – boo.
Rumours abound that Castle never filmed the happy ending where Guinness comes to his senses and reforms. He didn’t see the point. If that rumour is true, his instinct was right on the money. Night after night of bloodthirsty judges sent Obi-Wan to a sticky end. A black and white ending for a black and white movie as it turned out.
6.HALLUCINOGENIC HYPNOVISION (1964) – We reviewed Ray Dennis Steckler’s cult crap-fest The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies in the last issue of Lorihajitura.
You remember the drill – bored teen goes to the funfair. Bored teen meets fortune teller. Bored teen gets hypnotised and becomes a zombie and goes on a killing spree. As you do. But, in the great tradition of William Castle, Steckler wanted more. Not for him the bad makeup and thrift store costumes on screen – he wanted actual real live zombies to run around the movie theatre as the movie ran to drive the audience to unparalleled heights of fear! And sometimes, just for kicks, and probably because he had nothing better to do with his time, he would join in.
The cue for Hallucinogenic Hypnovision was one of those dopey spiral wheels used by psychotherapists that would flash on the screen to unleash several shambling extras to head up and down the aisles, wave their arms about, and generally annoy everyone. It is not known whether anyone ever actually punched Steckler during these interludes.
7.EMERGO (1959) – At this point in the proceedings, you’ll no doubt consider shares in the letter O and the suffix “Rama”. Cinema gimmick naming conventions tended towards the uninspired – along with the cinema gimmicks themselves if we’re honest.
Emergo came from the fevered imagination of – you guessed it – William Castle, for The House on Haunted Hill. To be fair, Haunted Hill doesn’t need any gimmicks – it’s a solid horror film on its own merits. But addiction is as addiction does and Castle cooked up another zinger – in this case, an inflatable Halloween skeleton which wafted down over the audience powered by a small electric motor before it disappeared out the back exit.
Now anything that wafts tends to do so at a leisurely clip and gives ample and unavoidable time to become a tempting moving target. Let’s take a moment’s silence and remember those brave and bony dirigibles who perished under a hail of slingshots, BB guns, empty soda cans, and far worse. We honour their services to B-movies everywhere.
8.FRIGHT BREAK (1961) – So convinced was our friend William Castle in the commercial power of his gimmicks, that he mortgaged his house on one. Homicidal contains every B-movie trope you can think of – a creepy mansion, an evil sibling, a traitorous companion, disability, an inheritance, a murder plot.
That spells winner in itself, but Castle went one further. He offered not one but two gimmicks this time – a hefty insurance policy in the event of anyone dying of fright during the flick (which is where the mortgage comes in) and the so-called Fright Break which gave the feint-hearted a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Just before the film’s frenzied five-minute climax, Castle pulled another Hitchcock cameo on screen and gave you exactly one minute (with accompanying ominous heartbeat sound effect) to leave the theatre, avoid death by involuntary bowel movement, and get your entrance fee back. What he didn’t tell you was that you’d have to take a yellow-lit Walk of Cowardly Shame with intoned voiceover (“Watch them shiver in Coward’s Corner! Coward… Coward… Coward…“). Unsurprisingly, a mere 1% of audiences took the walk, and Castle got his house back.
9.PSYCHORAMA (1958) – Subliminal messages, long the domain of the unscrupulous advertiser, substitute a single frame of film for an image. At 24 frames a second, the brain doesn’t consciously register this blip, and the human being attached to the brain ends up buying a new type of cookie and not knowing exactly why.
In My World Dies Screaming, director Harold Daniels threw in single images of snakes, skulls, and hearts hither and thither to evoke emotions in his unsuspecting audience, most of whom remained unmoved. Undaunted, he repeated the process the following year in Date with Death, again to no great success, and abandoned the process entirely.
The jury remains out as to whether William Friedkin used this technique in The Exorcist (1973) – some point to hysterical, fainting, and vomiting audiences as proof (a phenomenon not repeated on subsequent re-releases), while others simply blame Linda Blair’s acting.
10. ANAMORPHIC DUO-VISION (1966/1973) – Andy Warhol once proclaimed that everyone would be world famous for 15 minutes, but he could just so easily have been talking about cinema gimmicks. With Paul Morrissey, he projected two simultaneous images onto the screen for Chelsea Girls, a somewhat disorienting effect that didn’t take root until nine years later.
In British horror thriller Wicked, Wicked a hotel detective (played by celebrity birdwatcher David Bailey) must track down a serial killer – hunter on one side of the screen and hunted on the other. What should have been a nerve-wracking exercise in tension proved just as disorienting and confusing as Warhol’s earlier attempt, and the technology never advanced. On the plus side, Wicked, Wicked was one of the first films broadcast in true stereo.
As for 3-D? That’ll never catch on…