Good movie trailers are sometimes as good as whole movies. Additionally, posters are sometimes a highly amusing, highly engaging tactic to get you intrigued as to the thrills, chills, laughs, highs and lows of a good flick. But you know something? You can stomp both these sappy, bright-eyed little attempts at getting a movie attention right into the ground with a good wild gimmick. Any smart, hard-working sucker can make a good movie sound good with determination and a bit of luck, but it takes an ingenious con artist to sell a piece of junk using only street-smarts, corner-cutting, and a ton of moxie.
The Movie: The Tingler
In 1955, writer/director/producer William Castle made this movie, a film crazy as a bug growing in your back and squeezing your spine that is weakened and killed when you scream. In fact, that actually is what the movie is about. Vincent Price is a doctor trying to determine why people seize up and scream when they are scared. After a handy deaf-mute woman (you see, she can’t scream) is scared to death he surgically extracts the Tingler, a giant centipede, from her body. Naturally it gets loose.
Castle came up with a one of a kind new method of bringing the audience directly into the action: in select seats in theaters across America, he had installed vibrating buzzers that, at key points, would buzz the lower backs of audience members in a simulation of the Tingler. During the climax of the movie (which takes place in a movie theater) the screen would go dark and then Vincent Prince would get out of character and yell at the audience “The tingler is loose in this theater! We need you to scream!” while a bunch of butts got buzzed. Thus possibly the weirdest movie and the weirdest promotional gimmick of the 1950’s melded into a single glorious mindscrew.
The Movie: Polyester
Decades of movie makers that have attempted to make smell-o-vision a reality. No less than Walt Disney attempted to start the trend for his 1940 masterpiece Fantasia by arranging to have odors sprayed in for the appropriate scenes (flowers for the Pastoral sequence, Essence of Mouse for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, etc.) The trend would not be put into actual practice until 1959 for a travelogue movie called Behind the Great Wall, where it was promptly slammed by the The New York Times because the process of pumping in multiple fragrances was smothering audiences and loud.
So it wasn’t until 1981’s satire of suburban life Polyester by John Waters that the technique was done right. The reasons his approach worked when others failed were:
A. He approached the idea more like scent samples in women’s magazines by having numbered scent cards printed up for it.
B. One of the scents he included was a fart.
8. Super Niche Casting
The Movie: The Terror of Tiny Town
There is indeed still a movie available called Terror of Tiny Town, an all-little person western musical from 1938. It may well be the most boring “comedy” ever made, since aside from one or two sight gags like a shot where a little person walks under the swinging door of a saloon or a penguin that happens to be in a barber’s shop, it’s just a perfectly straight western except everyone is short. The producer, Jed Buell, also made a number of segregated movies with all black casts like Harlem on the Prairie, which just goes to show that times back then were not so much different as definitely worse.
7. Punishment Poll
The Movie: Mr. Sardonicus
In 1961, having made a string of successful independent movies (including #10) William Castle was going to have a picture distributed by major important Columbia Pictures about a jerk who gets his face weirdly frozen into a kind of smile/grimace. Under pressure from Columbia Pictures, Castle claimed a second, happier ending was created in addition to the original downer ending where Mr. Sardonicus ends off badly. He then claimed to be offering audiences the choice in theater of whether the ending was the upper or the downer. However, cast members claimed he only had the downer ending, so it was always the downer ending that was screened, but Castle was able to tell the story of how this meant everyone who went to see his movies were a bunch of screwy sadists (and you thought YOUR vote didn’t matter.)
In other words, as a viewer you were told your vote mattered, and it didn’t.
6. Threaten to Kill The Audience (but It’s Okay!)
The Movie: Macabre
William Castle’s last outing with this particular list might well have been his simplest and brilliant (along with his first chronologically) Since the movie was nothing more than a ripoff of French classic Les Diaboliques which wasn’t much of a selling point, somehow Castle concocted the notion of taking out an insurance policy that, in the event anyone died, he and their interests would be insured by Lloyd’s of London (i.e., those guys that have insured celebrity body parts and thus are clearly not themselves above cheap promotional gimmicks) This worked so well that it essentially launched being a cheap huckster as an art form.
5. Hire Protestors For Your Fake Snuff
The Movie: Snuff
In 1972, a Mr. Allan Shackleton bought the rights to distribute a South American film called Slaughter in America. He couldn’t make ten cents from this boring, ugly movie until urban legends started about South American snuff films, so Shackleton filmed some obviously phony gore footage and tacked it onto the end of the movie. When that didn’t convince people to come see this scuzzy turkey, he began hiring protestors, which finally got the attention of such organizations as Women Against Pornography to protest the film. And thus the idea of snuff films was cemented into the American consciousness.
The Movie: Deafula
While the appeal of an all-black or all dwarf cast is clear from its visual appeal if exploitative, what’s the appeal of a deaf cast? Well, if you’re the Peter Weschberg, it’s to make a gigantic self-deprecating joke with the National Theater of the Deaf. The film, which is about the son of Dracula becoming a preacher who tries to overcome his vampiric tendencies, is the only movie filmed entirely in sign language with a dubbed audio track for those hearies in the audience) This is neat, but the first movie with legible subtitles in Braille would be the real achievement.
3. Eating Worms
The Movie: The Worm Eaters
Oh yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. As reported by John Waters in his book worth a look entitled Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters, in 1977 the makers of the unwatchable and boring comedy The Worm-Eaters did the only thing for which their comedy is remembered today. Right there at the Cannes Film Festival, the most prestigious international film festival in the world, they ate worms outside their theater straight from a bucket. It must have been the tackiest and crass thing recorded at that festival to get some publicity, and at least the ninth most crass and tacky that happened in general. But anyway, given that a bucket of worms is cheap but the event is still remembered today, it is going to be pretty hard to top that, isn’t it?
2. Eating a Shoe
The Movie: Gates of Heaven
Oh yeah, you want to see real movie crazy, you don’t leave that to some lazy Americans just trying to live down to a stereotype, you bring in TopTenz’s reigning crazy director Werner Herzog, future academy award-winning director/producer Errol Morris released his bizarre little Gates of Heaven is a 1978 Errol Morris documentary about a failed pet cemetery and the successful family cemetery that gets all its business. It has since acquired such a pedigree that Roger Ebert described it as “one of the ten best films of all time” and Morris has gone on to become an academy award winner. But when he first released it, Morris was such a nothing in the industry that his buddy Herzog had to bail him out with his great stunt.
Morris and Herzog claimed that the movie was completed in part on a bet, and that if Morris did finish it, Herzog would eat his shoe. At the premiere, before naturally a sell-out audience, Herzog kept his promise with flying colors. Of course he made sure to sterilize the shoe by thoroughly boiling it and prepared some carrots and potatoes to go with it.
The Movie: Heart of Glass
But of course Herzog wouldn’t stop there. In 1976, he released this film about a sixteenth century Bavarian glass-blowing community’s disintegration because their most inspired glass blower has died. To get the most appropriate performance out of his cast, Herzog claimed that he personally hypnotized the entire cast (he claims on the commentary track that he initially had another hypnotist on set but that he fired that other for believing in “new age bulls***.”) Not content to merely mess with his cast, Herzog designed the movie’s opening to literally put the audience in a hypnotic trance through his use of time lapse photography, ambient music, poetic narration, and subliminal text. You can see how well it works on you.