I really miss horror teasers. Not just the old trailers… I’m talking real teasers: promotional mini-movies designed to suggest the horrors awaiting audiences without actually showing any footage from the films they’re advertising. At their absolute best, teasers were full-motion versions of a movie’s poster art, giving you just enough information to tantalize your imagination, fire up your curiosity, and — if they’re really doing it right — give you a serious case of the creeps.
The end result should leave the viewer with just one fresh new thought in their mind: “Damn, I’ve got to see that… when’s it coming out?”
There’s one principal reason these dynamic little promos are pretty much a thing of the past: in bygone decades, movie studios would often pre-sell their product to theater chains before the films were even finished, and these bookings were often secured so far in advance that there was little or no footage available to splice into a two- or three-minute theatrical trailer.
The easiest solution to that problem was often to hire a film crew and shoot a self-contained short that played up the scariest aspects of the feature film’s story or central concept (sometimes they didn’t even have a finished script), and maybe tie the visuals to the film’s ad campaign (posters, ad mats, radio spots, etc.). If they were lucky, they may even have access to some of the sets, props or actors from the feature… but that didn’t happen very often.
The results were almost always entertaining — especially if the team behind the teaser was totally making shit up as they went along.
On a few rare occasions, the teaser would be even more frightening than the feature itself. For the most perfect example of this, check out my earlier column about the 1978 TV spot for MAGIC, which condenses an entire childhood’s worth of nightmares into 30 seconds of pants-crapping horror. The film itself is not that scary… but the teaser? Goddamn.
You may notice a few glaring omissions from this list — such as the jump-inducing promo for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, and a clever bait-and-switch stunt for FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN. But that’s because our Managing Editor Rob Galluzzo already covered those very titles in an earlier article, which itself is jam-packed with some epic teasers for horror franchise sequels. So when you’re done with this column, be sure to check out Rob’s list ASAP.
Now, drop the house lights and prepare to be teased mercilessly…
ALIEN (1979) and ALIEN 3 (1992)
I can’t even imagine the pitch for this one: “There’s this chicken egg sitting in a pile of dirt, see? Then it hatches, and instead of a chicken, spooky light comes out. The End.” But seriously… director Ridley Scott was very hands-on with virtually every aspect of ALIEN, and this included the advertising materials; since he came from a successful commercial design background, Scott clearly saw the epic potential in this minimalist imagery… and he was right, of course.
[Trivia: The creepy sound design in this teaser is an excerpt from acclaimed electronic artist Isao Tomita, whom Scott originally wanted to score ALIEN, but this was vetoed by studio execs, who opted for more traditional composer Jerry Goldsmith.]
In many ways, the ad campaign for ALIEN 3 reflected the extremely chaotic development of the film itself. When the first advance teaser hit theaters in 1991, not only was there no script in place yet, but the entire concept for the troubled sequel hadn’t even been decided. If you missed this teaser in theaters, or among the supplemental materials in the ALIEN box set, you’re in for quite a surprise… and a very faithful recreation of the original teaser’s look, I might add.
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)
While Universal heavily promoted John Landis’s beloved lycanthropic tale as the product of “the director of ANIMAL HOUSE,” there’s absolutely nothing funny about the animal in this haunting, atmospheric and frightening teaser — which I still consider one of the most beautiful horror trailers ever made. Its naturalistic sound design, poetic use of moonlight, deep shadow and just one color (red, of course), climaxing in that shocking final freeze-frame, demonstrate that in the right hands even high-concept advertising can be fine art.
Here’s another example of expert bait-and-switch — using nothing more than stylish lighting and negative space to depict the supernaturally seductive allure of Stephen King’s infamously haunted ’58 Plymouth Fury, adapted for the screen by another horror legend, John Carpenter. Even though the narrator here reveals his cards a bit too early in the game by mentioning that Christine is a vehicle and not a flesh-and-blood woman, it’s all worth it when he reads that amazing tagline: “Body by Plymouth. Soul by Satan.”
THE FLY II (1989)
As corny as this teaser might seem in retrospect, it was still pretty chilling at the time; the sound design and voice actors (I think one of them is Clu Gulager!) totally sell the idea that Seth Brundle’s mutant offspring is way too horrifying to reveal to unprepared general audiences. Of course, the Brundle-spawn turns out to look like Eric Stoltz (at first, anyway), who may be a bit eccentric, but not really that horrifying. Of course, we didn’t yet know that when this promo hit the screen.
[Trivia: This teaser may have been inspired by the trailer for the original 1958 classic THE FLY, which also used simple animation and narration in lieu of footage from the film.]
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI: JASON LIVES (1986)
Since Rob covered JASON TAKES MANHATTAN, I’ll go back a couple of installments in the FRIDAY franchise to this simple but effective piece which seems to use the same location and props used in the rain-soaked prologue for JASON LIVES (if not, it’s a remarkable reproduction). Interestingly, this teaser beats J.J. Abrams’ CLOVERFIELD to the punch by omitting any mention of FRIDAY THE 13TH whatsoever — apart from the familiar “Ki-ki-ki, ma-ma-ma” on the soundtrack and the words “JASON VOORHEES” carved on a tombstone (though not the one seen in the completed film) just before it’s struck by lightning. Kind of a bold move, considering this franchise was still one of Paramount’s most dependable cash-cows at the time.
HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982)
Fans of HALLOWEEN flocked back to theaters in 1981 for the bigger-budgeted sequel, but they were baffled when this teaser first screened the following year: I mean… where’s Michael? What the hell’s the deal with the witch mask? I remember my classmates theorizing, in those ancient, pre-internet days, what exactly the “witch” of the title and teaser represented. Did Michael opt for a new look after he was burned to a crisp in HALLOWEEN II? Is Laurie Strode now possessed by his spirit, donning her own mask for a new killing spree? Our minds absolutely reeled with the possibilities… and we were, of course, completely wrong on all counts. But that teaser still did its job: it sparked our imaginations and creeped us the hell out.
IT LIVES AGAIN (1978)
Since Rob already covered the original IT’S ALIVE teaser, I figured I’d jump ahead to this little birthday-themed promo for the film’s sequel, which I personally consider to be even creepier (that monster-baby’s screech gave me nightmares when I was a kid), and it’s one of the most literal examples of a movie’s print ad campaign being transformed almost verbatim into a mini-film. In fact, if the poster art isn’t just a still frame grabbed from the teaser, then it’s a damn close approximation.
[Trivia: 1981 slasher HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME borrowed the same birthday motif for its own teaser, though it did incorporate footage from the feature.]
LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III (1990)
Again, this is one from Rob’s list, so you can read all about it over there… but I just had to post it again, because this may be one of the coolest self-contained teasers for any horror movie ever.
This one’s quite a curiosity — MORTUARY is a fairly generic slasher flick, only memorable for the presence of horror power-couple Christopher George and Lynda Day George (both fresh off the 1982 splatter epic PIECES), and a pre-ALIENS Bill Paxton as a hilarious goth-inclined dork. But you wouldn’t know it was a slasher from this teaser — which features horror icon Michael Berryman (THE HILLS HAVE EYES) as a gravedigger who meets a (literally) dirty demise. The promo closely matches the film’s print ad campaign, which makes it look like a zombie film; apparently the studio feared slashers were falling out of favor by 1983, and hoped to put a different spin on it.
THE THING (1982)
This rare international advance teaser for John Carpenter’s classic was seldom seen by US audiences, but finally surfaced on the internet about eight years ago. Interestingly, the narration plays into Carpenter’s concept of THE THING as the first installment of his loose “Apocalypse Trilogy,” which continued with PRINCE OF DARKNESS and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. The filmmakers behind this promo were clearly influenced by ALIEN, with that trailer’s “space egg” replaced by a block of ice on a snowy landscape. It’s not quite as creepy, but it’s a fascinating bit of film history… and I’m sure it will appear in somewhat higher quality on Scream Factory’s forthcoming Special Edition Blu-ray.
THE ADDAMS FAMILY (1991) and ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES (1993)
Okay, so this isn’t technically a horror trailer… that’s why I moved it to the very end of this otherwise alphabetical list. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of the best theatrical ad campaigns I’ve ever seen.
Even though I prefer the second ADDAMS film to the first, I have to say the teaser for the first film is my favorite. But the sequel promo runs a very close second.
[Trivia: In the teaser for the first film, you may notice that Uncle Fester is not played by Christopher Lloyd. It’s likely he was cast for the role by the time they filmed this promo, but for reasons unknown, he may not have been available for the shoot that day.]