If you’re familiar with my editorial output on this site, you’ve probably become aware of my obsession with vintage horror movie advertising and promotional campaigns — particularly trailers, television ads and radio spots.
Well, I’m about to take you on yet another stroll down Memory Lane… but this time I’m going to ask you to listen as we go. Specifically, pay heed to the ominously commanding voices that chilled so many of us to the bone as they described the horrors coming to our local theaters in those bygone days.
While you listen, consider how vital a role those voices played in convincing us that the films they were promoting would summon nightmares… and despite their dire warnings, their tone was so commanding, so lordly, that they still convinced countless potential moviegoers they had no choice but to march straight to the theater, to their presumed cinematic doom.
There have been literally dozens of recognizable voice-over artists lending their talents to countless horror films over the past half-century… but personally, my favorites were working in a period spanning the early ‘70s through the early ‘90s.
If you’re watched the trailers for any horror, science fiction, action-adventure, fantasy or similar genres during that period, I guarantee you’ve heard the voices of some or all of these narrators; hell, the opening line “In a world…” (most commonly associated with voice artist Don LaFontaine) was parodied by so many comedians in the ‘90s that it soared beyond tired cliché and entered the realm of absurdity.
But there was a time when the first few words uttered by LaFontaine, Percy Rodriguez, Adolph Caesar and their colleagues on film, TV or radio ads would send chills up a young horror fan’s spine, filling them with two intense and seemingly conflicting emotions: intense fear and thrilled anticipation.
So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to my favorite horror trailer narrators from that three-decade era, along with their career backstories, and samples of their most memorable work.
Sadly, none of these talented speakers are still with us today… but if they were, considering the resurgence ‘80s-era horror, I’m positive they’d be working constantly.
While he’s best known for his truly frightening performance as a sadistic Drill Sergeant in A SOLDIER’S STORY (which landed him an Oscar nomination) and as “Old Mister” in THE COLOR PURPLE (pictured above), Caesar has enjoyed a long and successful career as an actor, producer and director in stage, film and television, dating back to the 1960s — but ironically, a great deal of his dramatic work is uncredited, as the voice of countless trailers, TV commercials and radio ads.
While much of his ‘70s trailer narration accompanied advertising for “Blaxploitation” films like SUPERFLY and CLEOPATRA JONES, he also has numerous classic horror trailers on his resume.
Among Caesar’s most memorable of these are promos for George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD and CREEPSHOW, Wes Craven’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and the notorious “It’s only a movie” ad campaign for LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.
Yes, we all know Don as the “In a World” guy… but did you know he’s the narrator on that infamous “body count” trailer for FRIDAY THE 13TH?
While he became more of a pop-culture figure in the ‘90s by narrating promos for big-studio blockbusters, LaFontaine already had a long and successful career writing, producing and voicing trailers and ads of all kinds (one of his first film-related projects involved radio ads for Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE).
Unlike the other narrators on this list, Don specialized in voice work — forming his own production company in 1976 for that very purpose — and never had a stage or onscreen acting career (unless you count the time he parodied his style in a Geico insurance commercial).
In addition to FRIDAY THE 13TH (and its first sequel), LaFontaine’s best horror trailers include GHOSTBUSTERS, David Cronenberg’s THE FLY, Wes Craven’s SCREAM and the original MY BLOODY VALENTINE.
My appreciation of this man’s dulcet tones didn’t actually begin with his horror trailers; as it turns out, the very first time I realized there were often “real” actors voicing these trailers was in my early teens while watching a rerun of the original STAR TREK series, in which a stern, aristocratic Star Fleet Commodore (pictured above) presided over the court-martial of Captain Kirk… and suddenly a light came on in my brain: “That’s the JAWS guy!”
Rodriguez first rose to prominence on the New York stage, but he gained nationwide acclaim as Dr. Miles on the hit ‘60s TV series PEYTON PLACE; his popularity in the role is often credited with helping break down racial barriers on television.
Although he continued working in TV for another couple of decades, Rodriguez’s unforgettable voice landed him countless narration gigs, and he finally withdrew from on-camera roles in favor of voice work.
Rodriguez is probably most famous for his voice-over in the legendary JAWS trailer, but that unforgettable voice also made its way into tons more classic horror trailers — including THE EXORCIST, the original versions of THE OMEN and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, DRACULA (1979), PSYCHO II, DEAD AND BURIED and so many, many more. To this day, Rodriguez remains my favorite trailer narrator in film history.
While German-American actor/comedian “Brother Theodore” Gottlieb never possessed the same sonorous tones of the other narrators on this list, he brought something entirely new to the game: complete and utter madness. ‘80s kids will most likely remember his surreal, manic ravings as Uncle Reuben Klopek on THE ‘BURBS (not to mention his crazed, sputtering guest appearances on David Letterman), while older fans may remember him as the original voice of Gollum in the Rankin-Bass animated TV adaptations of Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT and RETURN OF THE KING.
But fans of vintage grindhouse cinema and its lurid, over-the-top promotional campaigns might also be familiar with Theodore’s hysterical (in every sense of the word) voice-over work for the low-budget monster movies distributed by Sam Sherman’s Independent International Pictures — including HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS and THE MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND.
It’s impossible to describe how utterly insane his narration sounds, as he raves about “supernatural beings caught up in a rampage of gory brutality,” while a second voice track can be heard beneath the narration consisting of Theodore uttering strange, unintelligible grunts and moans…
He also narrated the ghoulishly loony trailer for the US release of Lucio Fulci’s HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, which pretty much makes you leap up and go see the movie immediately… and isn’t that the general idea?