In considering the TV western, which once dominated the prime time landscape, Jonathan Winters once joked, “I don’t mind westerns. I just don’t like 15 of them in a row.” I have come to feel the same way about movie trailers, the previews of coming attractions. Dutifully arrive on time for a scheduled 7:30 movie and you are likely to be subjected to a barrage of trailers that can last as long as 20 minutes. Often is the time that I actually forget what movie it was I came to see, and more often is the time that, driving home, my wife and I have trouble recalling which trailers we saw.
Roger Ebert wasn’t a fan, either. “Gene Siskel hated them so much he would stand outside a theater until they were over,” he once wrote. “Trailers love to spoil all the best gags in a comedy, hint at plot twists in a thriller, and make every film, however dire, look upbeat.”
But it wasn’t always like this. One of my favorite websites is comprised of nothing but trailers, created as a shrine to the now de-evolved art form. “Trailers from Hell” is a labor of love created by Joe Dante, director of “Gremlins” (and its sequel), “The Howling,” “The ‘Burbs,” and “Matinee,” a valentine to the B-movies of his youth, and that featured the hilarious faux-trailer for a little horror called “Mant” (Half Man!-Half-Ant!)
The site, launched in 2007, originally spotlighted trailers for horror and sci-fi films from Dante’s personal collection, but as the site has grown, so has it expanded to include vintage and contemporary trailers from all genres, from A (the Tracy-Hepburn classic “Adam’s Rib”) to Z (“Zombie”). Suffice to say, some of these trailers are definitely NSFW.
Dante got his start cutting trailers for producer-director Roger Corman, whose exploitation films—quintessential drive-in fare rife with sex and violence—offered career breakthroughs for the likes of directors Peter Bogdanovich (“Targets”), Martin Scorsese (“Boxcar Bertha”), Francis Ford Coppola (“Dementia 13”), Ron Howard (“Grand Theft Auto”) and James Cameron (special effects for “Battle Beyond the Stars”). The trailers were marvels of fast and furious, and often hilarious cases of audience manipulation and misdirection. To watch Dante’s trailer for the disaster film, “Tidal Wave,” you’d never know it was a Japanese film. Dante has said in interviews that he would often include a stock shot of a helicopter exploding (not even in the film) to liven up a trailer lacking in exploitable elements.
Vintage Hollywood trailers were once breathless with hyperbole. “Through Cinemascope Your Eyes Behold…The Glory…The Grandeur…The Pleasure…The Passion…The Spectacle…And the Splendor That was Rome!” thunders the preview for “Demetrius and the Gladiators.” Among the treasures preserved on “Trailers from Hell” are thoroughly unconventional trailers—almost mini-movies in themselves-- supervised by the film’s directors. In two of the most famous examples, Orson Welles introduces the cast of his coming attraction, “Citizen Kane,” and Alfred Hitchcock gives viewers a tour of the Bates Motel in anticipation of “Psycho.” They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Movie trailers are easily accessible on the Internet, but what elevates “Trailers from Hell” is optional commentary for each of the trailers provided by a stellar roster of A-list gurus. A sampling:
Edgar Wright on Brian De Palma’s “Phantom of the Paradise” “I urge you to Netflix it now.”
John Sayles on Bert Gordon’s “Beginning of the End”: “Scared the crap out of me when I was seven.”
Roger Corman on “She Gods of Shark Reef”: “I don’t remember any particular she gods in the picture, but we did have some very beautiful Hawaiian dancing girls.”
Guillermo del Toro on “I Confess”: “I didn’t know anything about Hitchcock. I was just fat and guilt-ridden, and the plea of Montgomery Clift in this movie spoke directly to my obese little heart.”
The bulk of the trailers on the “Trailer from Hell” website are a welcome time capsule throwback to a bygone era when going to the movies meant a full and satisfying experience complete with trailer, cartoon or short subject, and (going way back) a newsreel. Today, it’s just actual commercials and trailer after trailer after trailer after trailer, each test-marketed and focus grouped and indistinguishable from the next. To quote a Graham Parker lyric, “I try to look amazed but it’s an act/The movie might be new but it’s the same soundtrack.”
Give me instead the The Glory…The Grandeur…The Pleasure…The Passion…The Spectacle that is "Trailers from Hell."