EXCLUSIVE Not only can a scary horror film trailer lead to an opening weekend that leaves a film profitable by Monday, great trailers can achieve immortality of their own. Unforgettably jarring trailers for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Ring, Halloween, The Shining, The Blair Witch Project, Psycho and Paranormal Activity carved out their own place in the consciousness of moviegoers.
Halloween is upon us and this year the holiday has an old-school feel with two classic names (Halloween and Suspiria) scaring-up new business in theaters. What better time to revisit vintage horror film trailers? For grisly guidance, I turned to Eli Roth and asked him to share a list of his favorites, be they iconic or obscure. Roth directed the Hostel franchise, The Green Inferno and Cabin Fever; he’s also brained Nazis with a Louisville Slugger in Inglourious Basterds and taken his scare formula to PG audiences with The House With a Clock In Its Walls. He’s also using his encyclopedic horror knowledge as exec producer of the seven-part AMC Visionaries: Eli Roth’s History of Horror airing Sundays on AMC.
Roth’s passion for horror trailers goes back to the age of 8, when a specific trailer changed the course of his life — he’ll get to all that. You’ll find it below, along with the trailers he picked, his commentary and a comments section awaiting your opinions.
So, let’s take a stab at all this…
In space, no one can hear you scream… The deep-space horror film Alien was director Ridley Scott’s second feature film and for it he drew inspiration from Jaws, Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey. For an 8-year old boy in Newton, Mass., named Eli Roth the trailer represented a life-changing moment. “I’ll never forget this Alien trailer. To me it was like a combination of Jaws and Star Wars, my two favorite films. The sound, the imagery, the way the camera moved across the terrain of this strange planet — it was the scariest trailer I had ever seen in a theater. After begging my parents to take me, I spent the last 10 minutes of the film standing in the aisle in a runner’s sprint, half-watching the screen, frozen, wanting to run but unable to look away. That was the night I decided I was going to make movies. I went out in the lobby and threw up and said ‘I’m going to do this to other people.’ I was 8 years old.”
Paranormal Activity (2009)
Roth next chose Paranormal Activity, whose trailer became a widely imitated viral sensation and captured the film’s shrewdly executed premise. Like Blair Witch Project, it amped up its realism through a found-footage concept, this time a nanny cam with the eerie glow of night-vision recordings. That kept the budget to $15,000 and brought an unsettling level of realism — the trailer helped by incorporating test audience reaction to the scares. Said Roth: “This is the reaction trailer we all strive for.”
Three On A Meathook (1972)
Digging deeper into obscure horror, we have William Girdler’s Three on a Meathook which had a shoestring budget but no shortage of self-importance. Said Roth: “This might be my favorite low-budget trailer of all time precisely because they don’t have the footage needed to fill a trailer. The narration is so unbelievably absurd as it’s heard over black mostly and with just a few shots from the film. It takes itself so seriously and then ends with the title: Three on a Meathook. Marketing genius.”
Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987)
Sam Raimi was still in his low-budget phase when he made Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn, the sequel that brought Bruce Campbell back as the antihero Ash. For Roth, this trailer qualifies as classic in its look and its tone. “The first Evil Dead had scared me more than any film I had ever seen, so when this came on it was all my cinematic hopes and dreams in one trailer. It just looked like pure horror adrenaline from start to finish. Headless corpse attacking with a chainsaw? Eyeball shooting out of a head and popping into someone’s mouth? Hand crawling on its own across the floor? Camera going into Bruce Campbell’s mouth? Take my money now, please. The photography on this movie looked so innovative and cool that everything else seemed old fashioned compared to it.”
John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is the minimalist masterpiece that launched the slasher film to gory new heights. The era-defining film is still so relevant that now, four decades later, David Gordon Green’s direct sequel is making a killing at the box office. To Roth, the original Halloween trailer didn’t need flash to go with its dash and slash. His take: “Simple. Classic. The one that started it all. I love the narrator repeating Halloween, over and over throughout the trailer.”
George Romero is famous for zombies but he also gave moviegoers Creepshow (1982), the horror anthology pays tribute to the classic stories published by EC Comics (which was snuffed out by moral crusaders in the 1950s) and does so with ironic glee, vibrant visuals, and plot-twist spirit. The film also marked the screenwriting debut of Stephen King. The trailer absolutely mesmerized Roth. “It’s just a beautiful trailer, one which really caught the aesthetic of the EC Comics. The movie lived up to the trailer, too. Creepshow is one of my favorite films of all time.”
The 1991 film Popcornwhich is a bucket of fun thanks to its setting (an overnight horror film marathon) and its murdering maniac (a disaffected filmmaker). Roth loves the trailer’s wit and the film’s quirky hallmarks: “Buy a bag…go home in a box!” What more do you want from a horror trailer? This gem was actually written by Alan Orsmby, a collaborator of A Christmas Story director Bob Clark, who has a credit on the film as special-effects consultant. Porky’s alumnus Mark Herrier directed. If you’re a fan of Death Dream, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things or Black Christmas you should definitely check this one out. Plus it was filmed in Kingston, Jamaica, so there’s a unique Reggae flavor to the film.”
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho invented the slasher genre with a subversive style and the trailer hints of the horror that’s ahead for moviegoers accustomed to the filmmaker’s safer screen hits, like North By Northwest from the previous year. The trailer features the British director himself and (like the film) was shot in black-and-white to reduce the commercial risks of a movie that pushed the envelope with its violent intensity. “I shot an homage to this trailer for Hostel but nobody wanted to use it. This might be my favorite trailer of all time because it functions as a commercial for Hitchcock himself even more than the film. To have the bravado to pull off a trailer like this? When you’re basically risking everything making the most dangerous movie of your career? That is why Hitchcock truly was the master.”
The Exorcist (1973)
The perfect horror film? Many critics and fans would say so. And the trailer for The Exorcist qualifies as a perfect premonition of the horror film that director William Freidkin would unleash on the world. The film’s opening on Christmas Day 1973 had the Catholic Church up in arms — and moviegoers lined up down the block. The trailer is so good that Roth says he doesn’t really trust people who aren’t spooked by it: “If this trailer doesn’t scare you, you don’t have a soul. It’s a fitting trailer for the scariest film of all time.”
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was his long-awaited follow-up to 1969’s The Night of the Living Dead, the film that inspired decades of flesh-eating hordes (World War Z , The Walking Dead, Zombieland, etc.) that embraced it as the template for zombie epics. Roth tries to imagine how Romero felt as the Dawn of the Dead trailer reached theaters. “Imagine you’re George Romero and your first film made for $26,000 at age 27 changes movies and pop culture. Then he does it again 10 years later. I love the opening Goblin music, the voice-over, the graphics, the animation. Short, sweet, to the point. Even seeing it today I get excited to rewatch what is the ultimate zombie movie.”
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Mother’s Day (1980)
This tandem of trailers are for films that warped the holiday spirit — Silent Night Deadly Night (1984) and Mother’s Day (1980). The latter Roth spoofed memorably with the mock trailer Thanksgiving, one of the interstitial sequences in the Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez double feature Grindhouse. Thanksgiving almost earned Grindhouse an NC-17 rating with its extreme violent imagery (three decapitations and a crotch-stabbing). The gory project reconnected Roth with his past. As a youngster, Roth and pal Jeff Rendell cooked up the Turkey Day concept (about a rampaging lunatic dressed like a pilgrim) after seeing the trailers for Silent Night Deadly Night and Mother’s Day.
“The trailer for Silent Night, Deadly Night is great because it shows basically everything I had ever wanted to see happen in a Christmas movie,” Roth says. “When I went to see the movie with my friend, Jeff Rendell, I remember that the kid selling tickets at the theater tried to dissuade Jeff’s dad from buying them for us. At which point Jeff’s dad screamed at the guy that Jeff and I had already seen every other ‘goddamn horror movie’ so what difference did it make? Jeff and I still laugh about it to this day.”
Mother’s Day was even more directly influential on Roth’s Thanksgiving escapade. “It’s one of the most brutal and unrelenting slasher films that also functions as an ingenious satire of commercialism and the runoff of the pop culture sewer that was television in 1980. The screenplay was co-written by Warren Leight and the film really holds up. I wanted Thanksgiving to look exactly like this film.”
When the long-marinated idea became a horror-comedy short, Roth gave his old pal a main-course role: Rendell portrays the maniac murderer wearing a pilgrim suit. You can find the faux Thanksgiving trailer at the bottom of this page. (Warning: It is not for the faint of heart.)
The Blood-Splattered Bride (1972)
I Dismember Mama (1974)
There’s a lot to love with the double-feature trailer (circa 1974) that memorably promoted the cinematic conjoining of The Blood-Splattered Bride (a 1972 Spanish vampire film) and I Dismember Mama (the 1974 movie framed like a news report). Roth said the conceit is devilishly clever — even if the trailer footage is about as subtle as a claw hammer. “You just can’t beat a trailer like this. People literally going crazy from seeing the double bill? Spectacular.”
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
The teaser trailer for the remake of Tobe Hooper 1974 classic Texas Chain Saw Massacre earns a spot of this list thanks to its influence on horror trailers that followed in its wake. The trailer was the handiwork of producer Michael Bay, who visual instincts and craft made it a game-changer. The movie became a major hit and provided an impressive brand launch for Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company. “Michael Bay’s trailer for Texas Chainsaw Massacre redefined modern horror’s movie marketing. I remember seeing this at Mann’s Chinese before my film Cabin Fever and thinking it was the single scariest trailer I had ever seen in a theater. It just looked awesome. And the movie really delivered.”
The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
Our excavation of classic horror trailers ends with tour with the promo for The Exorcist II: The Heretic. The 1977 sequel never lived up to the original film but the trailer is a sublime achievement in atmosphere and tone. It possessed Roth when he first saw it as a youngster and its stayed with him over time. “Saving the best for last? Yes, that’s right. How do you top the greatest horror film ever made? With the greatest horror trailer ever made,” he says. “And the music? Wait for it. Just — watch and wait for it. You will never get the music out of your head. And yes, that is Morricone. I still drive around with this song on repeat in my car. That might actually explain a few things about me.”
And as a bonus…
And since we’ve spent so much time taking about Thanksgiving we’ve included it our list, an early November surprise to close out our rundown of October treats. Thanks to Eli Roth for you horrific holiday contribution to Deadline’s pop-up trailer park.