There’s nothing more exciting for a horror movie lover than to be completely blindsided by something scary on the horizon, in the form of a well-made, atmospheric, and nightmare-inducing trailer. In recent months, we’ve gotten quite a few that meet those credentials, including Lights Out, which arrives in theatres soon, Don’t Breathe, and Ouija: The Origin of Evil, a great looking trailer for a sequel to a pretty terrible movie. Directed by Hush’s Mike Flanagan, the Ouija sequel seems to be doing everything it can to not be the first one. In the trailer, a Herman’s Hermits song establishes a ‘60s backdrop, the cinematography looks stunning, and the scares are good. Looks like this franchise got a Conjuring treatment!
Some of the best trailers of all time have come from horror movies. Even though we can’t list them all, here are ten great ones, old and new, that still scare us!
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)
Creaky doors: check. Blood-curdling screams: check. A floating Vincent Price head that invites us all to be murdered at his house party: how do you NOT want to immediately watch this movie? Directed by horror gimmick master William Castle and starring Price in a role that perfectly encapsulates his sinister charm, House on Haunted Hill is a blast for fans of the genre; it’s the ultimate haunted house movie that’s equal parts creepy (the old woman scare is still effective!) and devilishly fun, as displayed in this beautifully crafted trailer – one that should be played on repeat and projected onto the wall at every Halloween party. Made as an homage to spooky murder mysteries of the ‘30’s like The Old Dark House and Secret of the Blue Room, we see that House on Haunted Hill is the story of an eccentric millionaire who offers up big money to anyone who can survive a night at his haunted mansion, which is filled to the brim with slow moving skeletons and gnarly hands that emerge from around the corner. Even with a great cast and a premise too macabre and exciting to be ignored, Castle was a director who knew how to secure an audience, and did so here by promoting his most famous theatre gimmick: “Emergo!” Imagine watching an edge-of-your-seat movie in a dark theatre and as soon as something scary happened on screen, out of nowhere, a skeleton dropped down and flew over you and the rest of the screaming crowd. Too bad there was no “Emergo!” gimmick for a certain satanic goat movie.
THE EXORCIST (1973)
Some people get heat flashes. Anyone who watches this will get Satan flashes.There’s good reason why William Friedkin’s The Exorcist has the reputation of being the scariest movie ever made. The controversial adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel, about a sweet 12-year-old girl named Regan who’s possessed by the devil, had a worldwide impact and left a majority of its audience either passed out in their seats or taking a cue from what they saw on screen and vomiting into theatre-provided “Exorcist barf bags.” Nowadays it seems like there’s an exorcism scene in every other horror movie that comes out, but for those fans who brush off The Exorcist for being some old movie that probably doesn’t hold a candle to what’s being done today, I assure you that you’re wrong and it handles the process more masterfully than anything that came after it. This trailer was banned from theatres and it’s not hard to understand why. We see the iconic, and truly beautiful, shot of Max Von Sydow as Fr. Lankester Merrin as he stands looking up at Regan’s home, and then abruptly we’re caught off-guard by the evil that’s happening inside the home. Black and white, strobe-like flashes attack us and we’re consumed by images of the devil and a possessed Regan while loud strings erupt from nowhere. I have no doubt that this would scare the vomit out of an audience today.
Speaking of devils! “It’s as if God created the devil and gave him…jaws” is a spectacular tagline and I’m surprised they didn’t run wild with that on the movie’s posters. But in a lot of ways, the devil comparison with Bruce, the name given to the mechanical shark on set, holds a lot of…water. Sorry. It doesn’t have to be said at all, but Jaws was a groundbreaking hit that not only made everybody afraid of the water, but single handedly created the blockbuster and allowed its director Steven Spielberg to make some more movies. The blockbuster aspect might be the reason things sort of get muddled when it comes to putting it in the horror category, but make no mistake, this is a monster-horror movie through and through. It just also happens to be one of the greatest movies ever made. Back to that whole devil thing, the opening to this trailer really plays into that, showing the POV of the shark underwater, the voiceover describing it as some sort of ancient “eating machine” and, of course, John William’s foreboding theme. The deep sea is the shark’s inferno and as he glides over the bottom of the ocean floor, he waits for the right moment to rise to the surface and drag someone down. In the trailer, it shows that someone to be Chrissie, the movie’s opening victim. The rest of the trailer just sort of cobbles together scenes in chronological order of the movie, but it’s fun to imagine being in a theatre, seeing Jaws clips for the first time, and having the gut feeling that the beach will never be the same.
If you’re not at least a little freaked out by this 30 second slice of nightmare fuel, someone should probably check your pulse. I mean, talk about just throwing all caution to the wind and traumatising your audience without even an attempt at discretion. The well-spoken poet here is Fats, the evil dummy who takes on a personality of his own and starts controlling the professional and personal life of his ventriloquist in Richard Attenborough’s “terrifying love story.” The ventriloquist is played by none other than a young Anthony Hopkins, who also voices Fats, and his descent into madness, and the lengths to which he’d go to appease this dummy, is mesmerising and chilling to watch. To nobody’s surprise, Hopkins’ performance is great and conveys so much pain and sympathy that it becomes much more compelling than just a simple doll-coming-to-life horror fest. But as we see here, there isn’t a lack of genuine scares as long as Fats is around. “Abracadabra, I sit on his knee. Presto, change-o, and now he’s me. Hocus Pocus, we take her to bed. Magic is fun…we’re dead.” Oof, and the way his top lip goes up and eyes roll back…everybody ready for a good night’s sleep?
Not long after Star Wars made outer space look so exciting and fun to an entire generation, director Ridley Scott turned that optimism upside down and made it look so unappealing and bleak in what is, to this day, the most frightening sci-fi movie of all time. Starring an amazing cast to make up the crew of the starship Nostromo, including Ian Holm, John Hurt and, of course, Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, Alien is an immensely claustrophobic and merciless tale about the discovery of a not-at-all-friendly species. And probably no other trailer has ever captured the true essence of its movie as effectively as this one. Don’t you feel like you have to exhale after watching that? Even before we see the alien egg crack and that hideous and constant siren takes over, we are at total unease. This version of space doesn’t sound like laser blasts, soaring ships, or cute droid beeps; instead it sounds like eerie dissonance and isolation. When tension revs up to 11 and we see poor Ripley running frantically down the narrow corridor of the ship, intercut with shots of the rest of the crew and an unsettled cat, we don’t know what’s going on but we know that whatever it is, it isn’t good. After the shaky climax shows some of the movie’s finest actors in utter misery, all we’re left with is that chilling, and iconic, tagline.
THE SHINING (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling novel about a family who occupies an old hotel during its wintry off-season and starts experiencing some truly horrible things is one of the most famous and recognisable horror movies of all time. Even those who haven’t seen The Shining are undoubtedly aware of its images and quotes, which have become so heavily ingrained in pop culture since its release almost 40 years ago. But try to put yourself in the shoes of a casual moviegoer in 1980 not yet aware of those creepy twins or what redrum is, and thinks “here’s Johnny!” is just how Ed McMahon introduced the host of The Tonight Show. They must’ve been simultaneously so confused and horrified by this trailer, a masterclass in how to create dread and anxiety without quick cuts, jump scares, or voiceover. All you need is a room, some scary music, and lots and lots of blood. Edited by Kubrick himself, this is the perfect example of a trailer that tells you everything you need to know about the movie but also nothing at all, and it’s still so effective. With a score straight from hell, entering like a swarm of wasps and escalating to nightmarish heights, and a room drenched with so much blood that it washes over the screen until we’re left in complete darkness, we are at the mercy of a truly dangerous filmmaker giving us a glimpse at the unspeakable horrors to come.
WHITE NOISE (2005)
Alright, look. This movie is not very good. In fact, it’s pretty bad. But doesn’t this genuinely eerie trailer make you wish the movie was a lot better? That’s the sign of a great trailer! Michael Keaton stars in this supernatural thriller as a hardworking family man whose world gets shaken up when his wife goes missing and is presumed dead. Almost immediately he’s stalked by a well-meaning practitioner of EVP, electronic voice phenomena, who encourages Keaton to try and contact his dead wife through the use of electronic recorders and VHS tapes, which is going to make for something scary no matter what. Watching this trailer, It’s almost as if they knew the movie itself wasn’t much to show off and so they focused most of it on “real life” evidence of EVP, and it’s impossible to deny that all of that stuff is disturbing and creepy. When it’s revealed that the voice we’re hearing was recorded in 2003, and the person whose voice is being heard died in 1987, my spine gets a healthy surge of chill. That whole opening of static and eerie images blurred in the background, mixed with audio and photo evidence of the dead communicating with the living is seriously frightening and edited really well. There’s less of a minute of clips from the movie, but this trailer is done so well that it makes me want to re-watch White Noise, even though I know full well that I’m not going to enjoy White Noise. Now that’s a phenomenon.
Is this a new Godzilla movie? A Rampage movie? Or wait, did you hear what that guy just said? “It’s a LION! It’s huge!” This has got to be a giant lion movie! In what had to be the most brilliant marketing move since The Blair Witch Project in 1999, J.J. Abrams and his team of bad robots kept Cloverfield under extremely tight wraps, away from the online community and then finally unleashed this insane trailer to the world in the summer of 2007, leaving its viewers shocked, disturbed, and obsessed with trying to figure out what this movie, and this unseen monster, was. It starts out like it’s going to be a hipster-filled indie movie about being young and attractive in New York City, but that’s quickly put to rest when the power shuts down. There’s a monstrous roar and a huge explosion in the middle of the city. Cue mass panic in the streets and the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty, and we have ourselves a laundry list of questions. On top of being found footage, another similarity to The Blair Witch Project is that it carries a very polarising opinion among moviegoers. Whether you thought it was an exciting and intense thrill ride that gave American audiences their very own Godzilla, Abrams’ goal in pursuing the concept in the first place, or you thought it was a boring, nauseating mess, there’s no denying that this is a great trailer and does exactly what a great trailer should: grab your attention and convince you that you need to see it to feed your curiosity.
THE CONJURING (2013)
Is hide-and-clap even a thing? It’s a horrifying game. James Wan is a master of his craft. Taking the haunted house sub-genre and making it feel fresh and truly scary after just about every single thing had been done before takes a whole lot of skill as a filmmaker, and he used every tool in his belt to deliver one that works on all cylinders. Relying more on suspense and atmosphere rather than gore and cheap scares, Wan took a cue from horror movies of the past to tell the story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren as they work on one of their most disturbing cases in the early ‘70s. It’s clear that he wanted to showcase the old school approach in the movie’s first trailer too, which does pretty much everything that would make me want to see a movie. First of all, like Ouija: Origin of Evil, it kicks things off with a great ‘60s song (Time of the Season by The Zombies), completely immersing us into the time period, there’s a great big family in groovy clothes, and rather than hold our hand and tell us the beats of the story like a conventional trailer, it just lets really creepy scenes play out in full, and I wish more horror trailers would do that because it’s so effective. This feels like we’re watching a short film. And no matter how good the movie ended up being, and it’s certainly great, those clapping hands are so much scarier when you only see them in the context of this trailer.
THE WITCH (2015)
Like I mentioned earlier, imagine an “Emergo” theatre gimmick for this nightmare? Robert Eggers’ The Witch is petrifying and feels like a Frankenstein monster in the way it combines all the best elements of the slow-burning dread, glorious beauty, and immersive atmosphere of The Exorcist, The Shining, The Conjuring and Alien. This incredibly realistic movie about a religious family in the 1600’s who are faced with the unpleasantness that comes with a wicked witch in their woods is a claustrophobic, disturbing, and wholly evil experience, summed up perfectly by Drew McWeeny’s pull-quote in the trailer: “it feels like we’re watching something we should not be seeing.” The very first thing we see are those horrible woods, immediately unsettling thanks in large part to the piercing score. And Ralph Ineson’s otherworldly voice booms and doesn’t make us feel any less unsettled. It’s just a constant barrage of visuals that can’t be unseen, including an instantly vanishing baby, a pale foot stepping out of a witch’s hut, a pair of terrible twins, and the star of the show Black Philip, the satanic goat whose movements are so weird and unnatural that it’s mind-blowing that he’s not at all CGI. It’s fascinating to watch this one having looked at all the previous trailers because it’s clear just how much inspiration was taken from Friedkin and Kubrick, both of whom would likely applaud Eggers’ trailer in creating the next real epic in modern horror. Even Kubrick would shudder at that goat’s lifeless stare.
Words: Kevin Redding