Movieclips Trailer Vault via YouTube
Movieclips Trailer Vault via YouTube

8 Movie Theater Gimmicks That Flopped

Movieclips Trailer Vault via YouTube
Movieclips Trailer Vault via YouTube

Before the advent of IMAX, virtual reality, and immersive theme park attractions, Hollywood was trying its best to pry audiences from the warm glow of their televisions and into theaters. The wide, panoramic aspect ratios used in almost all films today were the result of studios hoping to provide a more immersive experience.

That obviously worked. Most of their other gimmicks didn’t. Take a look at some of the more inventive ways theaters and producers have tried to boost ticket sales over the years.


William Castle (R) with two friends. Getty

The P.T. Barnum of movie salesmanship was undoubtedly William Castle, who bounced from one gimmick to another in the 1950s and 1960s to bolster awareness for his series of B-minus horror pictures. For the 1958 film Macabre, Castle told audiences that their theater tickets would be redeemable for a $1000 Lloyds of London life insurance policy in the event they died of fright. Castle also parked hearses outside theaters and hired women to dress as nurses to roam the aisles. In trade ads in Variety, there were only minimal stipulations: “Not valid for people with known heart conditions or for suicide.”

No one appeared to have died during a screening, a fact that Castle may have considered bittersweet: It would have made for unprecedented publicity.


dbellis54 via CinemaTreasures // CC BY 3.0

Fun to say, not so much fun to experience. Preceding such gimmicks as Smell-O-Vision and Odorama, AromaRama introduced an additional sensory stimulant to moviegoers via their nostrils. As opposed to scratch-and-sniff cards, the 1959 innovation promised to “suffuse a theater’s air with recognizable smells … on cue, and clear the air of one odor and substitute another every 90 seconds.”

Curiously, AromaRama debuted with a rather dry documentary about China, Behind the Great Wall, at New York’s DeMille Theater. The New York Times found the experience to have only “capricious” odors working in harmony with the visuals and labeled the entire thing a stunt. With expenses running up to $7500 to install the pungent scents and a slightly nauseating deodorant into an air system, few have had the experience of smelling a great film.


Movieclips Trailer Vault via YouTube

How high was the movie industry on Sensurround, a soundtrack that could produce bass so deep that theater seats rattled? In 1974, Universal was bestowed with a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for their work in getting the technology up and running. Roughly 17 theaters across the country were equipped with the necessary woofers and amplifiers for Earthquake, a star-studded disaster movie.

That kind of sensory assault came at a price: At Mann’s Chinese Theater, the effect was so profound that it literally shook the plaster from the walls, forcing managers to install a safety net over the audience; auditoriums with massive chandeliers and other light fixtures kept their distance, fearing the vibrations could cause a real-life disaster; the vibrations bled into neighboring screening rooms; projectionists popped aspirin because they were subjected to the thudding soundtracks all day long. Sensurround wasn’t a bad idea—it was just too effective for its own good.


“See the hunter, see the hunted, both at the same time!” Long before picture-in-picture was ever implemented in televisions, MGM had the novel idea to offer audiences more than one visual feed with 1973’s Wicked, Wicked, a trope-filled serial killer thriller. For its entire running time, viewers were subjected to dual frames, with the figures on the left (the victims) oblivious to what was happening on the right (a murderer lurking in the curtains). Only occasionally did the film use the technique to add depth to the story, as in the case of one frame flashing back to a character’s tumultuous past.

Director Richard Bare allegedly got the idea from driving down a highway and becoming intrigued by the dividing line in the road; MGM had originally intended to require theaters to run two 35mm projectors at once before realizing they could just strike both frames on the same print. While other filmmakers have experimented with the technique, split-screen never caught on.


Living down to his reputation as a carnival producer, William Castle continued to stir up publicity for his films by installing theater equipment that he dubbed Percepto for 1959’s The Tingler starring Vincent Price. In what must have been one of the earliest examples of interactive entertainment, a select number of seats were equipped to deliver a vibration when the spine-hugging “tingler” creature invaded a theater onscreen. (The boxes were actually airplane de-icing machines Castle bought at a military surplus.) The only way to fight the parasitic monster was to scream, which the audience did, no doubt egged on by the strange and uninvited motor humming beneath their buttocks.

At a theater in Philadelphia, a truck driver became so incensed by the gimmick that he rose and angrily tore the seat from the floor. Castle never brought Percepto out for an encore.


The CD-ROM gaming craze of the 1990s didn’t go ignored by Hollywood, which began to anticipate that audiences would want to exert more control over their entertainment. What if they could choose whether Rocky won or lost a bout, or whether Dorothy stayed in Oz? To test the waters, a production company called Interfilm released the revenge action-comedy Mr. Payback, written and directed by Bob Gale (Back to the Future), in 1995. In 44 theaters, attendees could choose a course of action onscreen by “voting” with colored joystick buttons installed in their armrests. Laserdisc players running in concert would then broadcast their selection with no noticeable delay.

It was not the revelatory experience they had hoped for. Roger Ebert labeled the 20-minute film “offensive and yokel-brained” for being preoccupied with toilet humor. He did not specify which color button he used to later vote it the year’s worst film.


John Lambert Pearson via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The real secret to huge box office is to convince audiences to see films more than once. That kind of repeat business helped films like Star Wars, Avatar, and Titanic to record grosses. Paramount attempted to cheat the system a bit with 1985’s Clue, a murder mystery based on the board game. Theaters screening the movie would get one of four endings that would reveal a different killer, with the hope being that fans would then see the movie over and over to catch the alternate finales. (After dropping one ending during production, the studio used a letters system—A, B, C,—in newspaper listings so people could keep track of the remaining three.) Unfortunately, most didn’t want to see it even once: it was pummeled by Rocky IV in its opening weekend, ultimately grossing just $14 million.


At the height of the gimmick craze of the late 1950s, Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) made the most audacious attempt to date to please audiences by offering—or threatening—to hypnotize them. Dubbed Hypno-Vista, the conceit consisted of nothing more than a prolonged introduction by hypnotist Emile Franchel before the British-produced movie—about a writer hypnotized to become a killer—begins. Producer Herman Cohen later insisted the introduction was taken out of prints sent for television broadcast because it actually did put viewers under Franchel’s influence. Watch a portion of it above, if you dare.

Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
15 Must-See Holiday Horror Movies
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

Families often use the holidays as an excuse to indulge in repeat viewings of Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Elf. But for a certain section of the population, the yuletide is all about horror. Although it didn’t truly emerge until the mid-1970s, “holiday horror” is a thriving subgenre that often combines comedy to tell stories of demented Saint Nicks and lethal gingerbread men. If you’ve never seen Santa slash someone, here are 15 movies to get you started.


Most holiday horror movies concern Christmas, so ThanksKilling is a bit of an anomaly. Another reason it’s an anomaly? It opens in 1621, with an axe-wielding turkey murdering a topless pilgrim woman. The movie continues on to the present-day, where a group of college friends are terrorized by that same demon bird during Thanksgiving break. It’s pretty schlocky, but if Turkey Day-themed terror is your bag, make sure to check out the sequel: ThanksKilling 3. (No one really knows what happened to ThanksKilling 2.)


Fittingly, the same man who brought us A Christmas Story also brought us its twisted cousin. Before Bob Clark co-wrote and directed the 1983 saga of Ralphie Parker, he helmed Black Christmas. It concerns a group of sorority sisters who are systematically picked off by a man who keeps making threatening phone calls to their house. Oh, and it all happens during the holidays. Black Christmas is often considered the godfather of holiday horror, but it was also pretty early on the slasher scene, too. It opened the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and beat Halloween by a full four years.


This movie isn’t about Santa Claus himself going berserk and slaughtering a bunch of people. But it is about a troubled teen who does just that in a Santa suit. Billy Chapman starts Silent Night, Deadly Night as a happy little kid, only to witness a man dressed as St. Nick murder his parents in cold blood. Years later, after he has grown up and gotten a job at a toy store, he conducts a killing spree in his own red-and-white suit. The PTA and plenty of critics condemned the film for demonizing a kiddie icon, but it turned into a bona fide franchise with four sequels and a 2012 remake.


This Finnish flick dismantles Santa lore in truly bizarre fashion, and it’s not easy to explain in a quick plot summary. But Rare Exports involves a small community living at the base of Korvatunturi mountain, a major excavation project, a bunch of dead reindeer, and a creepy old naked dude who may or may not be Santa Claus. Thanks to its snowy backdrop, the movie scored some comparisons to The Thing, but the hero here isn’t some Kurt Russell clone with equally feathered hair. It’s a bunch of earnest kids and their skeptical dads, who all want to survive the holidays in one piece.


To All a Goodnight follows a by-now familiar recipe: Add a bunch of young women to one psycho dressed as Santa Claus and you get a healthy dose of murder and this 1980 slasher flick. Only this one takes place at a finishing school. So it’s fancier.

6. KRAMPUS (2015)

Although many Americans are blissfully unaware of him, Krampus has terrorized German-speaking kids for centuries. According to folklore, he’s a yuletide demon who punishes naughty children. (He’s also part-goat.) That’s some solid horror movie material, so naturally Krampus earned his own feature film. In the movie, he’s summoned because a large suburban family loses its Christmas cheer. That family has an Austrian grandma who had encounters with Krampus as a kid, so he returns to punish her descendants. He also animates one truly awful Jack-in-the-Box.


“Eat me, you punk b*tch!” That’s one of the many corny catchphrases spouted by the Gingerdead Man, an evil cookie possessed by the spirit of a convicted killer (played by Gary Busey). The lesson here, obviously, is to never bake.

8. JACK FROST (1997)

No, this isn’t the Michael Keaton snowman movie. It’s actually a holiday horror movie that beat that family film by a year. In this version, Jack Frost is a serial killer on death row who escapes prison and then, through a freak accident, becomes a snowman. He embarks on a murder spree that’s often played for laughs—for instance, the cops threaten him with hairdryers. But the comedy is pretty questionable in the infamous, and quite controversial, Shannon Elizabeth shower scene.

9. ELVES (1989)

Based on the tagline—“They’re not working for Santa anymore”—you’d assume this is your standard evil elves movie. But Elves weaves Nazis, bathtub electrocutions, and a solitary, super grotesque elf into its utterly absurd plot. Watch at your own risk.

10. SINT (2010)

The Dutch have their own take on Santa, and his name is Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas travels to the Netherlands via steamship each year with his racist sidekick Zwarte Piet. But otherwise, he’s pretty similar to Santa. And if Santa can be evil, so can Sinterklaas. According to the backstory in Sint (or Saint), the townspeople burned their malevolent bishop alive on December 5, 1492. But Sinterklaas returns from the grave on that date whenever there’s a full moon to continue dropping bodies. In keeping with his olden origins, he rides around on a white horse wielding a golden staff … that he can use to murder you.

11. SANTA’S SLAY (2005)

Ever wonder where Santa came from? This horror-comedy claims he comes from the worst possible person: Satan. The devil’s kid lost a bet many years ago and had to pretend to be a jolly gift-giver. But now the terms of the bet are up and he’s out to act like a true demon. That includes killing Fran Drescher and James Caan, obviously.


Another Santa slasher is on the loose in All Through the House, but the big mystery here is who it is. This villain dons a mask during his/her streak through suburbia—and, as the genre dictates, offs a bunch of promiscuous young couples along the way. The riddle is all tied up in the disappearance of a little girl, who vanished several years earlier.


Several years before Silent Night, Deadly Night garnered protests for its anti-Kringle stance, Christmas Evil put a radicalized Santa at the center of its story. The movie’s protagonist, Harry Stadling, first starts to get weird thoughts in his head as a kid when he sees “Santa” (really his dad in the costume) groping his mom. Then, he becomes unhealthily obsessed with the holiday season, deludes himself into thinking he’s Santa, and goes on a rampage. The movie is mostly notable for its superfan John Waters, who lent commentary to the DVD and gave Christmas Evil some serious cult cred.

14. SANTA CLAWS (1996)

If you thought this was the holiday version of Pet Sematary, guess again. The culprit here isn’t a demon cat in a Santa hat, but a creepy next-door neighbor. Santa Claws stars B-movie icon Debbie Rochon as Raven Quinn, an actress going through a divorce right in the middle of the holidays. She needs some help caring for her two girls, so she seeks out Wayne, her neighbor who has an obsessive crush on her. He eventually snaps and dresses up as Santa Claus in a ski mask. Mayhem ensues.

15. NEW YEAR’S EVIL (1980)

Because the holidays aren’t over until everyone’s sung “Auld Lang Syne,” we can’t count out New Year’s Eve horror. In New Year’s Evil, lady rocker Blaze is hosting a live NYE show. Everything is going well, until a man calls in promising to kill at midnight. The cops write it off as a prank call, but soon, Blaze’s friends start dropping like flies. Just to tie it all together, the mysterious murderer refers to himself as … “EVIL.”

The American Museum of Natural History
10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.


Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.


We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.


When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.


Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.


Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.


Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.


Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.


Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.


If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.


The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.


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