Filmmaker William Castle was famous for his movie gimmicks, from vibrating chairs to plastic skeletons soaring over the heads of audiences in cinemas. The marketers of 1958’s The Fly, meanwhile, promised to pay $100 to the first person who could prove that its matter-transportation plot “couldn’t happen”.
Selling movies to cynical punters is tough at the best of times, and using tricks and white lies to get people to part with their hard-earned cash is nothing new. And one of the simplest tricks in a movie marketer’s tool bag is to exaggerate an actor’s role in whatever it is they’re trying to sell. So if uncredited bit player number two suddenly becomes an A-list star three years after a movie’s shot, you can be sure that the now famous actor’s name and face will be emblazoned all over the DVD box.
This article is dedicated to cunning marketing moves like this, from ancient films plucked from a star’s archive, to posters and covers that give famous actors and actresses far more prominence than they got in the movie itself. This is by no means an exhaustive list, though, and represents but a small sample of the suspect advertising and misleading cover design lurking in the world’s bargain bins…
THE CHAIN REACTION
Mel Gibson was still at the very beginning of his career when he appeared in The Chain Reaction, an Australian thriller about a nuclear disaster and its survivors, and his walk-on role is such that he probably forgot about it shortly afterwards. When Gibson’s star ascended in the 80s and 90s, some versions of The Chain Reaction loudly trumpeted the actor’s presence, even though he wasn’t even listed in the closing credits. And just to further confuse matters, the picture of Gibson isn’t even taken from the movie; in the movie itself, his character sports a fair amount of luxuriant facial hair.
Gratuitous observation: The picture of Gibson appears to have been borrowed from the Year Of Living Dangerously stage of his career – despite the carnage going on around his head, perpetrated by someone hurriedly cutting him out in Photoshop before their lunch break, the Antipodean actor has a real spark of magic in his eyes. He’s probably thinking about the facial hair he grew for that movie he appeared in for three seconds back in 1980.
Keanu Reeves later insisted that he was “tricked” into making this 2000 serial killer thriller after a friend forged his signature on a contract. In a kind of real-world version of the comedy Bowfinger, Reeves then agreed to appear in the movie in order to avoid a long and expensive legal battle, even though he didn’t particularly like the script.
To add further to Reeves’ pain, The Watcher was marketed in more than one territory with his face emblazoned all over the posters and DVD box, which implies that he’s the movie’s hero rather than the serial killer being hunted by James Spader’s FBI agent. With Reeves nominated as Worst Supporting Actor for his villainous turn, we’re guessing that The Watcher is one movie he’d prefer to forget.
Gratuitous observation: Appropriately enough, Reeves looks really miserable on the DVD sleeve – partly because he didn’t want to be in the movie, and partly because his chin’s being assaulted by a tiny helicopter.
SIZZLE BEACH USA
When Kevin Costner found international success in the late 80s with films such as Silverado, The Untouchables and No Way Out, a little-seen movie called Sizzle Beach USA returned from the actor’s past to haunt him. Unsurprisingly, all the VHS and DVD covers for the movie, which was shot in the 70s and revived by Troma in the 80s, gave Costner top billing. It’s also interesting to note that, with each subsequent re-release, the actor’s head was given greater and greater prominence, even though his role here is relatively minor – a greater proportion of the movie is given over to its female cast, who spend much of the movie in various states of undress.
Gratuitous observation: Costner appears to be wearing the same white-shirt-and-jeans combo he wore in A Perfect World for the shot used in the cover on the top left. He’s also adopting the triumphant pose and expression of a premiership footballer from a 1980s Panini sticker album.
When this forgettable thriller was made in 1987, the most notable name on its credits was Jake La Motta, the retired boxer whose life story was immortalised in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. But when Sandra Bullock’s career took off in the 90s, Hangmen began to reappear in various video shops and bargain bins around the world, this time marketed as a thriller starring Sandra Bullock. That Bullock’s role is a secondary one (she plays a girlfriend and kidnap victim) didn’t stop her name and face being splashed all over the DVD covers that have steadily appeared since.
This wasn’t the only early Sandra Bullock movie to have been plucked from the archives and repackaged, either. The 1992 movie Me & The Mob, otherwise known as Who Do I Gotta Kill, was released years later with covers that played up the presence of both Bullock and Steve Buscemi.
Gratuitous observation: The artful Photoshop work in the Me & The Mob cover on the right implies that Steve Buscemi is a tiny homunculus growing on Sandra Bullock’s shoulder, while the cover on the left markets itself to a no-doubt huge group of movie-watching fans looking out for a “rude and raunchy” gangster thriller in the mode of The Sopranos.
Anyone picking up a copy of Copper Mountain would have been forgiven for thinking that they’d stumbled on a forgotten comedy from Jim Carrey’s back catalogue – look, it even says underneath Carrey’s grinning face, “one of his first and funniest films”. To be fair, Carrey does get a few chances to demonstrate his personal brand of physical zaniness in Copper Mountain, but a greater chunk of this cheaply-made 1983 movie is dedicated to showing off its Colorado ski resort setting, since it was clearly made as an ad for the Club Med skiing village of the title.
Gratuitous observation: The cover on the right is beautifully half-hearted. There’s a mountain, a pair of skis, and a picture of Jim Carrey which appears to have been taken from the cover of Hello magazine circa 1994. Appropriately, Carrey’s positioning in the cover image makes him look as though he’s in the process of quietly marching somewhere else.
THE YIN AND YANG OF MR GO
Directed by Burgess Meredith, 1970’s The Yin And Yang Of Mr Go was a rather strange spy spoof which also happened to provide an early movie credit for a very young Jeff Bridges. The movie’s largely dominated by James Mason as the titular Mr Go, but that didn’t stop marketing types from putting Jeff Bridges’ face on full view when it came to designing its video and DVD boxes. These covers also do a good job of obscuring just how old The Yin And Yang Of Mr Go really is; the images of Bridges on the boxes above were clearly taken in the 80s or 90s, when his success was at its height.
As you can see, the movie was also packaged as a double bill with In Search Of America, a 1971 TV movie which served as another one of Bridges’ early screen credits. In it, he played a college dropout who coaxes his family into going on a road trip – though you wouldn’t necessarily be able to guess that from the image used on the cover of the DVD release.
Gratuitous observation: In three of the images above, Bridges looks as though he’s just caught a whiff of a delicious roast chicken dinner. In the fourth, he looks absolutely furious. It’s though even he can’t believe that the same movie from 1970 is out on DVD yet again.
POWER, PASSION AND MURDER
Here’s another obscure movie dredged from an A-list actor’s back catalogue. As far as we can make out, this particular DVD release began life as two instalments in a series of made-for-TV films called Tales From The Hollywood Hills, which were edited together to make one rather disjointed feature. Michelle Pfieffer stars in one part of the story, playing a young actress in 1930s Tinseltown, though the focus soon shifts to another soapy Hollywood tale. For its many video and DVD releases, images of Pfieffer in modern clothing were chosen, implying that viewers were in for a more contemporary story than they were getting, while more than one implied that Power, Passion And Murder was some form of full-blooded thriller. All we can say is, buyer beware: What Lies Beneath this is not.
Gratuitous observation: Lens flare makes everything better.
THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN
Set in the Great Depression, this 1985 Disney drama was about a young girl (Natty Gann, played by Meredith Salenger) and her journey across country to find her father. Early posters gave Salenger and her wolf sidekick due prominence, but later DVD covers played up the presence of young star John Cusack – quietly overlooking the reality that his character isn’t in the movie for particularly long. As TV Tropes switch out, the cover encourages us to assume that The Journey Of Natty Gann is a two-handed drama about the friendship between Salenger and Cusack’s characters, which isn’t actually the case at all.
Gratuitous observation: The designers of this DVD reissue are so keen to drive home John Cusack’s presence in The Journey Of Natty Gann, they’ve put no fewer than three pictures of him on the back cover.
STAND AND DELIVER
Edward James Olmos was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Jaime Escalante, a teacher who came to the attention of the US media for inspiring his inner-city students to learn calculus. When it came to marketing the movie, though, the decision was made to lead the poster campaign with the sultry face of supporting actor, Lou Diamond Philips – the equivalent of advertising Dead Poets Society with Ethan Hawke’s name and face on the DVD instead of Robin Williams’.
Gratuitous observation: Lou Diamond Phillips had just enjoyed a big hit with La Bamba shortly before the release of Stand And Deliver, which is probably why the movie was marketed with his commanding pout on such prominent display. If it were released again now, it would probably have Olmos restored to top-billing status on the cover, no doubt with the words “Starring Battlestar Galactica’s Admiral Adama!” stamped across the bottom.
Like the marketing for Stand And Deliver, the DVD cover for this 2001 psychological thriller suggests that Eliza Dushku is one of the leading characters, while Melissa Sagemiller (partly obscured by Wes Bentley on the left) is one of the lesser players. Actually, the reverse is true, since Sagemiller plays the central character Cassie, who begins hallucinating after a car accident kills her boyfriend (Casey Affleck), while Dushku appears in a smaller role as one of her friends. Unfortunately, all the shuffling around of talent on the posters couldn’t improve Soul Survivor’s chances at the box office – the movie ultimately took a disappointing $4m at the US box office.
Gratuitous observation: Although from very different ends of its promotional campaign, the bits of marketing above both try to imply that Soul Survivors is a supernatural slasher of some sort. It isn’t.
Take a look at the movie poster for Almost Famous (that’s the one on the left) and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it featured Kate Hudson in the lead. Look at the UK Blu-ray box on the right, and you might even think it’s a drama about Ms Hudson’s skin care regimen.
Instead, Almost Famous is Cameron Crowe’s story about a young music journalist (played by Patrick Fugit), partly inspired by his own career about writing for Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s. To be fair, Kate Hudson does have a prominent role – she plays a character named Penny Lane – and whether you approve of the marketing or not, it’s hard to argue with the quality of the movie itself.
Gratuitous observation: Even though Almost Famous features a great cast, including Billy Crudup, Jason Lee, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Frances McDormand, the designers of the Blu-ray release went that single image of Hudson on the right instead. We’ve no idea why.
Proving that sneaky marketing techniques are still employed from time to time, the DVD cover for Camp Hell implies that it’s some sort of occult horror movie, when it’s really a religious cult thriller filmed as something called Camp Hope. You can’t have failed to have notice Jesse Eisenberg’s face staring back at you, either, which fails to reflect what amounts to a five-minute part in a movie led by the less well-known actor Will Denton.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Eisenberg originally agreed to be in the movie in 2007, long before he leapt to stardom in films like The Social Network, and was paid $7,000 for his brief performance. Irked by the use of his likeness to promote a movie he had little part in, Eisenberg filed a suit against Camp Hell‘s producers in 2011, stating that its artwork could “fraudulently induce his fans to purchase a copy”.
The case is still ongoing, and Eisenberg’s legal team is asking for $3m in damages – more than the indie thriller cost to make in the first place.
Gratuitous observation: The DVD cover on the right proves that, if someone had the nerve to make it, Jesse Eisenberg: Airbrushed Killer would be the most terrifying movie of all time.