In distilling an entire film down to two and a half minutes or less, some things are bound to get lost in translation. With so much competition, the emphasis seems to be put on showing at least a little of every, major setpiece and giving audiences a strong idea of what to expect.
On the other hand, some trailers hide what the film really is–we’ve all seen trailers that have given us a certain expectation, only to leave us a little baffled once we see the final film. Sometimes it’s to avoid giving away spoilers or keeping some surprises back for the film itself, but more often it’s to convince an audience to see something that they might otherwise not.
We’re not talking about the trailers that didn’t give away the whole plot, because goodness knows that there aren’t enough trailers that keep some of the big surprises until the film, especially in “four-quadrant” tentpole movies. We’re not getting into TV spots either, as the focus in these ads is endlessly changeable depending on the demographic they’re trying to reach, especially in “four-quadrant” tentpole movies.
These are trailers that actively engaged in misleading the audience about the film they advertised, either by omitting something pivotal or taking clips out of context to either genre-hop or tell a different narrative to the filmmakers’ intentions. From mild porkies to downright sneakiness, here’s our pick of the trailers that kept stuff hidden from the audience.
Honorable Mention: Alien 3
The trailer: “In 1979, we discovered in space, no one can hear you scream. In 1992, we will discover on Earth, everyone can hear you scream.”
The film itself… does not take place on Earth. As misleading trailers go, this may be the most infamous of all time, but in all good conscience, we can’t include it on this list. This early teaser wasn’t so much hiding what David Fincher’s troubled sequel would become so much as taking a wild guess based on where development was at that point.
We’ve previously looked back at the fraught development process of this film on the site, but the trailer is worth a mention as a rare instance of a studio misleading the audience by completely jumping the gun on the film.
25. Reign of Fire
The trailer: In the year 2084, humanity fights off an invasion of dragons.
The film itself… largely takes place in 2020. It comes to something when the trailer can’t even get the date right. Anyhoo, the trailer for Rob Bowman’s underappreciated fantasy thriller tends to make the characters’ efforts look like the first response to dragon attacks, when it’s actually a post-apocalyptic film in which most of the characters were born into a world destroyed by the fire-breathing bastards.
The result of having a trailer this kick-ass for a film that doesn’t necessarily rely on action all the way through is to build up audience expectations unduly. For instance, the trailer gives entirely different meaning to the final shot of Matthew McConaughey leaping through the air with an axe, which actually turns out to be way more bad-ass, but with entirely different implications, in the film itself.
Oh and this is off-topic, but because we mentioned Reign of Fire, we do have to give props to the film for having the greatest Star Wars reference in any movie ever. If you’ve seen it, you know what we mean.
24. House At The End Of The Street
The trailer: “To uncover the truth, you have to go back to where it all began.”
The film itself… is less impressive than the time-bending trailer. Edited by mOcean’s Jay Bender, this acclaimed “Playback” trailer was at the forefront of Relativity Media’s marketing re-mount of this Jennifer Lawrence thriller. Originally pegged for release in April 2012, it was pushed back several months in the wake of the buzz around The Hunger Games.
It’s a pretty good trailer, but it hides the film’s more grounded boy-next-door thriller leanings, which landed somewhere between Twilight and Psycho, with the reversed footage gimmick and a final shot that implies a possessed little girl. The film itself is one of those minor thrillers that would usually first be discovered on the DVD shelves at Asda – misleading as it is, that’s an impressive turnaround.
23. Red Eye
The trailer… starts out as a romance between Cillian Murphy and Rachel McAdams as they wait to board a delayed plane, but he’s got these demonic red eyes.
The film itself… like Reign of Fire, is another underappreciated film that’s well worth checking out – it’s just that there’s no supernatural stuff involved. The trailer for this Wes Craven gem crosses the line twice, first by setting up the meet-cute in the airport lounge, doing a well-worn trailer gag of setting up the film as one thing before veering into another genre.
The unnecessary CGI effect on Murphy’s eye is a bit of a hat on a hat. The last 30 seconds of the trailer pumps up the adrenaline and makes it clear that this is going to be more of a thriller than it first appeared, but apparently can’t resist tipping into supernatural horror that just doesn’t exist in the film.
22. Star Trek: Generations
The trailer: Captains Jean-Luc Picard and James T. Kirk team up to face a dangerous new foe.
The film itself… is a big-screen handover from the original series to The Next Generation, but with much more emphasis on the latter. On the basis of this trailer, you would think that Picard and Kirk, along with their respective ships and crews, team up to fight off Malcolm McDowell’s Dr. Soran, but they only really team up to beat him up at the end, with Kirk dying less than heroically in the process (Bridge on the Captain!).
On a related note, the trailer for the previous instalment, The Undiscovered Country, apparently showed Kirk being disintegrated. In the context of the film, this was a shapeshifter in Kirk’s form, but at least they managed not to give away the real death scene in the sequel.
The trailer: Demi-god Hercules fights off mythical beasts and protects a city from an immortal army.
The film itself… is a little more skeptical about that kind of thing. All of the mythical beasts in the trailer – the Hydra, the Erymanthian Boar and the Nemean Lion – appear only in the first five minutes of the film. In fact, they’re part of a story told by Herc’s nephew Iolaus, about events that may or may not have happened.
Brett Ratner’s film, based on the graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars, was a surprisingly fun romp. The flattening of more mythical aspects wasn’t in the service of making a dark and gritty reboot, but presenting a more off-kilter adventure that frankly had its cake and ate it too when it came to the title characters’ superpowers. Some viewers may have been tricked into it, but it was a cut above the other knock-offs of 300 we’ve seen in recent years.
20. About Time
The trailer: Time traveller Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) uses his gifts to woo a girlfriend Mary (Rachel McAdams) but accidentally erases his relationship while trying to make life perfect.
The film itself… is done with this side of the story by about an hour in – Tim only erases their first meeting, leading him to try and recreate their meet-cute. About Time is as romantic as any of Richard Curtis’ movies, but it’s a film about making the most of the time you’ve got, whether it’s one lifetime or relative centuries. Added to which, it’s more about Tim’s relationship with his father, played by Bill Nighy.
In the second half of the film, with Tim and Mary happily wed, the focus shifts more to our hero’s relationships with his wayward sister and ultimately, his father. The trailer shifts a father-son exchange from this part of the film to make it look like it’s about Mary, and generally keeps the tone breezy and funny. The film itself gets a little more poignant as it goes on, as a result of the plot concentrating more on Nighy and Gleeson’s characters than the trailer would suggest.
The trailer: Originally it was billed as Walt Disney’s adaptation of the animal romance beloved by book-of-the-month club readers. Latterly, it concentrates more on Bambi’s childhood.
The film itself… is both, but it’s another example of marketing that crossed the line twice, this time across the span of 60 years. Neither the original, more ‘twitterpated’ trailer nor the anniversary DVD trailer happen to cover the film’s notorious unfortunate event – the death of Bambi’s mother.
While the original dramatic trailer focused more on the grown-up Bambi and his coming-of-age struggles, the latter approach emphasises the cute baby animals, skittering around on the ice and such like. It’s got to be tough to find an appealing way to broach that less than cheery middle ground in a trailer, but even after six decades of the film being out there, Bambi’s mother still can’t be here.
The trailer: An adrenaline-fueled crime drama in which a getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) gets mixed up with the mob after a heist gone wrong.
The film itself… follows that logline, but it’s hardly Fast & Furious. In hindsight, this trailer doesn’t misrepresent the plot of the film, but it does cherry-pick from each and every one of the action sequences, plus dialogue from several pivotal scenes from after the first hour, to bely the more laconic pace set by director Nicolas Winding Refn.
Drive is held up as a modern classic of neo-noir cinema in many quarters, but not everyone was best pleased by the trailers – infamously, one woman tried to file a class-action lawsuit against the studio behind the film, as well as the cinema where she saw it, for featuring “very little driving”. But we’re not even halfway through this list yet and there are definitely worse culprits.
17. Seven Psychopaths
The trailer: A knockabout hitman comedy about seven psychopaths.
The film itself… is a much darker hitman comedy about a potential film about seven psychopaths. The trailer even misrepresents who the titular psychopaths are – the title refers to alcoholic screenwriter Marty’s script. The characters are mostly based on people Marty meets, but the trailer also suggests more prominence for Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko’s characters by labelling them as psychos.
Seven Psychopaths may have been broader than Martin McDonagh’s previous film In Bruges, which had a similar case of the trailer hiding how dark it really was. Both films are very dark as well as being very funny, but this is another case of the trailer doing some editing gymnastics to adjust the context of the story.
16. Paranormal Activity 3
The trailer: Undiscovered footage from the 1980s shows how the sisters from the first two films were terrorised as children.
The film itself… is pretty close to that, but with the notable omission of most of the apparently specially shot footage in the trailers. For instance, contrary to the trailer above, we don’t get a scene where a house is burned to the ground, nor do we get to see a medium being telekinetically whupped by the paranormal gribbly.
We’re all familiar with the complaints about the horror franchise’s laconic pacing by now, and this trailer made the sequel look more eventful than it was. But the third film may be the most innovative of the sequels to date, and though it was more than a little disingenuous to hide the setpieces that made it into the film, they were undeniably better in context for not having been trodden over in every trailer before we even got into the cinema.
The trailer: An action-packed war movie about soldiers in Iraq, with comedic elements and Star Wars references.
The film itself… is Sam Mendes’ deconstruction of war movies, in which the entire point is that the main platoon in the film never even see direct action. This makes the jokier elements much darker in context. Again, it’s a well constructed trailer, and some of us still associate Kanye West’s Jesus Walks with this film because the trailer is so effective.
In these heady days of American Sniper breaking the bank, it’s worth noting that it finally gave some audiences what they wanted after seeing trailers like this, even if Mendes’ film is probably the more thoughtful and realistic of the two.
14. The Grey
The trailer: In short, Liam Neeson: Wolf Puncher
The film itself… is a far more subdued and existential exploration of man versus nature, in which Neeson and co are screwed even if the wolves don’t get them. With a limited CGI budget, we don’t see a whole lot of the growling meanies when they do show up, and more survivors die from exposure to the elements than combat with wolves.
The trailer might give the impression of a cooler movie, but Joe Carnahan’s film is actually more cold than cool, and it’s all the better for it. It’s just a shame that in the process of hiding that, the trailer goes up to, and includes the terrific final shot of the film.
13. Observe & Report
The trailer: Seth Rogen is a mall security guard who has to take down a flasher and get the girl.
The film itself… is a dark comedy, in which director Jody Hill doffs his cap to Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle in the form of Rogen’s manic-depressive Ronnie Barnhardt. The green-band trailers may or may not have capitalized on the success of family comedy Paul Blart: Mall Cop, even though all concerned stressed that the two films are completely different.
In the age of online trailers, R-rated comedies can show off more raunchy stuff in red-band trailers like this one, which wouldn’t normally pass for general audiences, but this misrepresents the film’s pitch-black tone. For instance, there’s an already dodgy shot of Ronnie having sex with an all-but-unconscious Brandi (Anna Faris) after she takes some pills, played for laughs.
In the film, she doesn’t know she’s taking Ronnie’s prescription drugs and the sex scene is actually a date rape scene. Whatever your thoughts on the film and how it plays in context, it’s a pretty reprehensible way to play it in the trailer.
12. Inglourious Basterds
The trailer: “You haven’t seen war until you’ve seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino.” A group of soldiers, led by Brad Pitt, cut a bloody swath through Nazi-occupied France.
The film itself… is about two parallel plots to take out the Nazi high command at a film premiere, one of them an undercover mission planned by the British government and the other a revenge plot by a Jewish cinema owner named Shosanna. The Basterds stumble into the former plot, but the nominal protagonist is Shosanna.
The trailer is mostly made up from one scene in the second chapter of the film’s five-act structure, and doesn’t include any hints to the characters played by Melanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender or eventual Oscar winner Christoph Waltz. In an approach that was echoed by last year’s Fury, it’s very much a “Brad Pitt kills Nazis” movie if you’re watching it for that sort of thing, but it’s also much more.
11. Max Payne
The trailer: “The Devil is building his army. Max Payne is looking for something that God wants to stay hidden.”
The film itself… is based on the popular video game series, in which a policeman has hallucinations of angels and demons while investigating the death of his wife and child in the criminal underworld of New York City. On the basis of the trailer, you’d think it was Mark Wahlberg Talks To Demons.
read more: Whatever Happened to Max Payne?
Video game movies don’t typically get good adaptations, but rather than playing to the Sin City-like noir elements of the story, 20th Century Fox apparently decided to amp it up as a Constantine-style supernatural thriller. It’s not the only time that trailers have used a dream sequence or hallucination out of context to give a different impression of the film – we’ll come back to that.
10. A Single Man
The trailer: A mysterious montage, set to classical music and a ticking clock, that tells you how much the critics loved it and… not much else.
The film itself… is a tragic drama about an English professor struggling with depression on the first anniversary of his boyfriend’s death. After The Imitation Game‘s depiction of Alan Turing’s sexuality, who could have guessed that The Weinstein Company could have produced such a coy trailer for an awards favourite?
The intriguing trailer goes one worse than merely not mentioning the lead character’s sexuality, it includes just about every intimate shot of Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, out of context to suggest a romance between the two of them. Matthew Goode, as the late boyfriend, and Nicholas Hoult, as a student and potential love interest, are barely featured. As trailers go, this is practically closeted.
The trailer: Steven Spielberg presents a film in which a boy’s pet monster becomes “clever, mischievous, and dangerous” when fed after midnight.
The film itself… isn’t quite as much like E.T. as the trailer lets on. The ‘Awesome Filmmaker Presents A Film They Didn’t Direct’ cliche is a whole other can of worms, but director Joe Dante has since admitted to the Associated Press that the trailers were “imitating the color and style of the E.T. ads… [audiences] felt like they had been sold something family friendly and it wasn’t entirely family friendly.”
In the course of not spoiling anything, the trailer isn’t very open about how this is a horror comedy. “Clever, mischievous and dangerous” doesn’t exactly cover the violent carnage that the much-scarier looking Gremlins wreak and audiences thought so too. Along with Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, this was one of the films that led Spielberg to campaign for the MPAA to institute the PG-13 rating.
8. The Lord of the Rings
The trailer: A film of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy about magic rings and war between good and evil.
The film itself… covers about two thirds of the trilogy. Ralph Bakshi’s landmark animation ends with the battle of Helm’s Deep, the same event that would close the eventual live-action version of The Two Towers. The studio bods at United Artists blanched at the prospect of marketing the film as ‘Part One’, and against Bakshi’s wishes, they marketed the film as The Lord of the Rings.
“Had it said ‘Part One,’ I think everyone would have respected it,” Bakshi later said. “But because it didn’t say ‘Part One,’ everyone came in expecting to see the entire three books, and that’s where the confusion comes in.”
The film was still a box office success, but the planned conclusion never manifested, leaving this trailer’s promise that “the mortal men and dwarf lords and elven princes come, to stand together in a single army and thunder against the hosts of darkness at the very gates of doom” unfulfilled. Well, until Peter Jackson got around to it anyway.
The trailer: A bereft scientist (Bryan Cranston) investigates shady goings-on at a nuclear power plant as a 300-foot monster re-emerges to wreak havoc on the world.
The film itself… took quite a bit of flak from online commenters for trading on Bryan Cranston’s gravitas when his character, Joe Brody, doesn’t feature after the first act. Gareth Edwards’ take instead places more prominence on Brody’s soldiering son Ford, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Aside from Ford being one of the blandest leading characters in recent blockbuster history, it might have been more interesting to have an older lead, whether it was Cranston or the similarly underused Ken Watanabe.
The film’s not called Cranston, so that might have been alright, except that the trailer actually represents Godzilla’s involvement in the film a little too well for some. In the tradition of the Toho sequels, it’s about humans trying and failing to fight off other monsters until the big lug shows up to lay the smackdown on them. Godzilla is still an impressive work, albeit in a very different way that we’d been led to expect by the trailers.
6. Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street
The trailer: A Gothic horror story about a barber taking vengeance on the judge who framed him.
The film itself… is a Gothic horror story about a barber taking vengeance on the judge who framed him. Oh yeah, and it’s a musical. Anyone who’s gone to see musicals in the cinema in the last few years can testify to some small number of patrons who will walk out or otherwise complain when the film starts and they hadn’t realised the characters would be singing the plot – speaking personally, I counted half a dozen who walked out of Into The Woods ten minutes in, when I saw it.
Ray Winstone starred in a non-musical BBC adaptation of the story in 2006, which could have led to confusion with filmgoers. But as in this case, studios are often backwards in coming forwards with trailers for musicals – there’s only one clip of singing in the whole trailer for Sweeney Todd, and it’s in Johnny Depp’s brand of speak-singing, making this one of the most notorious misleading trailers of recent years.
5. Pan’s Labyrinth
The trailer: “In darkness, there can be light.” A fantasy movie about a young girl escaping her bleak life by entering a fairy tale world.
The film itself… is a psychological horror parable with fairy tale influences, which Guillermo del Toro has dubbed “spiritual successor” to The Devil’s Backbone. Set during the Spanish Civil War, the film is a slightly terrifying story about fascism, and not a kiddy fantasy adventure. Oh, and it’s also very much Not In The English Language.
As with musicals, many trailers made for English speaking markets will hide the fact that a breakthrough foreign language hit is subtitled by only showing clips without dialogue. Here, as in other trailers, it falls to a gravel-voiced narrator to make some alternative sense of what we’re seeing. Right up to the very end of the film, the tone is far bleaker than this trailer suggests.
The trailer: A funny snowman and a funny reindeer have a funny fight over a carrot.
The film itself… is an adaptation of The Snow Queen, in which a klutzy princess has to help her older sister overcome fear and social anxiety brought on by her ability to freeze stuff. Don’t let them in, don’t let them see, indeed.
Disney did put out a couple of more representative trailers before release, but for many of us, the film itself was a nice surprise after seeing this trailer for months on end. Olaf and Sven are funny supporting characters, sure, but the dominance of this teaser trailer shows how the House of Mouse has been reluctant to market a “film for girls.” (see also: the prominence of Flynn Rider in every Tangled trailer.)
But the success of Frozen bucked that trend. Boys and girls alike loved Frozen when it finally hit cinemas, and it can hardly have escaped anyone’s notice that Queen Elsa’s anthem Let It Go became a way bigger hit than Olaf’s comic relief number In Summer.
3. Bridge To Terabithia
The trailer: “Somewhere beyond the road, somewhere across the stream, something incredible is waiting to be found.” Two children discover a magical realm of giants and monsters in the trees near their home.
The film itself… is about two children who imagine a magical realm while playing in the trees near their home, as they try to deal with the stresses of childhood. That’s a slightly harder sell, but Disney and Walden Media, who previously gave us The Chronicles Of Narnia, likely knew what they were doing here, and it was even further from the mark than the aforementioned Pan’s Labyrinth trailer.
There’s also a pivotal twist that no one should have expected to see in any of the trailers, which the film handles very well, but that makes the more fantastical chicanery all the worse. If you dismissed this as just another Narnia knockoff, then you will have missed out on a thoughtful and grounded depiction of childhood unhappiness and loss. But if you took the kids along to see the same, you’ll have probably left quite disappointed.
2. Kangaroo Jack
The trailer: Two bumbling best friends pursue a talking kangaroo across the Outback after it runs off with $50,000 of mob money.
The film itself… is a gangster comedy that the studio decided to market as a family film when they realised they had a real dingo on their hands. Just as Terabithia was mis-represented as real, the talking/rapping kangaroo that appears in the trailer is a hallucination that only appears in one scene. For the rest of the film, it’s just a regular kangaroo that happens to be carrying 50 grand in the pocket of a hoody.
Depressingly, this bit of subterfuge worked like gangbusters and the film hit the top spot at the US box office in its opening weekend. It was projected that the film would have bombed if it had been marketed more honestly. Warner Bros then shamelessly proffered an animated, kid-friendly sequel, Kangaroo Jack: G’Day USA, which went straight to DVD in 2004. We can only think of one film with a more devious marketing campaign…
The trailer: “The best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never directed” A found footage film about online romance that takes a horrific turn.
The film itself… is a documentary, honest! Although there were aspersions about its authenticity at the time of release, the film itself purports to be a documentary about Nev Schulman having an online romance with an older, married woman who poses as a younger girl and various family members.
We’ve saved the most egregiously misleading trailer for last. If you saw this in cinemas, so soon after the massive success of Paranormal Activity, you would never have guessed you were in for a documentary. The critics’ quotes here work entirely in tandem with the misleading marketing, which has the gift of The Financial Times‘ Hitchcockian gushing to aid in the ruse that this is actually a suspenseful horror film.
Incidentally, Angela, the older woman at the heart of the mystery, turns out to be a carer, looking after her two disabled stepsons and technically not hurting anybody by living vicariously through an online romance. On top of all that’s wrong with the film’s representation of Angela, the trailer is particularly hypocritical in giving you the idea that Catfish is something that it’s not.
Irrespective of this, the film was a big critical hit. Directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost went on to direct Paranormal Activity sequels in which, funnily enough, older women were once again demonised. Elsewhere, enough people were legitimately intrigued by the idea that they don’t know who they’re talking to online that the film got a more quirky MTV reality series, fronted by Nev. That’s not bad going for a partly re-staged indie documentary that demonizes a carer.
That’s our list, but when was the last time you were bamboozled by a trailer? Is there a film we’ve missed that you think bore even less resemblance to its trailer than ours? Leave us your thoughts below, and remember, unlike in Alien 3, in the comments section, everyone can hear you scream…