Crafting an effective horror movie trailer is both an art and a science, requiring as much skill, imagination, psychological insight and simple carny showmanship as making a full-length feature. Well, almost as much, anyway. How do you take a two-hour film and condense it down to a minute while still giving would-be audiences a good idea of a movie’s story and style and, beyond that, leaving them eager to plunk down their hard-earned cash to see the whole thing? A good trailer can make even the crappiest film seem like an Oscar contender and a bad one can kill a film weeks before it hits theaters.
There were masters of the form—Welles, Hitchcock, Kubrick—who took trailers seriously enough to film them separately, make them short films unto themselves, and told audiences, sometimes with a single image, everything they needed to know.
These days it’s hard to find a good trailer, maybe only because with the advent of internet buzz a trailer no longer serves the purpose it once did when trailers, radio spots and print ads were the only way to spread the word to potential audiences. So nowadays most films are farmed out to low-rent production houses and handed off to no name hacks who piece together an endless string of seemingly random 5-millisecond clips, slap some techno on the soundtrack to let you know the film is “exciting” and “fast-paced,” then flash the title at the end before calling it a day. Run eight of those back to back in a theater with the volume pumped up to brain-melting levels and audiences are left so battered they won’t know what the hell they’re seeing or why. The funny thing about contemporary trailers is that while most give you absolutely no clue as to what a movie is actually, y’know, about; almost all of them give away the ending.
The 1970s, however, were a golden era for trailers and TV spots, especially when it came to horror movies. Trailers still mattered then and as a result, directors and publicity departments put in a little extra effort, took a few risks, tried some different approaches all in the hopes of making their picture stand out in a marketplace glutted with genre films. In a few rare cases they produced simple movie ads that could send children screaming from the room, prompt recurring nightmares and haunt viewers for decades.
Here are the ten creepiest trailers and spots the era had to offer and some of the most memorable trailers ever made. Watch them all in this player, and then scroll down for more details!
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More details down below!
10. The Sentinel (1977)
Michael Winner’s “the gates of Hell are in Brooklyn Heights” film (a personal favorite) is a borderline inclusion here, simply because on the surface the trailer is not only standard issue; it does everything wrong. The theatrical trailer essentially tells the entire story of the film up to and including the climax. You get the whole thing right there, complete with dialogue. The narration makes it even worse. Over a series of clips we’re told: “There is danger everywhere. There is evil everywhere. Look behind you, Allison! There is horror! But warding off horror there is hope: The Sentinel.”
Now, while that “look behind you” is a nice touch, you aren’t going to sucker people into a devil movie by telling them that there’s “hope.” Who the hell wants to know that before going to see a horror film? When the trailer was condensed into a 30-second TV spot, however, the hope vanished, as did the dialogue and most of the narration, leaving a series of quick cuts focused on the grotesquely misshapen denizens of Hell crowding the screen, reaching for the viewer. It gave no hint as to the plot, but was much more terrifying than the film itself. If you were a kid and saw this while home alone sitting in a dark basement, it was reason enough to start turning on every light in the house while scheming out how you might sneak in to see picture. You can see the trailer here.
9. Exorcist II The Heretic (1977)
“Four years ago, The Exorcist shocked the world,” we’re reminded as the trailer opens. “Now the struggle between good and evil goes on.” It cleverly neglects to mention that the struggle seems to have been going on everywhere but in this picture. John Boorman’s baffling, occasionally hilarious and ultimately disastrous sequel had one thing going for it; a creepy trailer that was creepy in ways that were hard to pinpoint. In many ways it was very simple, just a series of seizure-inducing fast cuts as the announcer (given that he couldn’t exactly sketch out the “plot” or give away the ending) ticked off the all-star cast; Richard Burton, James Earl Jones, Louise Fletcher, Ned Beatty, etc. In that sense it hinted at what every trailer would eventually become, but in ‘77 it was still new and a little disturbing, especially given the nature of some of Boorman’s wild visuals.
But the real key to the trailer’s creepiness was the music. Ennio Morricone wrote the film’s score, but the best piece from that score, “Magic and Ecstasy,” only appeared on the trailer and in the TV spots. Composed for electric guitar, chorus, woodwinds, percussion and whip; it’s a driving, manic opera in a minor key which, when combined with the visuals, takes on the feel of a fever dream that’s just taken a very bad turn. The film as a whole felt that way too, but at least Linda Blair didn’t speak in the trailer and it was over in a minute. You can see the trailer here.
8. Phantasm (1979)
Phantasm was a film so overloaded with hallucinatory visuals that it would have been easy to pluck a good dozen or so and string them together, leaving viewers asking “What the hell was THAT?” A man half sucked into a wall, a flying silver ball with extendable rotating knives, deformed midgets in monks’ robes, endless white corridors. And to a degree that’s exactly what was done here. But when you insert recurring shots of the film’s diabolical undertaker villain, The Tall Man, backlit as he slowly walks down a long hallway toward the camera, you not only hint at a connection between all the insane images, but the abrupt shift of the pacing also adds an undertone of menace.
Now, up to that point the trailer was good, if traditional. But it still had two aces up its sleeve. First was the final grabber. The music and narration fade away as we see a shot of a young man in bed. Everything is silent and it goes on a tick too long when boom, a horde of the aforementioned midgets swing up from either side of the bed and bury him. It’s an incredibly effective shock, doubled by the film’s tagline (one of the best): “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead.” You can see the trailer here.
7. The Last House on the Left (1972) (Radio Spot)
The most remarkable thing about the entire ad campaign surrounding Wes Craven’s savage take on The Virgin Spring (including the title itself) was that it had absolutely nothing to do with the movie. Its sole purpose was to create an atmosphere of anticipatory dread and let audiences know it was a film quite unlike anything they were used to seeing. And to that end it succeeded brilliantly without saying a damn thing. Yes, the focus here is on trailers, but in the case of Last House, the radio spots were even more effective. Over a low, dark, throbbing electronic score interrupted by a few sharp strings, an announcer intones: “It rests on thirteen acres of earth over the very center of Hell…The Last House on the Left…Here is the first motion picture that offers to the daring a look into the final maddening space between life and death…The Last House on the Left… Caution—to avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘It’s only a movie…only a movie…only a movie…’” The ad ends with the innocuous but tantalizing phrase, “Take as much as you can.”
It says absolutely nothing at all that has anything to do with the film, but somehow it still works. Although it was neither the first nor the last movie to use the “it’s only a movie” gimmick, no one has used it more effectively. Even though it was an ad that said absolutely nothing, it has a way of getting under the skin and festering there. More amazing still, the film itself miraculously lived up to the vague but sinister promise of the campaign. You can hear it here.
6. Suspiria (1977) (TV spot)
There’s always been something creepy about children’s nursery rhymes and filmmakers have been taking advantage of this for years whether or not they have anything to do with the movie in question. As the trailer to Dario Argento’s Suspiria opens, we see a woman from behind as she sits in a chair, slowly brushing her long black hair. On the soundtrack a woman recites “Roses are red, violets are blue…” The woman sets down the brush and reaches for a flower, sticking it in her hair as the narration rolls on. “Life is just a flower that’ll be the end of YOU!” On the last word, the chair snaps around (a la Mrs. Bates) revealing a chalk white skull beneath the hair.
Unlike that opening, the clips that follow actually come from the film, but I can guarantee that few people will remember them. They’ll remember that opening, though. As derivative as it is (of Hitchcock as well as some early ‘70s Japanese horror films) and even though it has nothing at all to do with Suspiria, it sticks with you. And then there’s that fantastic tag to cap it off, “The only thing as terrifying as the last twelve minutes of Suspiria, are the first ninety-two.” You can see the trailer here.
5. The Exorcist (1973)
Before the film’s release, Warner Brothers put out a decidedly standard (and deadly dull) trailer for The Exorcist that left the film looking like another drama about a family in crisis. People went to see the movie anyway and when it was clear it was becoming an explosive cultural phenomenon, the studio released a second. The second trailer was simple, it was brilliant and it played an incredibly dirty trick on the audience. Over a dark screen we hear the sound of wind, then fade to the iconic shot in which a cab pulls up in front of a house and the exorcist steps out onto the sidewalk. An oddly calm, almost upbeat narrator states, quite simply: “Something beyond comprehension is happening to a little girl…on this street…in this house. A man has been sent for as a last resort to try and save her.”
The screen fades to black for just an instant before erupting into a series of intense flashes, like bursts from a flashbulb, sometimes revealing nothing except a splash of white on the black screen, sometimes revealing an overexposed image of Linda Blair’s possessed, distorted face. The flashes follow no set rhythm, so the audience can’t predict them and look away. For the next 45 seconds there is no further commentary, only those flashes until the title appears on the screen at the end. The trick of course (akin to the subliminal cuts used in early prints of the film) is that in a dark theater, those images of Linda Blair would be burned into the retinas of audience members, so even if they did look away they wouldn’t be able to escape them. It was a trick Tobe Hooper would use the following year for the opening shots of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You can see it here.
4. Magic (1978) (TV spot)
The idea of a ventriloquist developing an unnatural relationship with his dummy is a well-trod one and of all the films and TV shows that toyed with the theme (from The Great Gabbo to multiple episodes of The Twilight Zone), Magic is without question the most miserable of the lot. Awful, awful movie, even with its all-star cast. But it did spawn one of the most singularly and curiously terrifying 30-second TV spots ever aired in prime time. As with all great trailers, the filmmakers went outside the boundaries of the film to create a mood. And recognizing that, like nursery rhymes, ventriloquist dummies are just creepy by nature, they concentrated on the film’s real star; a rude and foul-mouthed dummy named Fats. Fats wears a turtleneck, has sleepy blue eyes and a wicked, lecherous curl to his lip. Also as with all great trailers, the filmmakers kept it very simple, merely a stationary camera focused on a close up of Fats’ face against a black background. He stares into the camera and recites the following rhyme in his nasty, whiny, abrasive voice:
Abracadabra, I sit on his knee
Presto! Chango! And now he is me.
Hocus Pocus, we take her to bed.
Magic is fun…We’re dead.
His eyes then roll back in his head, the titles come up and that’s it. It sounds like he’s laying out the entire film right there, but he’s not. It has very little to do with the film. He’s just a creepy dummy reciting a creepy poem and it’s absolutely terrifying. Unfortunately, like the poem, the mood created by the ad has nothing to do with the film. You can see it here.
3. It’s Alive (1974) (TV spot)
If you want to make skin crawl and keep it crawling for some time afterward, the operative rule seems to be: keep it simple. While there was nothing unique or interesting about the theatrical trailer for Larry Cohen’s killer baby movie, his 30-second TV spot was an unforgettable masterpiece. As the camera slowly pans around a frilly, white perambulator while a music box tinkles away in the background (music boxes are creepy by nature too, as are baby carriages), a narrator compares most excited new parents with the Davises. The Davises, we’re told, won’t be sending out any baby announcements. This is all we get, the still carriage on a dark stage.
As the camera circles around the far side of the carriage, the narrator hits us with the grabber: “There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby…It’s Alive!” And that’s when the thin, reddish arm ending in a two-fingered claw slips over the edge of the carriage. Cohen didn’t need to show us any more. It was a killer image guaranteed to haunt anyone who saw it for a good long time, and was central to making It’s Alive a hit. You can see it here.
2. Alien (1979)
Not a word is spoken in the trailer for Ridley Scott’s super-sized B-movie. The only thing on the soundtrack is the film’s hissing, grinding score as the camera pans over what appears to be the surface of a barren and unwelcoming planet. A few silent clips of dark action scenes are interjected here and there as the camera comes to focus on what appears to be some kind of egg floating over the surface of the planet. If anything, it’s reminiscent of the opening shots in David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Meanwhile (as was done for the film’s opening credits), the title slowly pieces itself together out of seemingly random line segments. At the end, the egg cracks and an intense greenish light bursts from inside before we get that immortal tag (again unspoken). It’s a trailer that takes its own sweet time to create a deeply unsettling mood.
Who knew what any of these images meant? Still, even without a kindly narrator telling us about a spaceship or a crew or a monster, we knew everything we needed to know. As sophisticated a bit of special effects as it was, it was also incredibly simple and one of the most memorable trailers of the era. You can see it here.
1. The Shining (1980)
Leave it to Kubrick to take a single shot with a stationary camera and create a trailer for a horror film that would become iconic even before the film opened. Audiences had never seen anything like it before or since, and anyone who’s seen it will never forget it. Apart from Wendy Carlos’ atonal score it’s completely silent. The camera stares down a short, carpeted hallway at a red antique elevator door. As the credits roll quietly past, the door slides open and what appear to be thousands of gallons of blood spill out in slow motion, a deep red tsunami.
Although a scene similar to this does appear in the film, here it’s extended, as the blood fills the room and rises over the lens. Pieces of loose furniture come bumping past the camera until the blood swallows the entire screen. When it was over who the hell cared what any of the other previews were talking about? Who the hell even noticed? It was so much more than a movie preview; it was a work of art that stood alone, the creepiest and most powerful trailer ever made and one that, without narrators, without taglines, without anything but that single image instantly wormed its way into the collective subconscious. You can watch it here.