Movie trailers have been with us for over a century. The first promotions for upcoming films appeared in the mid-1910s, taking their name from the fact that they followed the main (i.e. follow-up) feature, rather than being screened before. In the 1960s, the format changed from text and voice-over to the faster clip-editing style which has continued to develop ever since. The advent of the internet has made trailers more important than ever for film companies, and today early promotions for major films are as eagerly awaited as the films themselves, with some trailers racking up hundreds. millions of views in the first 24 hours.
Horror, in particular, lent itself to effective trailers. Horror is the only genre that doesn’t need big stars, big budgets, or a familiar IP address to work for audiences and succeed at the box office. The promise of tension, fear, mystery and gore is what draws fans to horror movies. As a result, some of the most inventive and memorable trailers ever made are for horror movies, trailers that can play to the strengths of the movie without having to show a movie star’s face or an explosion every few seconds.
Some classic horror trailers are subtle, like The Exorcist, which simply doesn’t show any of the scary moments, merely alluding to the film’s disturbing content. Others go for the throat – for example, the quickly cut terror montage of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And some break all the rules, like Alfred Hitchcock teasing Psycho shocks in typically tongue-in-cheek style or the Blair Witch Project’s groundbreaking viral campaign.
But as anyone who watches a lot of modern trailers knows, they’ve become incredibly stereotypical in their construction, editing, and styling. Part of that could be the fact that they need to appeal to the widest international audience possible, so the familiar, patterned beats will work well for any nationality or demographic. And why change a formula that works? Marvel fans aren’t looking for a reimagining of the trailer. They want to see their favorite heroes, new faces, and a taste of what surprises the next film contains. And the trailer’s viewing numbers and ensuing box office speaks for itself.
But horror isn’t Marvel. Horror movies themselves don’t need those elements that are crucial to the success of other genres, there seems little reason for their trailers to follow the same formula as others. And yet, horror trailers have become just as bland and predictable as all the other promos and teasers, which makes many modern horror movies seem utterly indistinguishable from one another.
Let’s take a look at the initial trailer for one of 2021’s most hyped horror movies – The Conjuring: Devil Made Me Do It. It begins as many do – an out-of-context scene to set the tone – in this case a bloodied young man wandering, confused, down the street. Eerie, rising soundscapes punctuate the soundtrack. A key line is spoken – “I think I hurt someone” – and then we kill each other. There’s a brief glimpse of the main characters, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, then a voice-over filling in the basic story, as eerie soundscapes rise again, another key line is delivered – “I think that it is time they accepted the existence of the devil”, then silenced again.
Then there are more soundscapes and more voiceovers, ending with another longer clip – this time a boy on a waterbed. The sound rises, then cuts out. There are a few seconds of silence as we brace ourselves for the utterly predictable sudden jump scare… and that’s it! A hand crosses the bed! Now we’re heading for a faster edit of characters delivering dramatic single lines, as the music picks up speed – before, you guessed it… Cut to silence. The sound builds up again as Vera walks through the woods…and no more silence! We are preparing again for another jump scare. Salvation! Something jumps out of the wood at Vera and she runs away screaming. So…oh, you get the idea.
The Conjuring is one of the biggest horror franchises, so it’s perhaps no surprise that whoever made the trailer stuck to a familiar bag of predictable stuff. What’s remarkable is how this structure seems to be used over and over again in the vast majority of modern horror trailers, from Hollywood’s biggest hits to smaller indies. Over the past year, trailers for films such as Candyman, Halloween Kills, the Fear Street Trilogy, Scream, Escape Room 2, Malignant, and The Black Phone have all followed the same pattern to one degree or another. Start with a scene in the middle of the film, cut to silence, a sudden jump, the plot summarized, a few quieter moments that switch to jump scares, and a quick cut, increasingly intense editing until the end. All accompanied by the same disturbing yet generically abstract soundscape.
Even when something new and effective happens in a horror trailer, it doesn’t take long for it to start showing up in seemingly every other promotion that follows. Jordan Peele’s got a great first trailer that was released on Christmas Day 2018, which was made all the more striking by the fact that no one really knew what the film would be about. One of the most distinctive elements was the soundtrack’s squeaky, dissonant violins, which were a refreshing break from the boring ambient textures and really helped put the viewer on edge. But since then, you can’t move for creaky, dissonant violins in horror trailers. Fear Street Part 3: 1966, Candyman, Brahms: The Boy II, and Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin got them all.
Of course, there are modern day horror trailers that remain effective. While the initial Candyman trailer followed a familiar path, this gripping animated teaser was one of the most memorable promos of 2020. The first Antlers trailer contained almost no dialogue, instead creating menace through an inventive collage of percussive sounds and moody shots, while the trailer for recent French body horror Titane was as disturbing, surreal and funny as the film itself.
Horror is as popular today as it ever was. With superhero movies, it’s proven to be the genre that still works at the box office in the age of the pandemic, with films such as Halloween Kills, The Forever Purge and A Quiet Place Part II attracting younger audiences to the theatre. So, again, it’s perhaps no surprise that the marketers behind these hits aren’t in a rush to play with a winning trailer formula. But it’s a pity. At best, trailers can be much more than mere promotion – they can be an art form in their own right, with style and impact as big – and sometimes bigger – than the movie itself. Hopefully the horror trailer rediscovers some of that lost art and spooky magic.