As we get ready to open our Christmas presents from Hollywood (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo! Tin Tin! Uh, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked!) we thought it was worth remembering that eternal truism: Sometimes the wrapping is prettier than the gift. So, with that, let’s look at the greatest packaging Hollywood has ever bestowed on moviegoers: the greatest movie trailers of all time.
The Black Dragon (1975)
Alex Pappademas:0:13: Voice-over guy tells us that after Bruce Lee’s death, “Kung Fu people especially mourned the loss of their most popular hero,” and then we see some kung fu people in traditional Chinese dragon-dance costumes, presumably grieving. This movie is part of the Brucesploitation genre, which thrived after Lee’s demise turned him into the Tupac of chop-socky. The true masterpiece of the category is probably The Clones of Bruce Lee, a.k.a. Death Penalty on Three Robots, which starred Lee impersonators Bruce Le, Bruce Lai, Bruce Thai, and Dragon Lee.
0:18: “The early reports of his death were unclear and confusing.” Implication: This movie’s going to clear everything up. Implication-undercutting hint that maybe this movie itself operates in the same zone of ambiguity its marketing promises to dispel: The fact that the title cards can’t decide if the movie is called The Black Dragon or The Death of Bruce Lee. (On IMDb, it’s listed as The Black Dragon’s Revenge.)
0:21: Our hero, would-be Jim Kelly successor Ron Van Clief, is introduced; he has received an autopsy photo of Bruce Lee in the mail. Ron Van Clief, to camera: “Man.” He looks confused. This is going to be an amazing documentary.
0:32: “A Chinese millionaire from San Francisco was willing to pay $100,000 up front to find out the truth. The assignment went to the most feared man in America — Ron Van Clief.” Wikipedia facts about Ron Van Clief: He was the fight choreographer on The Last Dragon; he made history in 1997 as the oldest man ever to fight in a UFC event (and get choked out after four minutes by Royce Gracie); he was supposed to be in a movie called The Art of Cliefing, but funding was pulled at the last minute “due to widespread protests in Korea,” a nation historically inhospitable to Cliefing after Hawkeye Pierce invented it during the war.
0:38-1:19: Voice-over guy lists Van Clief’s qualifications for this fake job; Van Clief meat-tenderizes a bunch of dudes. You just experienced the Art of Cliefing, motherfuckers!
1:30: “No, baby, it’s the real shit.”
1:39: Fast-motion eye-gouge!
1:55: “His connection: Charles ‘La Pantera’ Bonet — the Puerto Rican Terror!” Who looks like a nunchaku-wielding Pete Townsend, kind of, but who we’re assured is “unsuspectingly, one hell of a kung fu man, something the Chinese didn’t expect to see.” No one expects the unsuspected!
2:36: Slow-motion groin-stomp!
2:54: Sleazy porn-funk groove over title-card reading “Serafim Karalexis presents THE BLACK DRAGON.” Karalexis was still in the picture business as late as 1995, associate-producing something called The Steal, with Alfred Molina. The IMDb page for The Steal has a picture of the DVD box for another, unrelated movie called Steal. Wiki-synopsis of that one: “Slim, Frank, Otis and Alex are a group of youthful bank robbers who commit their crimes in innovative ways involving extreme sports such as skating and snowboarding.” Because there are so, so many banks located at the top of sweet black-diamond snowboarding runs. Stars of this “Steal” include Stephen Dorff and Natasha Henstridge, the Stephen Dorff of women.
3:22: “We’ve said enough. Now we’ll let him do the talking.” Someone kicks Van Clief from behind. “Why, you creep!” he says. Maybe he should not do the talking.
3:44: V/O: “None of that jumpin’ around and flying through the air, because this is the real shit!” For your consideration: THE BLACK DRAGON!
4:18: “Also starring the Latin Terror — Jorge Esparga,” and his Freddy Fender mustache. There is some real transcultural outreach going on here; you get the sense that only scheduling conflicts and/or DGA rules about one movie being too awesome prevented them from including Patrick “The Human Shillelagh” O’Flanrahan, the Hebrew Hammer, and some guy from Finland who gets mean when he drinks.
Dan Silver: Movie trailers are marketing tools. They’re produced and shoved onto the masses with the sole purpose of selling the promise of a cinematic experience worthy of the ever-increasing price of admission. But like many creative mediums living in the Walmart-purchased above-ground pool of consumerism, the truly inspired and unique ones separate themselves, and can (sometimes) be viewed as art. Case in point, the trailer for the 1979 Ridley Scott classic Alien. Just like the film, Alien‘s trailer is calculatingly constructed and deftly executed. It forgoes spoken dialogue and instead builds a minimalist sound design, bleak silence, and quick cuts toward a crescendo. And the benefit of hindsight only makes the trailer more extraordinary. Alien was not based on existing material, so audiences had no prior knowledge of what the film was. So if you know and love the film (like I do), it’s easy to see that its trailer is a cleverly veiled short-film version of the full feature giving away everything without giving away anything. Therefore, when unassuming audiences were barraged with arbitrary images of people in dimly lit and unfamiliar landscapes, space suits, rhythmic Dolby bass (the pinnacle of sound technology then) and eerie shrills, narrow passageways lit by flashing lights, faces of terror, spewing white liquid, bodies convulsing, tentacles, innards — then utter silence and the (best) tagline (ever), “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream.” It’s no surprise curiosity en-mass was piqued. For my money, Alien is one of the top films in the thriller/suspense genre, but its trailer is the best ever made.
Born to Boogie (1972)
Chuck Klosterman: It is important to note that the actual film makes about 1/10 as much sense as its trailer.
Fatal Attraction (1987)
Wesley Morris: I don’t know what movie I had gone to see, but when I was about 11 I saw this trailer and it freaked me out: You mean somebody made a horror movie about an affair? Michael Douglas meets this alluring blonde. They sleep together. He breaks it off. She comes at him with a knife. There’s some screeching noise, but it’s mostly dialogue and mounting hysteria: “Where’s Ellen?” [Dramatic pause from a schoolgirl.] “She’s gone.” Oh my God! Not Ellen! I don’t know even know who Ellen is!
A few weeks after I saw the trailer, Oprah did a show on real-life fatal attractions. Then Michael Douglas and the blonde were on the cover of Time. I didn’t know who Glenn Close was. I just knew that I had to see that movie, which — because Philadelphia, in 1987, had lax parental guardian enforcement — I managed to do about once a weekend for a month. Americans had never really seen a thriller, one that sprang from stuff that happens every day and has knives and guns and a naked 40-year-old woman like that.
The trailer only fed my obsession. It was really something. It manages to convey the scope of the batshit craziness of what happened when you were actually in the theater — the exhilaration! The ride! The missing rabbit! But it doesn’t give away everything. Just Glenn Close sitting on a floor playing with a lamp switch. I didn’t know what misogyny was back then. I just knew that, even before I saw the movie, this woman would be my new Freddy Krueger.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Chris Ryan: One of my favorite films of the past five years. One of my favorite scores of all time (Nick Cave and Warren Ellis). Probably my favorite Brad Pitt performance (subsection, Serious Brad Pitt, because “Rusty” from the Ocean’s movies is one of the great movie-star performances ever). This trailer, accompanied by the pieces “Song For Jesse” and “What Must Be Done,” doesn’t so much spoil or wrap up this incredibly beautiful, moving, and complex movie as it does suggest it. It’s weird, when you watch the film, the shots from this trailer — the burning plain, the snake wrapping itself around Pitt’s arm, Casey Affleck’s eyes blinking at camera flash — will come back like a dream you remember while in line for lunch or something; they seem eerily familiar but in a completely different context.
The Shining (1980)
Dan Fierman: Instead of a long, reasoned, well-thought-out meditation on the beauty of this trailer, the supreme creepiness of the music, the horror of the blood, the simple mastery, or Stanley Kubrick, let me just say this instead: EEEEAAAAAAGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!
Michael Weinreb: There is a scene in Robert Weide’s superb PBS documentary about Woody Allen in which Allen reveals that he’s been utilizing the same typewriter for 50 years, and that his cut-and-paste method involves the literal act of cutting and pasting. It feels like satire, and yet it isn’t; it’s just proof that Allen refuses to let go of the past, which is why those of us who are consumed with Allen’s filmography are also often obsessed with our own nostalgia, which is why Midnight in Paris — a movie centered entirely around yearning for a bygone era — felt like a fitting return to Woody’s vintage comic form.
And so amid this, the fourth or fifth (and perhaps final) renaissance of Woody Allen, it is worth hearkening back again to the Earlier, Funner Epoch, whose trailers, on at least two occasions, consisted of the director mocking the very idea of a trailer. For Sleeper, we get a placid Woody sitting in front of an editing bay, preaching didacticism and intellectualism while an adorable Diane Keaton pratfalls on-screen; and for Bananas, we get Woody in a sit-down with some mustachioed Dick Cavett impersonator, pitching his movie by extolling the acting credentials of Howard Cosell. (“Uh, Louise Lasser.” “Oh, yes, I’ve never heard of her.”). Maybe you think these trailers are slight, but this is what those of us who love Woody Allen have always loved about Woody Allen: He is too preoccupied with the time that’s passed him by to bother selling us on what he’s already done.
Rafe Bartholomew: I began this exercise by searching for the trailer to Firepower, an appropriately nonsensical 1993 action film about cops who infiltrate a lawless part of Los Angeles called the “Hell Zone” to shut down the “Death Ring,” an underground fighting circuit. There’s a counterfeit AIDS vaccine subplot, beheadings, and a cameo from The Ultimate Warrior — all elements I figured would jell into one magnificent trailer.
But along the way I found the trailer for another film called Firepower, this one from 1979, which is so magnificent that its characters say the word “magnificent” twice in the two-minute preview. I haven’t seen this Firepower, but the trailer tells me all I need to know. It begins with a letter bomb, moves onto pill-popping, then cockfighting, and then a mention of “magnificent women,” which coincides with Sophia Loren’s first appearance on-screen. Next comes this setup line: “It would take a miracle to catch him. A miracle called Jerry Fanon.”
Who are we catching? Not clear. Who’s Jerry? James Coburn. Who’s his sidekick? O.J. Simpson. Yes. Then we see some Coburn-Loren flirtation, complete with midnight eyes and undie-melting saxophone music. And finally the trailer ends, like all trailers should, with the star driving a bulldozer through the wall of a house.
The Social Network (2010)
Katie Baker: Of all the patently absurd-sounding film ideas, one in particular ranked pretty high up there for a while. “Wait, they’re making a movie about Facebook?” Sure, the cast sounded solid, the involvement of Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher was intriguing, but the potential loomed large for something silly, something too-soon, something as superficial as your high school frenemy’s profile itself.
That is until The Social Network‘s trailer — created by Mark Woollen and Associates and winner of four “Golden Trailer Awards,” the most since The Matrix — came out. Contrary to popular belief, the most commonly uttered phrase immediately after viewing this preview was not (yet) “ a billion dollars.” It was: “Whoa. That actually looks good.”
The real key was the overlay of Radiohead’s “Creep” as performed by the somewhat aptly named Belgian girl choir Scala. Not only was the rendition haunting, evocative of some Ivy League parents’-weekend performance, the song itself was lyrically perfect, as anyone who has posted strategic Facebook photos or spent hours idly and, yes, creepily browsing them would know. (I specifically enjoyed the image of the girl climbing out of the lake in the bathing suit: so breezy and un-posed, so “I had summer fun,” and, hey lady, nice cleavage!)
More so than The Social Network‘s other trailer, which featured mostly Mark Zuckerberg and was set to Kanye West’s “Power,” this version (“Trailer #2”) introduced nearly all the movie’s characters, from the Winklevii to Erica Albright to even Larry Summers, and gave glimpses of the deft dialogue that might have made Robert Altman proud. It turned audience antipathy into genuine anticipation, and it did this all without distorting the tone and tempo of the film — which, like its very subject, actually did turn out to be “something substantial.”
Rembert Browne: Before seeing the trailer for The Social Network, the only thing on my “anger bucket list” was to be in a board meeting, get fed up with the proceedings, flip the table, walk out, and then go straight to Dippin’ Dots. After seeing this trailer, however, a second item was added to the list: walking into the company of my former best friend, screaming “MARK!!!” at the top of my lungs (no matter what my friend’s name actually is), picking up his computer and smashing it on the table, then walking out and getting Dippin’ Dots. Never before had a trailer gotten me so pumped to see a film. It’s masterful. The choice of Radiohead’s “Creep” (sung by a possessed children’s choir) as the backdrop for a movie about Facebook is genius, as is the news-feed montage in the beginning, Timberlake, and the clips of Harvard undergraduates looking shockingly cool. And on top of all of this, I get two seconds of Rashida Jones. This is my favorite trailer ever. I watch it and I’m like, “Wow, college was so drama.” I miss that feeling.
The Phantom Menace, 1999
Mike Philbrick: Now before you say anything, yes, I know. This movie sucked. But how could it be good? It had been 16 years since the last Star Wars and there was no way George Lucas could live up to everyone’s expectations of perfection. In fact, the term “Episode 1” has become a verb among my friends; as in “Billy Crystal is totally going to Episode 1 himself when he hosts the Oscars.” But this isn’t about the movie. This is about the trailer — or more specifically, the teaser trailer. The one the studio releases a year before the movie comes out to say, “Attention giant buckets of nerd! May the Force be with you!” This is about pure anticipation; those times when you can convince yourself of how great something will be (i.e., parties, the lottery ticket you just bought, your wedding) and your brain doesn’t let even a hint of common sense enter into the fray.
As far as this movie goes, this was before the reality of listening to Jar Jar Binks talk, watching Samuel L. Jackson try to act, and, once again, listening to Jar Jar Binks talk. So thank you, George Lucas, for giving me several months of hope and possibility followed by 133 minutes of childhood-killing reality.
The Third Man (1949)
Jonah Keri: At some point in the past 62 years, movie trailers stopped being subtle and moody and kitschy. We have a hell of a lot more entertainment options now than people did in our grandparents’ prime, hence the need for huge-budget trailers that crack you over the head again and again until you have no choice but to hit the theater. The trailer for Carol Reed’s 1949 classic The Third Man has none of that. The defining feature of this trailer (as in the film) is a damn zither. The dialogue includes gems like this: “Oh, I don’t know, I’m just a hack writer who drinks too much and falls in love with girls.” The film was shot in postwar Vienna, amid actual ruins, and the trailer gives us a feel for that gloomy atmosphere. The old-school voice-over completes the film noir effect.
As someone who didn’t take an interest in old movies until about 10 years ago, I know that all of this might seem hokey if you’re used to only new movies. But watching the trailers for The Third Man or Strangers On a Train or the preposterously self-promoting The Big Sleep isn’t like being urged to eat your Brussels sprouts. These trailers, like the films themselves, are great fun even without wide-screen shots of Megatron blowing shit up.