In the 1950s, more and more television sets were finding their way to American homes. While this was great for the fledgling industry, cinema attendance plummeted. In order to keep the film business afloat and the cinemas full, directors and producers had to rely on a variety of strange and eccentric new gimmicks.
- At viewings of the camp-classic horror film The Tingler, certain seats in the cinema were rigged with electrical buzzers that jolted the viewers at the films climax. This playful gimmick added a massive $250,000 (£167,000) to the films budget.
- When Macabre hit the big screen, the director/producer and all around master of movie gimmicks William Castle took out a $1,000 (£666) life insurance policy for any audience member who was frightened, literally, to death. To add ‘ambience’, ushers dressed as surgeons while ambulances were hired to wait outside the cinemas. It was an ingenious bit of marketing that saw the seats filled.
- At the climax of House On Haunted Hill, some theatres were rigged with a pulley system to allow a plastic skeleton to be flown over the audience, corresponding to the terrifying events on screen.
- One of the most surprising gimmicks of the 1950s was 3D cinema. Bwana Devil was the first 3D film entirely in color and kick-started the trend that consumed the early 1950s. However, most 3D films didn’t use the red and blue glasses we associate with the form today, but instead were shot with separate rolls of film. This had the unfortunate side effect of producing headaches for anyone not sitting in the centre of the theatre.
- Yet another bit of Castle genius, his film Homicidal featured a ‘fright break’, where a ticking clock was shown on screen and instructed viewers to leave if they were too scared to continue watching. He set up a ‘Coward’s Corner’, which was a yellow cardboard booth. Those who had wimped out would have to suffer various humiliations then sign a card confirming: ‘I am a bona fide coward,’ before receiving a refund.
- A gimmick known as Illusion-o was used to promote the original Thirteen Ghosts. Audience members were given viewers with red and blue filters. Those who were ‘brave’ could look through the red filters to reveal secret hidden ghosts within the film, while the blue filter could be used to make them disappear.
- The success and innovation of Castle’s gimmicks even inspired legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. When he released Psycho in 1960, he made it a rule that absolutely nobody would be admitted after the start of the film.
- Another peculiar gimmick was Smell-O-Vision. During screenings of Behind The Great Wall and Scent Of Mystery, aromas were pumped into the theatre while the film was in progress. The viewers were greeted by odours such as earth, incense, grass, horses, and torches throughout the film. However, this particular gimmick was somewhat of a flop and received scathing reviews from critics.
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