It’s hard to imagine it now, but once upon a time, some people thought that the trailers were the best part of going to the movies. Watching these awesome horror movie trailers, you can see why. Each is like its own great, scary short film. We guarantee these trailers will leave you wanting to watch the whole film (again, probably).
Every day this month we're bringing you a different Top 13 list from the world of horror. You can find them all here.
The Shining (1980)
Has a trailer ever conveyed so much with incomprehensible whispers, experimental music, a single shot, and some rolling credits? When you see the ocean of blood pouring out of that elevator and washing away the ugly hotel furniture, you just know that this movie’s going to be big, smart, and scary as hell. It makes you afraid—but desperate—to know more.
Another trailer that tells you a lot by telling you very little. We know there is an egg and probably an alien, we know that we will see some awesome space set pieces. The trailer's brilliant sound effects suggest a total state of emergency, and its careful editing implies that we will witness a transition from the peaceful vastness of space to total hell. Then, of course, there is the unobtrusively ominous tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” When I re-watched the trailer to write this article, I wanted to ditch the article and go watch Alien. More props to the trailer editor for prominently including Jones the cat.
Friday the 13th (1980)
Friday the 13th’s trailer gets back to basics. Martha Stewart would approve. For the first time ever, audiences hear the iconic “ki ki ki ma ma ma” theme. Numbers flash quickly across the screen, promising 13 brutal murders, but cleverly cutting away right before showing any gore. Sure, the trailer cheats a little. Crazy Ralph doesn’t get killed in the original, and a few of the death scenes are counted twice. But that’s good. Keeps us on our toes.
The Exorcist (1973)
Warner Brothers allegedly withheld this “flash image” trailer from theaters because it was too scary and disturbing. You’ll see why. It’s easy to imagine innocent people seeing this trailer in the theater and crying “Make it stop!” like Regan when her bed shakes.
The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
Fittingly, the trailer for Exorcist II: The Heretic is the most insane trailer of all time (if you know of one that beats it, please let us know in the comments). Like the movie it advertises, it is histrionic, all over the place, and beautiful. What do psychiatric tests involving strobe lights, a Manhattan tap dance talent show, and Africa have to do with each other? We didn’t know then, we don’t know now. Exorcist II is a gift that transcends “meaning.”
The Last House on the Left (1972)
We see gritty footage of teenage girls being chased by grungy looking killers and hear some of the most accurate movie trailer voiceover dialogue ever written. It promises: “Here is the first motion picture to offer, to the daring, a look into the final, maddening space between life and death.” Of course, the trailer is most famous for its use of the tagline “To avoid fainting, keep repeating, it’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…” uttered by a seemingly traumatized audience. I practically did have to keep repeating “it’s only a movie” the first time I saw Last House.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
The Sixth Sense came out in the late ‘90s, at the height of the “trailers show you everything” boom (which continues today). This pre-release teaser trailer created something of a stir by showing a bunch of extremely creepy images without really telling us what the movie was about, other than a kid who saw dead people. It’s no wonder that the movie became a smash hit, even though it isn’t quite as scary as the trailer promised. Haley Joel Osment’s line, “I see dead people,” became a joke after the movie became a phenomenon, but it was pretty chilling when we saw it here for the first time.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The trailer for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is so disturbing that it leaves you wrung out. It joltingly displays imagery ranging from the brutal (Pam getting hung on the hook—ugh, it still hurts to see it) to the disturbingly evocative (the love seat made of human bones). The movie’s now famous sound effects—the camera flashing, the chain saw buzzing, the most desperate screams ever, the cannibal family’s leers and laughter—promise a full, sensory experience of terror that you will not escape. The voiceover accurately tells you that the movie is “almost like being there.” It’s astonishing that the actual film manages to surpass its brilliant advertisements. The trailer for the remake, which paid homage to the original, was also fantastic.
Psycho’s trailer is famous for not showing anything that happens in the film. Even when we think that we’re seeing a scene from the film (a woman screaming in the shower), we’re not! The woman is Vera Miles, and not Janet Leigh. Hitchcock was so ingeniously, wickedly misleading! He uses his Alfred Hitchcock Presents narrator persona to show us around the Bates Motel and Norman Bates’ house. Along the way, he makes fun of early ‘60s censorship (acting too demure to show us the bathroom), and hints at the grotesque things that happened in these spaces without giving anything away. The witty trailer both makes you eager to see the movie, and riffs on the film’s theme of how places absorb traces of the traumas that take place in them.
The Blood Splattered Bride/I Dismembered Mama (1972)
An unlikely combination of horror films—an artsy, proto-feminist Spanish vampire film and a notoriously bad, sleazy slasher film—benefit from a trailer that barely shows any footage from the movies. Instead, the trailer offers up a faux news report profiling a guy getting carried away in a strait jacket after going “berserk” because of the films. In the trailer’s highlight, a “reporter” interviews a catatonic guy who can only respond to questions by making weird chipmunk sounds. Ticket buyers were probably disappointed when the movies left them psychologically intact, even though The Blood Spattered Bride is awesome.
Suspiria’s original U.S. trailer is somewhat iconic. Its imagery of a woman with her back to the camera brushing her hair, who then turns around to reveal that she’s a skeleton, traumatized a lot of kids. Also, it has arguably the most accurate tagline since Last House on the Left: The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of Suspiria, are the first 92. Have you ever noticed that the last 12 minutes of Suspiria really are the least scary part of the movie? Anyway, I actually prefer the European trailer. Typical of Euro trailers for Argento’s ‘70s horror movies, it focuses on spooky, evocative tinted still images from the film and Goblin’s spine tingling score. Like many trailers on this list, it tells you very little about the film’s plot, while still totally evoking what makes it great and unique.
The Stepford Wives (1975)
The Stepford Wives was advertised as a “modern horror movie,” so the trailer appropriately utilizes quick cut editing tactics that trailer editors use more commonly today. The trailer gives you an exhilarating injection filled with a concentrated formula of everything that makes The Stepford Wives great. We’ve got women in dorky dresses talking about their passion for shiny scrubbed floors. We’ve got exasperated feminists Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, and gorgeously ‘70s chic Tina Louise. We have terrified therapy sessions, creepy men drawing sketches of their wives, and shots of rain pouring on the gothic “Men’s Association” clubhouse. In my favorite part of the trailer, Ross frantically drives past computer factories (standard icons of ‘70s paranoia thrillers) while Paula Prentiss’ voiceover repeatedly cries: “Charmaine changed! Carol Van Sant changed!” and an unspeakably painful noise stings your ears. What fool would have missed this film after seeing its trailer?
We love trailers that scare the hell out of us without featuring a moment of footage from the movie. This terrifying dummy and his lurid nursery rhyme ruined many childhoods. The movie is good, but it can’t live up to these 30 seconds of madness.