8 crazy movie theater gimmicks much wilder (and lamer) than 3-D

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012

Love it or loathe it, 3-D in movies is here to stay, because Hollywood needs to attract warm bodies to the seats and tear folks away from their videogame consoles and Facebook profiles. But there's nothing new about intriguing cinema gimmicks.

With Michael Bay's recent imperial declaration for theater owners to crank up the wattage on 3-D projection bulbs for Transformers 3, let's take a look back at other goofy presentation ideas of yesteryear. Since studios are trying to entice patrons with every conjurer's trick in the book to squeeze maximum euros and yen from a film's release, maybe one of these eight kooky promotional novelties could be resurrected. (Or not.)


Before the ear-blasting THX sound systems of today, there was the mega-bass glory of Sensurround. While most closely associated with Earthquake, Rollercoaster and Midway, the thundering subwoofers used to shake plaster from theater ceilings (and fillings from your molars) were also used for the theatrical release of Battlestar Galactica in 1978. By that summer, more than 800 theaters were equipped with the heavy, hard-to-install units. Hearing those Vipers roar down their launch tubes must have been a religious experience.


13 Times the Screams! Devised by notorious trickster William Castle for the release of 1960's 13 Ghosts, this gimmick promised visions of spirits in "ectoplasmic" color. (Gotta love that term!) The clever hand-held Ghost-Viewer allowed you to see phantoms with red and blue cellophane filters during certain cued sequences of the black-and-white flick. Results were less than spectacular, but it did send people home with one helluva headache.


Boldly claiming the debut of a new film technique and capitalizing on the hypnotism craze of the 1950s, Hypno-Vista was used to market the 1959 British shockfest Horrors of the Black Museum, starring young Michael Gough of the Batman movies. The misleading promo was essentially a 13-minute, spliced-on intro where a psychiatrist babbled on about the strange power of suggestion and its ability to transport your senses. What a gyp! Gimme my 50-cent refund.


Not to be topped by Castle's bag of legerdemain, fellow shlock-meister Ray Dennis Steckler came up with this idea for 1964's micro-budget grindhouse flop The Thrill Killers, aka The Maniacs Are Loose. A colored, hypnotic spiral would randomly appear during the film, accompanied by a soothing doctor's words. I'm getting sleepy ... and very dizzy.


Scream! Scream for Your Lives! For 1959's The Tingler, Castle himself urged viewers to vocally release their fear if terror overwhelmed, supposedly killing the onscreen, lobster-like creature that lives on your spine. (I thought that was just indigestion.) To aid in the effect, certain theater seat bottoms were equipped with vibrating motors from military surplus airplane de-icers. Buzzers were gleefully activated by sadistic theater employees whenever the monster attacked. Okay, I'm screaming, now leave my damn cushion alone.


It sounds a little disgusting, we know, but try and restrain yourselves from the obvious "This film stinks" remarks. The process was invented by Mike Todd Jr. and only used in one movie, 1960's Scent of Mystery. Distinctive smells of perfume, wine grapes, pipe tobacco and others were pumped into the cinema audience through special pipes in the auditorium. Rotating bottles of scent were held on a steel drum and triggered by a signal on the film itself. Good thing it wasn't around when the raunchy Hangover movies invaded Hollywood.


Used in showings of the original 1959 version of House on Haunted Hill with Vincent Price, this was another of Castle's cheesy gimmicks to shock and startle. During the film's climax, when a skeleton rises from a cauldron of acid, a fake, glow-in-the-dark skeleton "emerges" from a wire in the ceiling and floats out over the crowd. Oooh, spooky! It mostly provided a fun and convenient moving target for hurled concession stand soft-drink cups and empty Jujubes boxes.


A sinister nobleman's fate is in your hands—well, your thumbs, actually. In 1961's Mr. Sardonicus, a baron's face is frozen into a permanent, ghastly smile after he digs up a grave for a lottery ticket left in his father's jacket. Audiences were allowed to vote in a "Punishment Poll" during the ending of the film, when William Castle, with a sardonic grin of his own, appears on screen to explain the options. Members of the audience were given cards with a glow-in-the-dark thumb they could hold up or down to decide if Sardonicus would be cured or die. Apparently, no audience ever offered mercy, so the alternate ending was never screened, saving lazy projectionists the incredible toil of changing the reel.