7 Hilarious Cinematic Gimmicks

Cinema owners and studios are always looking for fresh ways to drag us from the couch and back to their screens.

But while 3D continues its return to popularity, can it actually survive this time? And what other so-called “immersive” tricks are out there?

A company called D-Box Technologies is planning to install shaker boxes in cinema seats for the release of Fast & Furious, to give filmgoers’ arses the experience akin to video game rumble packs. We thought we’d look back at other attempts to shake things up...


History lesson: For the 1960 film Scent Of Mystery, film producer Mike Todd Jr decided to try a system adapted from Hans Laube’s technique (demoed at the 1939 World’s Fair) of pumping perfume and other scents from pipes at the back of seats.

Was it successful? It stank. Literally. Audiences were distracted by the sounds of hissing (maybe Snakes On A Plane should’ve tried just that bit?) and the aromas tended to hit people a little too late to match up with the action on screen. Fail!

Could it work today?
Actually, it’s still being tried. John Waters used scratch ‘n’ sniff cards for 1982’s Polyester (the smells included flowers… mmm! Pizza… Yum! And, er, s**t. Hooray?)

And in Japan, they’ve been pioneering a return of the form, including a version for Terence Malick’s The New World. Anyone up for Colin Farrell’s armpit sweat wafting across their nostril hairs? OH SWEET MOTHER MAKE IT STOP!



History lesson: Maverick producer William Castle is the undisputed King Gimmick, which is why he warrants three entries. 1959’s The Tingler featured spinal parasites, which must be killed by screaming.

Never one to miss a trick, Castle bought a job lot of vibrators (no, not that type, you dirty-brained people, they’d been used in World War Two to de-ice planes’ wings with sonic techniques) and had them installed in larger cinemas across America.

Was it successful? It might have been a gimmick, but it’s a beloved one. Pushing the boundaries of audience interaction ever further, the film featured specially shot scenes announcing the creature was loose in the cinema, with a shot of it crossing the projection beam. Castle even went so far as to station nurses in some theatres in case of fainting. Good job…

Could it work today?
While 3D might be making a comeback, the only real examples of such interaction these days are limited to theme park attractions like Shrek 4D at Universal.

Water squirts at the back of your neck, air puffs make you think spiders are running around your feet and the seats even rumble. Dear cinema chain owners – want people to keep coming back? Why not try stuff like this again?



History lesson:
Another trip into Castle territory, Emergo was Castle’s idea for the original 1959 version of House On Haunted Hill. The basic premise? Strangers are offered dosh to stay in a seemingly spook-ridden old mansion.

For the big finish, a skeleton rises from a vat of acid and chases the surviving cast members around. Castle rigged an inflatable, glow-in-the-dark skeleton to drop from the rafters and swing creakily over the audiences’ heads.

Was it successful? Not so much. While some patrons were suitably chilled, others turned the floppy bone man into a floating target for soda cups, candy boxes and basically anything that came to hand.

Could it work today? It’s another technique that has long gone out of fashion in cinemas, mostly because it’s seen as incredibly cheesy, but also because of the legal implications.

These days, theatres - ones without screens - still employ this sort of trick: anyone who has sat through Phantom Of The Opera on stage (and there are millions) has seen the chandelier come swinging out. We think they could have brought it back for the film version, only with actual candles dripping hot wax everywhere. Well, it would be more fun than watching the movie…


History lesson: During the 1970s, Universal was looking for a way to amp up the cinema going experience. The Sensurround system was developed to deploy speakers linked to hefty amplifiers that were keyed to the soundtrack of 1974’s Earthquake. At specific points, low-frequency bass sound would be pumped in to help the rumbling ground action and make punters uneasy.

Was it successful? Oh, it worked… Too well. Some viewers were left nauseous from the sonic vibrations, while one unlucky soul suffered cracked ribs (records don’t indicate if they fell from their seat or just had sound-sensitive bones).

Also, adjoining theatres experienced the effects too – those after a night watching Godfather II were treated to the rumbling chaos of Earthquake.

Could it work today? The system never caught on, but Dolby Laboratories apparently has one of the original box units that it rents to revival screenings. Plus, it doesn’t need to. Most big blockbusters already employ huge sound systems with monster bass units that mean every theatre in the cinema can hear when Transformers is playing.

And who needs sound to make you sick when Michael Bay’s editing has the same effect?

Gender Vision!

History lesson: A weird one, this. In a strange blend of moral hectoring and exploitation, Howard W “Kroger” Babb drummed up buckets of publicity for his 1945 release Mom And Dad.

A charming little meditation on the dangers of casual sex (pregnancy!) the cheap-as-chips hygiene film was successfully pushed on regular cinemas as opposed to grind houses. For an added bonus, Babb made sure only women were allowed into matinees, while blokes went to evening screenings.

Was it successful? We’re not sure that it had any real impact on the health of America’s hormonal teens, but it made Babb plenty of dosh and got him notoriety across the country.

Plus he successfully pre-dated Knocked Up’s shock moment by several decades as he capped the film with footage of an actual birth. Lovely. 

Could it work today? Do we want more real-life birth footage in the middle of, say, a Uwe Boll film? No thanks.

But it could help those who despair of some cinematic output with a taste-o-vision that means you can be split according to whether you want to see something decent or the new Rob Schneider film. Or you could do it yourself by paying to see something good and sneaking in…
Not that we condone that sort of thing.

Hallucinogenic Hypno-Vision!

History lesson: Looking to outdo both Psycho and William Castle in one foul, acid-trippy sweep, Ray Dennis Steckler crafted an idea he dubbed “Hallucinogenic Hypno-Vision: for his 1964 cheapie The Thrill Killers (also known as The Maniacs Are Loose).

The basic premise was a hypnotic spiral appearing in colour (the rest of the movie was black & white) with a voice-over attempting to lull the audience into a trance.

Was it successful? We doubt anyone was actually sent into a hypnotic state, but that didn’t bother Steckler. On a road show with the film, he and some mates dressed up and ran into the cinemas as their characters, brandishing knives.

The stunt worked for a while but a few cases of audiences shooting the masked extras with popguns soon put paid to the idea.

Could it work today? While we’re pretty sure advertisers would be interested in trying subliminal product placement, that would never fly with regulaBUYTOTALFILM!tors.

As for having extras run into the cinemas, the last time that was tried at a press screening we were at (dancers arrived at the end of a London showing of Shakespeare musical teen pic Get Over it, the effect was traumatic. So… many…sequins…


History lesson: One last trip to Castle-vania, because the man deserves it. Illusion-O was his concept for the release of 13 Ghosts. The spirits could only be seen with the special glasses left by one of the characters, Dr Zorba. In the theatres, the ghosts were depicted using shades of red and blue such that they were difficult to see without the special glasses handed out at the film's showings

Was it successful? Much like the birth pangs of 3D, the effects were mixed. Plus some people felt cheated, since the movie was often wrongly advertised as 3D. Fortunately for Castle, he did such a good job of promoting his movies that he never tended to lose money.

Could it work today? You can actually still find copies of the film on DVD with glasses, but there’s some controversy since more recent versions have ditched the idea altogether (probably due to cost).

We’d be happy to see an adaptation to the current 3D systems, which allows certain elements of the film. It would certainly have been useful when the remake of 13 Ghosts (Thir13en Ghosts) arrived in 2001, since it might have kept the screen blank AT ALL TIMES.

  Liked This? Then see:

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter for the latest news, features and reviews delivered straight to your inbox.

Follow us on Twitter

Join the Discussion
Add a comment (HTML tags are not allowed.)
Characters remaining: 5000