Even in the Best of Times, motion picture producers, distributors and exhibitors have looked for gimmicks or novelties to increase the number of Match-Flickers rushing to theater box-offices near them. Some people claim that even the various widescreen processes, we featured last time, were nothing more than box-office gimmicks; even though most believe that CinemaScope, VistaVision and the other anamorphic processes set a new industry standard.
One can’t tell the story of box-office gimmicks without examining producer William Castle, also known as the King of Ballyhoo.
Born William Schloss in 1914, New York, Castle, went on to fame and fortune as a purveyor of cheesy horror flicks and low-tech box-office gimmicks. Intrigued by the Barnum and Bailey Circus and Broadway, Schloss/Castle spent his adolescence learning every aspect of a live stage performance. As William Castle, the fledgling legend moved to Hollywood in his early 20s, then directed his first flick, the forgotten THE CHANCE OF A LIFETIME, before he was 30.
Castle’s next feature, WHEN STRANGERS MEET, a low-budget film noir gem, starring Kim Hunter and Robert Mitchum, did well with both audiences and critics. The director went on to helm a wide variety of B movies before emerging as the King of Gimmicky late 1950s-60s’ horror films.
In 1958, Castle mortgaged his home in order to finance his own production of MACABRE, the kind of carnival sideshow of a flick he’d always wanted to make. Starring Jim Backus of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND fame, MACABRE’s gimmick was boldly proclaimed in all advertising for the movie: “So terrifying we insure you for $1000. against death by fright!” Not a single Match-Flicker collected on the gimmick, but some complained of “death by boredom!”
William Castle followed the box-office and promotional success of MACABRE with HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. This time, the gimmick was “Emergo,” a process for flying plastic skeletons on guy wires above Match-Flickers’ heads as they watched the film.
HOUS ON HAUNTED HILL mined box-office gold. The flim-flam film-maker responded with THE TINGLER, presented in “the miracle of ‘Percepto,’.” This gimmick had selected seats in every theater wired with tiny motors that vibrated or “tingled” during key scenes.
William Castle and his gimmick-laden cheapies went on and on. There were two-toned “Ghost-viewing glasses” for 13 GHOSTS (1960). Brave Match-Flickers looked through one colored lens and saw Castle’s ghosts. Faint-of-heart “chickens” looked through the other lens and saw nothing. ZOTZ (1962) offered movie-goers Zotz coins and STRAIT-JACKET (1964) gave them cardboard axes and Joan Crawford in the twilight of her career.
If William Castle was King of the Cheapo Box-Office Gimmicks, then Michael Todd, Jr., was Prince of the Pricey. For Todd, it was a family tradition. His father, Michael Todd, Sr., had developed TODD-AO in the early 1950s.
Todd, the younger, gave the box-office the expensive and odorous SMELL-O-VISION gimmick. As the name implies, Smell-O-Vision delivered odors during the projection of the movie so that Match-Flickers could actually smell what was happening on screen. This aromatic gimmick sounded its first and last hurrah in the 1960 film SCENT OF MYSTERY, produced by Mike Todd, Jr.
Smell-O-Vision injected 30 different smells into movie theater seats when triggered by the film’s soundtrack. Both Smell-O-Vision and SCENT OF MYSTERY failed miserably at the box-office. The process didn’t really allow for one smell to be cleared from the auditorium before the next was triggered. Audience members were thus assaulted with multiple and incongruous aromas.
Re-edited, re-titled and divested of smells, SCENT OF MYSTERY was eventually re-issued in the Cinerama process as HOLIDAY IN SPAIN. Sans Smell-O-Vision, movie-goers knew a stinker even when they couldn’t smell it.
In 1982, renegade auteur John Waters paid homage to Smell-O-Vision when he released POLYESTER, starring Divine and Tab Hunter, in the gimmicky scratch-and-sniff Odor-Rama process.