Trailers from Hell
Filmmaker Joe Dante has drafted friends and colleagues to make shorts about movie trailers. The result is an entertaining and informative website.
These days when you go to a movie house, annoying advertisements crowd out the trailers. Teenagers may not even believe that trailers used to be the main attraction of settling in for the main attraction.
In reality, golden-age trailers often provided little real sense of what feature films would be about, or like; but still, you could plan at least some of your movie-going around them. And they could be curious, compelling creations. Certainly they were often more entertaining and blessedly more brief than the films they plugged.
That guarantees interest in the consistently engaging web series, Trailers from Hell. Since 2007, it has presented short commentary videos about individual trailers. As each featured trailer runs, a film director, producer, or writer from Hollywood or its independent fringes discusses it briefly, and generally perceptively and informatively.
The site is the brain child of the idiosyncratic genre-film director Joe Dante, working with new media entrepreneur Jonas Hudson, graphic artist Charlie Largent, web developer Tom Edgar, and producer Elizabeth Stanley. Dante got his start cutting trailers for the similarly singular Roger Corman. It was while working at Corman’s New World Pictures that Dante began to gather trailers, concentrating on classic, cult, and oddball horror and allied genres. Trailers account for hundreds of the films in Dante’s collection at the Academy Film Archive.
After making cult favorites like Piranha (1978), Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979, uncredited), The Howling (1981), and Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), the last with John Landis, George Miller, and Steven Spielberg, Dante directed his hit Spielberg productions Gremlins (1984) and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990).
Dante’s many movies and television episodes have generally been in genres you love or loathe — horror, sci-fi, police adventure (for example, 10 episodes between 2011 and 2017 of the reboot of the 1960s schedule-filler, Hawaii Five-0), or less-familiar subgenres such as 3-D thrillers and zom-coms. But, reflecting an amiability that is on show in the 166 trailers he introduces on the Trailers from Hell site, Dante has often injected humane elements into his gore and fright — humor and often nostalgia, in particular for the liberating potential of film. Particularly film-referential, and –reverential, is his Matinee, from 1993, a goodnatured merger of horror fandom, nuclear-war anxiety, and teen coming of sexual age.
Trailers from Hell now has, in late-January 2017, some 1,200 entries. Dante persuaded several movie-maker or movie-world friends and acquaintances to contribute commentaries — persuaded them easily, judging by the presenters’ enthusiasm and dedication to the task — and they almost universally do a creditable job.
While the site does wander, occasionally, into American and European “classics” – Breathless, Amarcord, Black Narcissus, Jules and Jim… — its bread and butter is horror, science fiction, fantasy, and the like. Cult, slasher, and bizarro films. Gawdy goriness of every variety. There’s blaxploitation, sexploitation, teensploitation, carsploitation, movie “exploitation” of every stripe. Hell, are there genres called corpsploitation, gutsploitation, or hand-severanceploitation? Hippie exploitation, yep.
One rationale for the site seems to be that the trailer has fallen into bad habits, in modern times. Glenn Erickson, whose DVD Savant website of film reviews and commentary is attached to the Trailers from Hell site, contends that the trailer’s heyday is long in the past and has lost out to “viral marketing and cookie-cutter formulas” so bad that “they give me a royal pain.” He laments the passing of a time when the trailer “had hair on its chest” by which he means “we’d be inundated with hard-sell voice-over and text promising thrills the movie couldn’t possibly deliver. If a man and a woman in the movie had even the most chaste bodily contact, big words would jump off the screen about ‘Savage, naked emotions laid Raw!’ Outright hype, hokum, and unsubstantiated claims shouted that the film in question was the greatest this or that, or the most ‘whatever’ you’ve ever seen before. How many times have we been assured that we ‘won’t believe our eyes,’ or that some hero or monster was ‘the mightiest of them all’?”
During various of his commentaries, Joe Dante shares his thoughts on the craft of trailer making. For example, in his introduction to the trailer for Roger Corman’s drive-in candy floss, Candy Stripe Nurses, one of the first trailers Dante made for Corman, he says: “One of the secrets to making trailers for New World was to fake the footage, and juxtapose it in ways that makes scenes look like they were about things that they really weren’t. The other was to fill it with hyperbole and lots of stuff from the announcer. One of our favorite phrases that we used to use, over and over, was ‘They wanted love; he gave them terror and death.’ Now sometimes it was switched to ‘She wanted love; he gave her terror and death’; but as long as you had ‘love,’ ‘terror,’ and ‘death,’ you were OK.”
Not all are “from hell.”
You might need to observe closely, if you are to spot the difference between the older aesthetic that Erickson champions, and the one that reigns in trailer production, now, at least when it comes to lashings of hype.
In fact, the trailers featured on Trailers from Hell are of varied styles and quality. Not all are “from hell.” The supposed organizing principle of the site – that it features trailers that do their films service “from hell” – is nominal, only. A name like “Trailers That Serve Their Films Well, or Not So Much” wouldn’t have had much ring. In the case of plenty of the trailers, their creators intended not to sell films with hype, but to faithfully spruik them. Such is the case, for example, with Brian Trenchard-Smith‘s commentary on his own, excellent, rhapsodic trailer for Peter Weir’s The Last Wave.
Some commentaries seem off-the-cuff and undirected, opportunities for filmmaker fans to state and reiterate that the film is “really interesting.” But in general the commentators balance filmmaker insight into and fan appreciation for films that are, in many cases, schlock genre productions. The commentators celebrate their film, situate it in cinema history, share some thoughts on the genre or subgenre, express some enthusiasm for any filmmaking particularities, and offer a little backlot gossip.
That last element — details of the career or fate or later ill fortune of someone related to the production — is a pleasure. Allen Arkush, for example, tells us that Dolores Hart, one of the comely young stars of the original Where the Boys Are (1960), and a veteran of three Elvis Presley movies, left Hollywood to become a nun, and remains one, to this day, and is the only nun who is a voting member of the Academy of Motion Pictures. The movie, as much as any other factor, initiated the appalling tradition of spring break.
Commenting on What’s Up Doc? (1972), with its stunning comedic performance by Barbara Streisand alongside Ryan O’Neal, Karaszewski observes that Peter Bogdanovich “had quite a large ego, and despite the fact he seemed to worship older filmmakers, he rubbed some of them the wrong way. There’s a famous quote from Billy Wilder: ‘It isn’t true that Hollywood is a bitter place, divided by hatred, greed, and jealousy; all that it takes to bring the community together is a flop by Peter Bogdanovich.’”
The stories certainly can be downers. Filmmaker/writer Larry Karaszewski (The People vs. Larry Flynt, Ed Wood) tells us that Mark Frechette, the male lead of Michelangelo Antonioni’s curious 1970 cult fave Zabriskie Point, “took his revolutionary role too seriously: he dropped out, joined a violent commune; he tried to rob a bank, got involved in a cop killing, and was choked to death while he was locked up in prison.” The commentaries are quite brief — from about two minutes to rarely more than four — so Karaszewski doesn’t go into the events surrounding Frechette’s bank robbery. He was apparently trying to raise money for Hungarian director Dezso Magyar’s planned adaptation of part of Crime and Punishment, while his death may have been the result of a prison weightlifting accident, and no accident.
Anecdotes like these may not always be news to devotees of Hollywood film, but they underscore how thoroughly filmmaking is a social activity, and that its participants are as real and often as vulnerable as any citizen. That’s most true when the subjects of the anecdotes are not the stars, but rather bit players who make possible the stardom of others. Take, for instance, one promising actor who discovered Los Angeles’s opportunities for devastating misdirection, Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith. She had a bit part in The Pom Pom Girls of 1976, a teensploitation movie with some American Graffiti sensibility. Smith “seemed to have a knack for getting roles in really good B movies,” says director Katt Shea, in her commentary. Smith had several similar roles in the 1980s, and played drums with Joan Jett in The Runaways, albeit briefly during the production of an unreleased 1979 movie about the band, We’re All Crazy Now, before Jett moved on to greater success. Sadly, Shea says, Smith could not find a way into the career success of the stars she moved among, and “she ended up heroin-addicted, and homeless, and living on the street, and dying of hepatitis in 2002.”
The commentators on the Trailers from Hell seem to have found far greater social success, with and among each other. Browsing the site and its entries, professional and personal links among them become apparent. Dubbed “gurus,” on the site, they seem to bind within a rather hermetic world of American cinephilia. Theirs is, to be sure, something of a boy’s club, which is another way of saying that much of the film celebrated is unabashedly juvenile. The demography of the site is telling. Only 8 of the 63 “gurus” are women; they contribute only 65 of the site’s 1,200 entries. Virtually all the commentators are white Americans. The demography turns out to be less a reflection of what’s not on the site than of what is.
Trailers from Hell links to a few auxiliary sections hosted by Dante or his friends and collaborators. On Dante’s own Fleapit Flashbacks are posted reviews he wrote during his 1969-1974 stint as a critic for Film Bulletin, when he was in his 20s. Those precocious commentaries are often lucid and amiable, in keeping with much of his filmmaking, which is, given its subject matter, often surprisingly humane.
Also linked, in addition to the DVD Savant review site, mentioned above, are Fear of the Velvet Curtain, essays about film makers and film making written in most cases by Dennis Cozzalio, and The TFH Movie Trivia Challenge; you really have to know your stuff, to do well on it.
— Peter Monaghan
Two Trailers from Hell compilations have been commercially released on DVD. Volume 1 was released in 2010 and Volume 2 in 2011. The releases have some of Dante and his collaborators’ favorites, well worth viewing on the site, along with added extras.
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