Super-producer Mike Todd concocted the idea of a synchronized “smell track” shortly before his untimely death in 1958, but his son Mike Todd Jr. wasn’t going to let the idea go to waste. The 1960 film The Scent of Mystery was created specifically to showcase “Glorious Smell-O-Vision!”; the murder mystery, starring Denholm Elliott and Peter Lorre, featured aromatic clues within the 50-plus scents (including lemon, peppermint, incense, peaches, roses, coffee, brandy, perfume, and pipe tobacco) delivered to the filmgoer via a plastic tube on their seat. As you can imagine, that kind of thing takes time to put together — and while audiences were breathlessly waiting, a rival technology, AromaRama, was trotted out for the Chinese documentary Behind the Great Wall. (This lower-tech method merely pumped the smells out through the theater’s air conditioning.)
When The Scent of Mystery was finally released (only in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles), reactions were mixed; synchronization issues were widely reported, and Time magazine reported, “most customers will probably agree that the smell they liked best was the one they got during the intermission: fresh air.” The inimitable John Waters took a stab at smelly moviemaking himself with his 1981 comedy Polyester, but his “Odorama” technology was merely a scratch-and-sniff card, distributed to audiences who were cued to smell each of ten odors during the film. (More recently, the family films Rugrats Go Wild and Spy Kids: All the Time in the World also used scratch-and-sniff.)
Producer/director William Castle became something of a Hollywood legend (he inspired the wonderful Joe Dante comedy Matinee, with John Goodman in the Castle role) for working up cheap and rather silly promotional gimmicks to get attention for his low-budget horror movies. He first made his name with “Emergo,” a ostensibly immersive technology created for his 1959 film The House on Haunted Hill. Here’s how it worked: a big scare moment involved the entrance of a skeleton, and at that moment, an inflatable skeleton would emerge from above the screen and float, on wires, over the audience to the back of the house.
Castle manufactured a thousand of the skeletons and their accompanying electric motors (price tag: $150 each), and sent a crew of electricians to set up “Emergo” at theaters showing The House on Haunted Hill. Unfortunately, the skeletons ended up being a popular target for kids with slingshots, candy boxes, soda cups, and whatever else they could find.
Later that year, Castle created “Percepto” to spice up showings of his next picture, The Tingler. The film floats the scientifically dubious theory that the “tingles” that go down one’s spine in moments of fear are caused by the “tingler,” a creature inside the human body that crushes the spine and can only be stopped by screaming. In the film’s narrative, the “tingler” is removed from a dead woman’s body and is on the loose; the film climaxes with a daring destruction of the fourth wall, via a sequence in which we see the tingler creeping into a theater lobby — which we’re then told is our theater.
“Scream for your lives!” instructs star Vincent Price, over a darkened screen. “The Tingler is loose in this theater, and if you don’t scream, it may kill you!” Castle told theaters to have their employees lead the screaming — and then the low-voltage motors under selected seats would administer sudden electrical shocks to audience members. Percepto was, in other words, a giant pain in the ass.
Castle, clearly on a roll, cooked up “Illusion-O” the very next year. The film was 13 Ghosts, and in it, the filmmaker let audiences decide if they were brave enough to see the film’s terrifying ghosts. Each ticketholder was given a “Ghost Viewer,” with red and blue cellophane filters. Because the pale blue ghosts were superimposed over the film, they were intensified by viewing the film through the red filter — if audiences could handle it. Those that couldn’t could look through the blue filter, which supposedly removed the ghosts. But it was an imperfect technology, the blue filters only slightly reducing the ghosts (which could still be viewed with the naked eye). Disappointingly, when The House on Haunted Hill and 13 Ghosts were remade in 1999 and 2001, neither Emergo nor Illusion-O were recreated for them.
The Punishment Poll
One of Castle’s most successful gimmicks was also his simplest. For the climax of his 1961 thriller Mr. Sardonicus, Castle himself appeared on screen to conduct a “punishment poll,” in which the audience would hold up a card with a glow-in-the-dark thumbs up or thumbs down to decide whether the villain lived or died. (Drive-in audiences used their car headlights). Unsurprisingly, audiences showed no mercy, and the ending sparing the villain was reportedly never screened; some say Castle was so sure of his audiences’ blood-thirsty nature that he never even bothered to shoot it.
In his 1958 film My World Dies Screaming (aka Terror in the Haunted House), director Harold Daniels experimented with subliminal visual messaging. The process was called “Psychorama” (aka “The Precon Process”), and Daniels used single flashes of, say, a skull to convey terror, fluttering hearts to indicate love, a crawling snake for hate, etc. The following year, he tried again, with another Psychorama film, this one a crime drama called Date with Death. But it didn’t catch on, and Daniels abandoned the technique. However, Alfred Hitchcock used a single-frame flash of a skull over Norman’s face in the closing scene of Psycho, William Friedkin used several in The Exorcist, and Tyler Durden let the audience in on the trick in Fight Club.
Andy Warhol and Paul Morrisey used two images, projected simultaneously, in their 1966 film Chelsea Girls, but it wasn’t until 1973 that a mainstream movie tried to transform the experimental trick into a technological gimmick. The film was called Wicked, Wicked, and it told the story of a hotel and a serial killer via a split-screen technique (“Twice the tension! Twice the terror!” promised the ads). It sounds like a Brian DePalma wet dream, but audiences and critics were indifferent, and MGM closed the picture quickly. But another innovation stuck around: it was one of the first major movies released in stereo, to help separate the action on the two sides of the screen.
Ray Dennis Steckler followed up his bad-movie classic The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies with The Thrill Killers (also known as The Maniacs Are Loose), and decided to rustle up audiences with a dopey bit of “immersive” technology. Ads warned audiences of their terrifying movie-going experience: “You are Surrounded by Monsters! Not 3-D but real FLESH-and-BLOOD monsters ALIVE! NOT FOR SISSIES! DON’T’ COME IF YOU’RE CHICKEN!” With that kind of hype, you can imagine how disappointed audiences were to discover that “Hallucinogenic Hypnovision” was merely a colored wheel that appeared onscreen in order to cue theater employees to run up and down the aisles, waving cardboard axes while wearing a mask that matched the film’s monsters.
With national conversation centered on the “Information Superhighway” and “the Internet” and “interactivity” in the early ‘90s, Back to the Future co-writer Bob Gale was inspired to create the first “interfilm,” a combination of film and video game. The result was 1995’s Mr. Payback: An Interactive Movie, and the idea was simple: the audience’s seats were equipped with special joysticks, allowing them to vote at certain decision points and control the film’s plot turns and outcomes. It opened in 44 theaters, but response was less than enthusiastic, particularly from critics; Roger Ebert’s half-star review asked, “Is there a future for ‘interfilms?’ Maybe. Someday they may grow clever or witty. Not all of them will be as moronic and offensive as Mr. Payback. What they do technically, they do pretty well. It is just that this is not a movie. It is mass psychology run wild, with the mob zealously pummeling their buttons, careening downhill toward the sleaziest common denominator.” Ebert needn’t have worried — Mr. Payback was the first and last of its kind.
Okay, it’s a fictional technology. But based on what we’re reading about 4DX, it’s not that far off.
Special thanks to the writers of ‘The Golden Turkey Awards‘ for providing information about several of these “innovations.”