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Inane Attractions 

Where have all the cinema gimmicks gone? "Exploit-O-Scope" brings them back

Wednesday, Jul 14 2004
Where have all the gimmicks gone? The age when directors weren't afraid to draw moviegoing crowds with kitschy gambits -- like stationing a nurse at horror-flick showings in case of fright-related medical emergencies -- has long since passed. Nowadays the closest things to good, old-fashioned publicity stunts are alternate endings and casting against type (hey, I loved Neil Patrick Harris in Starship Troopers, but still). Though they're no substitute for good cinematography, dialogue, and plotting, clever gimcracks work with an air of optimistic huckster desperation that still appeals. And with the Pacific Film Archive's two-month series "Exploit-O-Scope: Promotions and Commotions in the Theater," nostalgic cinéastes can relive gimmickry's golden era.

The series' centerpiece is, appropriately enough, the wizardry of William Castle. Though these days the director is a nonentity to all but the most obsessive cult film fans, in the '50s and '60s Castle was known far and wide for the events he orchestrated to build up his goofball horror flicks. His most famous deed was to rig buzzing seats for his so-so 1959 shocker The Tingler, which starred Vincent Price as a coroner who discovers that fear causes a vibrating sluglike creature to grow on people's spines, a creature that can only be vanquished by screaming. At the movie's climax, the Tingler breaks into a projection room, and then the screen goes black; in the theater, the joy buzzers affixed to the seats started throbbing, and audience members screamed their fool heads off.

Sadly, the mechanics of such an exploit were too complex and pricey for the PFA, though other Castle capers are in evidence. The July 28 screening of his gender-bending Psycho rip-off Homicidal features the same "coward's corner" it did during its 1961 release: Near the end of the movie a clock appears on-screen, and viewers too frightened to sit through the finale are allowed to leave, get a checkup from an on-call nurse, and request a refund. Similarly, Aug. 4's showing of Mr. Sardonicus spotlights Castle's "punishment poll," a democratic exercise in audience participation that asks spectators to vote on the fate of the movie's villain.

But Castle isn't the series' only attraction. Filmgoers who remember the brief 1970s gimmick revival (typified by the 1974 disaster epic Earthquake) will flock to July 14's Rollercoaster, which stars Timothy Bottoms as an amusement park terrorist, George Segal as a suspicious safety inspector, and a Sensurround soundtrack with low-frequency, body-vibrating audio waves. On Aug. 18, Francis Ford Coppola's Dementia 13 features a psychological quiz that tests the audience's fitness for the coming shock ("IF YOU FAIL THE TEST ... you will be asked to leave the theatre!"). And best of all, Aug. 11's screening of John Waters' Polyester includes the original scratch-and-sniff Odorama cards. Maybe it's just the Odorama -- but I smell a great cinematic opportunity.

About The Author

Joyce Slaton


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