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What’s the Best Trailer Before 1990?

Trailers have been around for most of the film industry’s history. Long before they were engineered for sharing and rewatchability, trailers were used by auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Ridley Scott not just to sell their wares, but to deepen the perception of their art.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I have a theory that Chris Ryan chose 1990 as the inception point (see what I did there?) for his “best movie trailers of the past … um … 28 years” bracket because he didn’t want his precious favorites to go up against the best coming attraction of 1989, and arguably of the modern era: the trailer for Batman.

Next year will undoubtedly bring any number of think pieces about whether Tim Burton’s half-Gothic, half-goofy take on the Caped Crusader holds up post–Christopher Nolan … and that’s just one angle for the 30th-anniversary festivities. (Cue Prince’s “Party Man.”) As the last true blockbuster of the Star Wars–crossed ’80s, Batman pulled double duty as a template for the studio tentpoles of the ’90s, and stands as a landmark in the history of Hollywood ancillaries. At the time of its release, no film had ever opened on more screens, grossed more money on its opening weekend, or granted more licenses. (Merchandising, merchandising: where the real money from the movie is made!) But before Batman: The Action Figures, Batman: The Diet Coke Ad, or Batman: The Flamethrower (the kids love this one), there was Batman: The Trailer—and it was awesome.

No “In a world … ” here, and no need: From the first image of the Batplane cruising serenely against the night sky—an image that doubled as a logo—there was no question of where we were. Here, finally, was Gotham City the way that comic book fans had always dreamed it would look on-screen: a labyrinth of skyscrapers hanging over teeming, crime-infested streets. In lieu of an expository voice-over, the trailer used images and dialogue to introduce the characters (Vicki Vale, meet Bruce Wayne) and give just enough of a sense of the story (Bruce Wayne, meet the Joker) without spoiling it. Why include a title card reading “Starring Jack Nicholson” when you can have the man himself remind us why he needs no introduction, one one-liner at a time? Does he look fine? He didn’t ask.

Like Anton Furst’s daring, text-free poster featuring only the iconic yellow-and-black bat symbol, Batman’s trailer was an experiment in brand-name minimalism. It was also a bit of a happy accident: In their indispensable book Hit & Run—a bible of industry reportage focused on the antiheroic dynamic duo of producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber—Kim Masters and Nancy Griffin recount how Warner Bros. executives were spooked by a story in The Wall Street Journal about fan dissatisfaction with the casting of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne. In response, Peters (who was dating Kim Basinger during production and had clashed with Burton repeatedly about the film’s final act) ordered a trailer cut together in time for Christmas—six months before Batman’s release date. The gamble paid off and begat “Batmania,” a precursor to our present superhero-movie fixation and the swirling, inescapable hype cycle that defines 21st-century movie marketing.

If we’re talking about striking examples of movie trailer art, then of course we can go back further than 1989. Chris already alluded to the trailers for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho as classics, which they are, although I’d argue that both master filmmakers boasted even more stellar coming attractions to their credit. The promo clip for Hitchcock’s 1963 masterpiece, The Birds, features Hitchcock talking directly to camera (a tactic held over from Psycho), promising in his most professorial tones that his new thriller will “make [us] all aware of our good friends the birds” before digressing into a series of absurd non-sequiturs (e.g., that birds were an inspiration for the invention of gunpowder) that build anticipation (and mystery) about the film itself. The apparent punch line, which finds Hitch making nice with a caged canary after tucking into a whole roast chicken, is undermined by the sudden—and startling—arrival of star Tippi Hedren, who bursts into the room looking terrified and warning, “They’re coming!”

The subtly apocalyptic undertones of The Birds preview explode, mushroom-cloud style, into the trailer for Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb—a film whose extended title gives Kubrick an excuse to play with staccato editing rhythms. Two years after asking “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?,” Kubrick subjected audiences to a series of even more oblique questions cut-and-pasted together out of title cards and footage from the film: The cryptic query “Why does Dr. Strangelove want 10 females to each male?” is even weirder and more unsettling when the last two lines are read out loud by Peter Sellers in his disconcerting Strangelove accent. In an era when most movie trailers were assembled according to a formula—usually built around a hyperbolic description of the plot and a roll call of the cast—the urgent absurdism of Strangelove’s teaser (“How does the fate of the world hang on a Coca-Cola machine?”) was something bracing, bizarre, and new—a step forward fulfilled and then some by the film itself.

By the beginning of the 1970s, the idea of trailer-making as a stand-alone art form became more commonplace (not uncoincidentally, this was when movie promotion began to rely more on television than print advertising). A decade that’s regularly romanticized as an apex of mainstream American filmmaking featured a number of all-time great coming attractions, including one that was so effective it was originally suppressed. Where the horrors of The Birds and Dr. Strangelove had been filtered through their makers’ essentially comic sensibilities—droll diversion in Hitchcock’s case and suggestive satire for Kubrick—the scarifying M.O. of the first teaser for William Friedkin’s adaptation of The Exorcist held nothing back, to the point that the people who saw it reportedly cowered (and vomited) in terror. While the official theatrical trailer did a decent job of conveying the lavishly haunted atmosphere of Friedkin’s film, the banned “flash trailer” is its own miniaturized masterpiece, using strobe effects to heighten and abstract shots of Linda Blair in the throes of demonic possession. The result is something unique: a piece of promotional material that plays like an avant-garde short, advertising neither The Exorcist’s plot or pedigree so much as the promise of pummelling, totalizing terror.

Variations on this strategy could be found a few years later in the teasers for both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Jaws, two movies that, taken together, account for the emergence and staying power of genre cinema over the past 40 years. “What happened was true” begins Texas’s grim, brilliantly edited clip, echoing the ripped-from-the-headlines rhetoric that helped turn Psycho into a sensation while upping the ante on visceral imagery. The spectacle of poor, terrorized Marilyn Burns flailing around in a room full of bleached-out bones before being grabbed from behind by Leatherface (a more imposing figure than Anthony Perkins in drag) dropped a gauntlet: If Janet Leigh in the shower was too much for you, then please stay home. And the tagline—“After you stop screaming, you’ll start talking about it”—was the perfect enticement for a low-budget thriller that would need word of mouth to become an under-the-radar hit.

Jaws, which was based on a blockbuster novel and had a bloated budget to match, would open in exponentially more theaters than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and had a spectacular saturation-advertising campaign driven by its iconic poster and a trailer that split the difference between The Birds’ nature-will-destroy-us subtext and the sensory assault of The Exorcist. “It is as if God created the Devil, and gave him … jaws” intones the narrator as a point-of-view shot puts us uncomfortably in the place of the shark itself. (Incidentally, the cold open of Jaws is only the second-slyest reworking of the blonde-dies-in-the-shower conceit of Psycho; as witty as Steven Spielberg was once upon a time, he couldn’t compete with the sleazy genius of Brian De Palma, who doubled—and tripled, and quadrupled—down on Hitchcock’s primal scene with a tracking shot past a series of naked coeds in a locker room at the beginning of Carrie, a film whose highly conventional trailer actually does its subversive source material a disservice.)

The crown jewel of the ’70s trailer boom, though, has to be the teaser for Ridley Scott’s Alien, a film set in the future and deep in outer space and yet predicated on the same basic monster-movie hook as Jaws: Don’t get too attached to the human characters because they’re probably going to be eaten.

Instead of embracing exploitation-movie directness, the trailer for Alien went in a different, artier direction, unfolding entirely without voice-over and leveraging increasingly disturbing clips from the film against eerie, accelerating musical cues from composer Jerry Goldsmith. If the common goal of most trailers is to tell you what you’re about to see, Alien’s clip succeeded in being completely disorienting—the polar opposite of the crowd-pleasing approach perfected two years earlier in the promotional materials for Star Wars. I’d say that there’s nothing on the since-1990 list (including and especially the promo for Prometheus) that can match the Alien trailer’s intense, dislocating greatness: Just watching it is enough to bust that whole bracket wide open. I dare Chris to put his eventual winner up against the Alien trailer for an old-school-vs.-new-school championship. In space, nobody can hear me gloat.