Deceptive movie marketing predates home video—exhibit A: Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror, a 1968 Spanish werewolf movie with nary a Frankenstein nor his monster in sight—but it’s on DVD cases and on streaming video services that the practice truly came into its own. We’ve all seen DVD box art prominently featuring a minor character played by an actor who went on to become massively famous, a phenomenon that could easily produce its own Inventory. But there’s also the less common, and equally amusing, technique of repackaging an existing film to make it look like another film that’s enjoying a moment around the time of the rerelease.
We’re not talking about renaming movies for home video or about trailers that promise one type of movie from something that, when you actually sit down and watch it, is clearly another. No, this is what happens when opportunistic marketers, with little regard for the actual content of what they’re marketing, turn to one of their underlings and say, “Kids like Saw. Make it look like Saw.” That’s the essence of a case and switch.
1. Secretary (2002)
Secretary is an indie romantic comedy directed by Steven Shainberg, with a quirky, tongue-in-cheek tone frequently compared to the films of John Hughes. But you wouldn’t know that from Amazon Instant Video’s digital box art for the movie, which picks up on a minor detail from the film—James Spader’s sexually dominant attorney is named Mr. Grey—and completely changes the movie’s packaging to cater to the Fifty Shades Of Grey crowd. And sure, Maggie Gyllenhaal is a brunette, just like Fifty Shades star Dakota Johnson. And ties are worn in the film. But the color palette is all wrong, for one, and more importantly, the two movies couldn’t be more different in tone. All they really have in common, besides the whole “Mr. Grey” thing, is kinky sex. All the better to separate the real BDSM-heads from the glorified romance-novel readers, we guess. But it does raise the question: Is it wrong to trick someone into watching a good movie by comparing it to a crappy movie they already like?
One female-directed vampire movie is as good as another, right? Well, not exactly. Still, that’s the idea behind the 2009 Blu-ray rerelease of ’80s cult classic Near Dark, released at the height of Twilight mania and redesigned and repackaged to appeal to a new, more sparkly generation of vampire fans. In this new, completely off-base vision of Kathryn Bigelow’s film, Adrian Pasdar’s Caleb Colton has seemingly been drained of blood to better fit the trendy image of a brooding romantic hero; next to his artificially pale face, Jenny Wright’s Mae looks more like a plump, rosy snack/love object rather than a member of the vampiric gang. Bill Paxton, meanwhile, looks about the same, albeit much smaller than his scene-stealing turn in the film warrants. Either way, anybody watching this movie looking for supernatural teen romance is in for a very bloody surprise.
The DVD case for the unrated 2007 release of Caligula simply states: “Before Rome. Before Gladiator.” And all of that is technically true. But as anyone who has ever thumbed through one of those little Playboy-branded “Sex In Cinema” paperbacks knows full well, it’s not just a lack of Russell Crowe that separates Bob Guccione’s movie from Ridley Scott’s. There’s also the matter of unsimulated sex scenes, inserted into the film to satisfy Penthouse publisher Guccione’s ambition of making the first pornographic film to truly cross over into mainstream arthouse respectability. That plan didn’t exactly work, though, as original director Tinto Brass left the project over its hardcore content, and bad reviews and legal problems dogged its release worldwide. A few decades later, the movie was little more than a dusty curio, until Image Entertainment decided to capitalize on the popularity of HBO’s sword-and-sandal epic with some bloody box art and suggestive copy. But if you can’t trust a pornographer to be opportunistic, who can you trust?
Many different writers and directors have presented many different visions of the Dark Knight over the past 75-plus years, so naturally things are going to get a little confusing. But somebody fucked up big time when they designed the DVD box art for 1966’s colorful, cartoonish Batman: The Movie in a style better suited to Tim Burton’s take on the character more than 20 years later. Or maybe they knew exactly what they were doing: By the time this “special edition” came out in 2008, the campy Batman that was so wildly popular in the 1960s had been sullied by Joel Schumacher’s also campy, but way worse Batman movies in the mid-’90s. Why not lure in younger fans with a Bat-symbol more in line with the sleeker Batman they had come to admire, then gently re-accustom them to the idea that Batman can be funny? And besides, Burton’s Batman movies aren’t without their own cartoonish flair. If Fox wanted to be really deceptive, it could’ve modeled the box art after The Dark Knight.
The packaging for this 2008 DVD re-release of the Incredible Hulk TV show starring Lou Ferrigno isn’t the most egregious example on this list. It doesn’t misrepresent the tone of the show, really, or try to trick fans of a popular franchise into watching something only marginally related. But it could very easily be mistaken for either of the Hulk movies made in the 2000s by a well-meaning but clueless grandma and spoil someone’s birthday as a result. Notably, the box set was released by Universal Home Entertainment, but effectively mimics the distinctive graphic design and typographic tendencies of Marvel Cinematic Universe properties. But you can’t trademark a sensibility, making it easy for Universal—which currently owns distribution but not production rights for future Hulk movies—to jump onto the MCU’s super-profitable superhero bandwagon. Guess all that cohesion does have a downside.
The original theatrical one-sheet for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 parodies The Breakfast Club, depicting Leatherface and the rest of his flesh-eating family in poses mimicking those struck by the Brat Pack in the poster for its 1985 teen hit. (A bloodied corpse stands in for Molly Ringwald.) That gives you a pretty good idea of what director Tobe Hooper was going for in the tongue-in-cheek sequel to his 1974 horror hit, but you wouldn’t get the same impression from the 2008 “Gruesome Edition” DVD of the film. It’s the same pitch-black horror-comedy inside the case, but the box art really puts the “Saw” in “Texas Chainsaw,” mimicking the color scheme and typography of James Wan’s then massively influential torture-porn hit. But do the Saw movies have Dennis Hopper standing on top of a table, hollering at the top of his lungs and wielding a chainsaw in each hand? We didn’t think so.
Poor Tracy The Gorilla. The big ape was once the biggest name in ghost busting—that is, until Slimer, Venkman, Egon, and the rest of the gang came around. Ghostbusters creators Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis were not aware of the existence of the children’s detective series The Ghost Busters when they began filming their 1984 comedy classic, but after their movie became a massive box-office hit, you can bet that the producers of the 1975 CBS/Filmation original were aware of them. Renamed The Original Ghostbusters, the series was rushed out onto VHS to capitalize on the later film’s name recognition, with box art exhorting kids to “see the series that started it all!” (The characters were also revived for an animated series in 1986.) That was only true in the loosest linguistic sense, though, and by the time the series came out on DVD in 2007, any mention of those other Ghostbusters had been erased.