Most movie marketing is about enticement: Hear Greta Garbo talk! Believe that a man can fly! Feel the unremitting, night-vision-camera terror of this Paranormal Activity audience for yourself! In horror promotions especially, there’s an undercurrent of danger to the seduction—you’re going to scream and nobody’s going to hear you, it still isn’t safe to go into the water, you’re repeating “it’s only a movie” to avoid fainting. But a select class of scary movies goes one step further. They don’t just promise the adrenaline rush of a good scare—they claim to depict events so pulse-pounding, so perilous, they’re a genuinely lethal threat to members of the audience. This type of “killer” B-movie pioneered by wily showman William Castle has its modern descendants, too, in films purporting to depict the deaths of the people in front of the camera. (Actual on-set tragedies like the ones that befell Twilight Zone: The Movie and The Crow notwithstanding.) Scoff if you must, but viewer beware: Just because the following films haven’t claimed a life doesn’t mean that yours won’t be the first.
“For the next hour and 15 minutes, you will be shown things so terrifying that the management of this theater is deeply concerned for your welfare,” a voice-over warns at the beginning of Macabre, William Castle’s whodunit of kidnapping, premature burial, and other acts certain to scandalize the moviegoers of 1958. And Macabre was putting its money where its mouth was: In the first of an escalating series of marketing gimmicks attached to his films, Castle promised a $1,000 life insurance policy, backed by Lloyd’s Of London, to anyone who died of fright during the film. (The risk existed on both sides of the screen: Castle had mortgaged his home in order to fund the picture.) The gambit paid off, though, with the Macabre roadshow—which featured on-duty nurses and, on at least one occasion, the director in a coffin of his own—earning its budget back and then some, to the tune of $5 million. Macabre launched Castle’s reign as the baron of Hollywood ballyhoo, though he was disappointed that this inaugural guarantee remained theoretical. “Reportedly he was pissed no one bothered to die, because it would’ve been great press,” film historian Catherine Clepper told Smithsonian.com in 2017. [Erik Adams]
It’s been said that Castle threatened legal action against Warner Bros. in order to halt the studio’s own life-insurance stunt, but that didn’t stop director Alex Nicol from trying a variation for this gothic tale, released a few months after Macabre. Foregoing a name-brand backer, marketing materials and a funereal prologue merely promised burial services for anyone driven to the grave by the peculiar circumstances of one Jenni Whitlock (Peggy Webber), a newlywed bedeviled by the spirit of her husband’s first wife—and the still-living groundskeeper who was devoted to her. But as the bots of Mystery Science Theater 3000 discovered when attempting to collect on the film’s big promise, the true shocking horror of The Screaming Skull is red tape and non-refundable shipping fees. [Erik Adams]
Another future feature presentation on the Satellite Of Love, The Horror Of Party Beach came to theaters with a built-in hook: Filmed in the unlikely sun-and-fun destination of Stamford, Connecticut and blending its attacks from the deep with six groovy tunes by New Jersey combo The Del-Aires, the beach-party/creature-feature hybrid was billed as “the first horror-monster musical.” But with aquatic creatures of this size, sometime you need multiple hooks to reel ’em in: Enter the “Fright Release,” an official-looking certificate doled out to attendees of a bill pairing The Horror Of Party Beach with another 1964 effort by director Del Tenney, The Curse Of The Living Corpse.
“Remember: You will not be admitted unless you release this theatre from all responsibility for… DEATH BY FRIGHT,” blared trailers for the double feature, made possible by a partnership between Tenney and exhibitor Alan V. Iselin, who owned a string of drive-in theaters up and down the Eastern Seaboard. The partnership fizzled before production on a follow-up twofer—Frankenstein Meets The Space Monster and Zombies, the latter shelved for years before it was resurrected as I Eat Your Skin in 1971—and while Iselin-Tenney Productions failed to record a body count, it could lay claim to launching a career: The Curse Of The Living Corpse is the first onscreen credit for Roy Scheider. [Erik Adams]
Everything about Castle Of Evil is second-rate, even for a B-picture. Its blend of sci-fi and horror was moderately innovative for the mid-’60s, but the film’s insanely rushed production schedule didn’t leave time to cultivate anything close to atmosphere, let alone dynamic performances. (Castle Of Evil was shot back-to-back with another movie, Destination Inner Space, in a mere 14 days.) Even its gimmick, screaming red letters plastered across the film’s poster offering to pay for the funeral if anyone “D.D.”ed (“dropped dead”) of fright during the film, was stale, given that William Castle had done the same thing back in 1958. But hey, it was shot in color. That’s something. [Katie Rife]
The question of whether snuff films are real or just an urban myth is still open to debate. Screw magazine founder Al Goldstein’s offer of $1 million to anyone who could produce a real snuff film remained unclaimed as of his death in 2013, and law enforcement agencies around the world have similarly said that there’s no proof that snuff films actually exist—none that they’ve ever seen, anyway. (On the other hand, the bottomless depravity of human beings, particularly on the internet, is also hard to deny.) However, we can say for sure that 1976’s Snuff is not a real snuff movie, even though it was marketed as one. It’s just a dismal “Mansonsploitation” movie made by notorious husband-and-wife directing team Michael and Roberta Findlay, which turned out to be so awful that not even the cheapest of distributors would release it. And so the film, originally titled Slaughter, was shelved for four years, until producer Allan Shackleton bought it, removed its credits, and shot a new ending implying that everything audiences had seen up to that point was real. Thus, with its new title and a catchy new tagline (“The film that could only be made in South America… where life is cheap!”), Snuff passed from forgotten failure into dubious legend. [Katie Rife]
To be clear, animals were harmed in the making of Cannibal Holocaust. The animal deaths in Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 cannibal gross-out are genuinely upsetting, and may have contributed to rumors that started going around shortly after the film’s release that its violence toward humans was un-simulated as well. (The fact that Deodato asked his cast to stay out of the public eye for a year after the film’s release only fueled speculation.) These rumors were widespread enough that Deodato was put on trial in Italy on suspicion of making a snuff film, leading to a three-year legal battle as the director was forced to prove that he hadn’t actually killed any of his actors. Deodato was ultimately able to beat the murder charges only by bringing an actress to court to testify that she and her castmates were fine, and demonstrating how he created a special effect that made it look like he had impaled the woman on a wooden stake. He was found guilty of animal cruelty, however. [Katie Rife]
It’s not just the cursed videotape that kills you in Hideo Nakata’s franchise-launching horror film Ringu (1998) and its American remake, The Ring (2002). Two more things have to happen before you’re truly screwed: First, you’ve got to pick up the phone and hear a ghostly voice croak, “Seven days,” and then you have to fail to get someone else to watch it within that all-important week. Perhaps that’s why no one has ever actually died as a result of watching Ringu or any of its sequels, even though the deadly footage is incorporated into the films. Perhaps simply returning the DVD to the video store, or someone else firing up the stream online, is enough to pass on the curse in an endless game of supernatural tag. Or maybe it’s just fiction, and nothing will happen no matter what you do or don’t do. Better recommend the movie to a friend just in case. [Katie Rife]
10. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The irony of Deodato’s legal saga is that, nearly 20 years later, two directors cribbed from the Cannibal Holocaust playbook for a low-budget debut feature that blossomed into a cultural phenomenon and launched an entire cinematic subgenre—one that did not lead to a criminal investigation into the disappearance and deaths of film students Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard. It helped that Donahue, Williams, and Leonard weren’t film students at all, but rather actors pretending to argue, run, and scream their way toward doom—not that any of this dissuaded the scores of people logging onto BlairWitch.com or tuning into the Syfy special Curse Of The Blair Witch to learn more about Elly Kedward, Rustin Parr, and the frightful happenings in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, all of which were the invention of the Blair Witch Project team led by filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. It was a skillful illusion specific to a place in time, when internet access was spreading, but had yet to reach a point where a “local” “legend” like The Blair Witch could be debunked as neither local in origin nor legendary in stature. When the stars started doing the promotional rounds, the spell was well and truly broken. And nobody ever took anything they read on the internet without a grain of salt ever again. [Erik Adams]
When the book of ballyhoo is finally written, The Blair Witch Project may end up being the last movie that was able to maintain enough of a sense of mystery that viewers genuinely weren’t sure if the lead actress had survived production. But even in the post-social media era, clever marketers can still create an aura of danger around their films by blurring the line between correlation and causation. Take the 2016 French-Belgian horror movie Raw—which, to be fair, does contain a couple of pretty grisly cannibalism scenes. But were those scenes actually the reason ambulances were called to assist passed-out patrons at a midnight TIFF screening, as the film’s rep claimed to The Hollywood Reporter? Or were other factors—alcohol, exhaustion, unrelated medical conditions—at fault? Only Raw, its marketing team, and a handful of Canadian cinephiles know for sure. [Katie Rife]