Note: This Year-End post is the first of two Ruining Trailers blog entries to look back at 2018. This first post considers horror trailers from multiple angles; beyond the scope of horror, the second post from Jesse Balzer will further address some ideas, reflections, and questions about trailers from the previous year.
Horror trailers – their look, feel, shapes, textures – didn’t change all that much in 2018. From spooky major releases to blood-soaked indie features, horror trailer practitioners all pulled from the same bag of tricks marketers have been drawing from for years: Dead silence was frequently punctuated by jarring noise; Jump scares (screaming faces, mirror gags, etc.) abounded; Jittery camera work, violent edits, and the trailer-only application of nauseating strobe effects aimed to unsettle; Title cards (making it seem like the trailer had come to a close) were quickly followed by surprise jolts of unnerving imagery. Some of these techniques made for trailers that were just “fine” – quick blasts of terror and fun house shivers that didn’t make me terribly excited for the film to come, but were harmless at best. Other trailers made use of these conventions in ways that just flat-out worked. One of my favorite trailers of the year came early, in January – The Strangers: Prey at Night. The promo clip is tight, with editing that utilizes screams, stabs, clicks, and sudden drops and drags of silence or muffled sound as part of its pop-music aided rhythmic structure, rather than as interruptive forces or sudden “boo!” gags. The effect is extra eerie, as those terrifying sounds become almost jovial – a nice accompaniment to the playfully smeared gore and neon of the film itself.
Aside from a few exceptions like this, the real story of 2018 for me was the reception of or audience engagement with the idea of horror trailers. Specifically, I am thinking of the intense anticipation for the Halloween (2018) trailer and the adverse reactions to the six-second YouTube teaser for The Nun.
Demand for the trailer-return of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode was high throughout the year, often in ways that made me frustrated and uncomfortable. Prior to the ad’s release in June, nearly every online editorial about the film, behind the scenes pictures from the set, and Blumhouse-associated social media account was regularly flooded with comments pleading for the release of the trailer. Blumhouse content that didn’t even have anything to do with Halloween (from other movies to personal social media content posted by BH producers) often found itself marked by increasingly nagging and harassing demands for the trailer. The film’s co-producer and frequent social media mouthpiece, Ryan Turek, was typically on the receiving end of the seemingly endless and aggressive comments; in a personal post he made to his Twitter account in May (“Bummer day. Go hug all of your loved ones and remember they’re what matters”), someone had the gall to respond, “Damn that sucks but what about dat #HalloweenMovie trailer tho?” – a fairly standard response that, taken altogether, ultimately led Turek to acknowledge the issue with commendable wit:
Turek’s post was followed by these responses, which illustrate the odd tensions between fan support and (seeming to miss the point of his tweet) intense demand for the trailer:
At year’s end, I’m still not sure what to make of this demand for the Halloween trailer. It leaves me with more questions than answers – about the nature of fandom, the toxicity of media obsession, the relationship we are able to have (or think we have) with creatives and media producers online, and the apparent “need” for some people to have access to a trailer (or any other promotional text) as quickly as possible, as if that first glimpse has a transformative power beyond drumming up excitement and selling a film, or can give you access to something unbelievably special and even crucial.
The Nun teaser is also a case study in online negativity, but of a different sort. Call this a case of the jump scare (for some) gone too far. In August, Warner Bros. launched a YouTube-based marketing campaign for The Nun that stirred up enough controversy with online audiences that it, unlike similar promotional predecessors, was ultimately removed and banned from the platform for supposedly violating its “Violent and shocking ad content” policy. Why this particular teaser trailer above all others, and how was the YouTube community able to do what users had demanded of it in the past in response to other horror trailers? Initial analysis of the ad would seem to point to the ways it deployed shocks and scares as particularly egregious to the YouTube community, more so than the horrific content itself. Starting with a black screen and an image of the Mac computer volume icon, the six-second-teaser trailer shows the volume oddly oscillating up and down before swiftly muting itself. Less than a second passes before an image of the titular character bursts onto the screen without warning, her horrendous face filling the frame and screaming with wild intensity. The promotional clip is a mainstream marketing take on the classic Internet “screamer” or “scare prank” – brief, often mysterious web videos meant to fake-out and freak-out unsuspecting users with innocuous passages (cars driving through the countryside; home movies of happy children or families; tranquil nature scenes) that deviously cut to often horrifying, screeching ghouls, goblins, and other assorted nightmare creatures.
This was all accentuated by both the extreme brevity of the ad and its unskippable nature (and brought to mind issues with the Evil Dead reboot/sequel “Don’t Skip It” trailer from 2013). Like the Halloween trailer, I’m also left to ponder the reactions to The Nun teaser well into 2019. A few thoughts: (1) The clip defies trailer convention; more recognizable as a prank than an ad, it becomes an easy target for derision and, ultimately, regulation. This is understandable in many ways, as the aim of the ad seemed to be to trick and scare people in ways that genuinely violated their sense of comfort and control. More generally, this blurred line between prank and teaser trailer is a continued confirmation of the increasing lack of differentiation between ads, entertainment, and other forms of “content.” (2) All understanding for the ad’s takedown aside (and to be sure, you can still find the ad on YouTube, as evidenced by the attached video…), the removal and banishment of The Nun screamer-trailer acted as a swift and highly visible public relations move that at once acknowledged users as legitimately involved in the processes of building, managing, and modifying the YouTube community, and put on public display the ways that YouTube allegedly stays true to its own regulatory policies (again, with horror and horror ads/gimmicks perhaps as easy targets).
It will be interesting to see in the new year how horror trailers continue to not only shock and delight, but function as texts that can help us understand and reconsider our relationships to fan communities, media industries, and content delivery platforms. Cheers to more shocks and spoils in 2019!