The Shining: Marketing Minimalism

Warner Bros., 1979.   1:31

In contrast to the hyperkinetic trailers to which we have grown accustomed, this memorable trailer for one of the most highly regarded horror films of all times, consists of one scene, one shot, one camera and no actors.   The action consists of a seeping, then a gushing, then a surging quantity of red fluid, presumably blood, that washes over the lens and sweeps away the furnishings.   In this conceptual trailer, made, presumably before principal photography was completed (or indeed, started) a simple idea, set to music and captioned with scrolling cards presenting title, cast, and provenance, tells us plainly that this much anticipated movie, by one of the most distinguished post-war directors, based on a best-selling novel by an acclaimed writer, featuring one of the most celebrated and popular “stars” of the contemporary era, will be a blood bath.  It’s a cliché, in fact, of the genre, here literalized in great earnest, revealing nothing of the film audiences will clamor to see, but promising the gory satisfaction that Kubrick plus Nicholson plus King will surely deliver.

Here briefly is what we see, hear and read.

A medium shot from a still camera, positioned somewhere around knee level, frames a two car elevator bank at the end of a rectangular lobby. The dated, faded, but tidy elevator entrance is furnished with flanking upholstered chairs in an unattractive plaid. The elevator doors are red. The walls, above brown wainscoting are white. The floor is waxed, worn, golden-beige linoleum.   During the entire 1:28, a single piece of music plays, beginning with drums and a low droning, following by chimes and a saw-like buzzing. Cellos provide a rising, repetitive, crescendo-ing “tune” punctuated by bells whose rhythm and pitch evoke the sound of a train crossing. This is the music of madness, of mental static and aural distortion.

As for verbal cues, it is the copy scrolling down during the first 50 seconds that offers the only dynamic or moving element in this first section of the trailer.  We see, in order, “The Shining,” “A Stanley Kubrick Film,” then the Cast Run,  followed by reference to the best-selling Author whose master-piece of horror inspired this film. Next the screenwriters are listed, after which the title again appears, followed by the director’s credit.  There is no narrative, no tagline and no exhortation offered.

As the words scroll up and out of sight, red liquid, presumably blood, begins to mist and then to spray from the left hand side of the left elevator, quickly becoming a gush, and then a torrent that covers the floors, splashes against the furniture, rolls along the floor and washes up and over the camera whose view is momentarily blotted out by red and then black, before “sight” is restored, albeit filtered now through the reddish liquid that covers the lens.  We see the heavy wood-framed chairs and side tables pushed diagonally across the frame and past the camera by the tidal surge of blood, as we cut to black.

In terms of graphic design, the only relevant choice was font, in this case utterly plain, perfectly legible and sans serif.

The audience presumed by this trailer is one familiar with Mr. Kubrick, Mr. King and Mr. Nicholson, comprising both cineastes as well as general audiences, horror buffs, and readers of best-sellers.  This is a project with built in audiences, significant advance publicity and widespread anticipation appealing to specialized as well as mass-market audiences.   The film, as we know in hindsight delivered on its promise, but given the recipe, this appears to have been a film that would have opened well, even in the event of negative critical response.

It had everything, including, I suggest, a smart marketing campaign (at least, as evidenced by this teaser) that gave nothing of the story away, while foregrounding all the most promising attributes.  Given the generic qualities of horror, with surprise a requisite feature, showing the scares can be risky.  Given the success of the book, whose plot was widely known and disseminated even to non-readers, there wasn’t really a compelling need to repeat this information.  Audiences had a good idea what they were getting, although it was useful to remind them, via obvious visual metaphor, what to anticipate.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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