In rock concert terms, movie trailers are sort of like the feature presentation’s opening act. Sure, the ostensible purpose of a trailer is to get viewers pumped up about upcoming new releases, but the true value of a trailer (at least when sitting in the dark of a theater) is to stir the senses and signal your brain that it’s time to ingest cinema—a Pavlovian cue to ready your headspace for escapism.
We’ve already dedicated an entire blog to discussing what makes bad trailers bad (spoiler alert: don’t give away the entire plot!)—but what makes good trailers good? Trailers and teasers are themselves a visual storytelling medium, and much of what makes for successful films likewise applies to trailers; namely, the ability to conjure a distinctive atmosphere and convey the tone of a film. Good movie trailers should ask questions and leave viewers intrigued. They leave us wanting more.
And while the standard highlight-reel model of feature film trailer-making still persists as the default, studios have gradually been taking more chances with the form, creating a bevy of intriguing, artsy-fartsy promo clips that have expanded the scope of what mere advertising can do and made trailers an essential piece of the movie-watching experience. And if the actual film fails to live up to the promise of the trailer, don’t get mad. Just appreciate the artistry.
For this week’s Must-List we sat down to explore some of our favorite trailers, from the iconic to the obscure. So what are you waiting for? Peel open that box of Red Vines and settle in—the show is just about to start…
The Shining (1980)
One of the most memorable images in all of horror is one that appears only briefly in the actual film, but which takes center stage in the film’s trailer. Stanley Kubrick’s mountain-bound 1981 Stephen King adaptation The Shining definitely doesn’t lack for memorable visuals, from the spectral visage of murdered twins at the end of a long hallway, to Jack Nicholson’s frozen grimace nestled in the lethal frost of the Overlook’s hedge maze. But you wouldn’t have to go too far down the list of the film’s memorable set pieces to arrive as the striking tableaux of two elevator doors opening up to unleash a tidal wave of crimson blood, washing furniture down the hall and bubbling up over the camera lens until the entire world is tinted red. This one, long static shot—plus an escalating din of ominous, atonal orchestration and perversely simple vertical-scrolling text—are the entirety of the trailer; no voiceover, no montage of escalating violence and no humans to complicate the very simple idea that this hotel is not a place you want to be.
-Matt Warren, Digital Content Manager
Another Earth (2011)
My favorite trailer is for the 2011 independent film Another Earth, starring Brit Marling and William Mapother. The trailer pulls you in right from the start with an ominous audio hit followed by an expertly edited sequence revealing an Earth-shattering discovery: the existence of another Earth. With a blend of graphics and audio/visuals artfully underscoring the moment, the trailer shifts focus at the halfway point as we move to observe a young woman struggling to live with an unforgivable mistake. The Cinematic Orchestra’s “To Build a Home” powerfully punctuates this part of the trailer, with the editor cutting on emotional beats in a way that beautifully syncs music and picture to deliver a feeling of both hope and sorrow.
-Anthony Ferranti, Film Independent blogger
Queen of Earth (2015)
The trailer for indie auteur Alex Ross Perry’s taut 2015 character study of two friends learning to hate each other over one long, ill-conceived weekend in woods is equal parts perplexing, haunting and totally hilarious. Aping the style and tone of a 1970s grindhouse teaser, Queen of Earth’s trailer promises an altogether different sort of movie than what the film actually is. Full of warbling pan flutes and guided along by stentorian voiceover just one notch below total parody, it’s understandable that viewers of the trailer would more than half-expect the actual film to culminate in a standoff with an axe-wielding coven of woodland witchfolk—not the devastating, densely-nuanced (and unequivocally down-to-earth) psychological portrait they got instead. But this stylistic bait-and-switch does perfectly capture the foreboding tone of Perry’s film—an act of truth-in-advertising honestly so subtle it likely went over some people’s heads. (Matt Warren)
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Maybe it goes without saying, but often it’s a trailer’s choice of song that makes all the difference. Iconoclast indie filmmaker Spike Jonze’s big-screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s iconic 1975 children’s book was a remarkable study in total tonal control—balancing wistfulness, ambiguity and warm nostalgia to create a singular piece of art that wasn’t for children so much as it embodied childhood. This delicate mixture extended to the film’s trailer, propelled along by the sublime use of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up”, an anthemic lo-fi hymn neatly divided in two parts: the first, a soaring, esthetic gang-vocal chant conjuring feelings of awe and wonder; the second, a bouncy, up-tempo refrain that somehow manages to be both happy and sad at the same time (kind of like Wild Things itself). The pairing may seem like a match made in twee hell, but the result is less saccharine sugar and way more earthy tannins. (Matt Warren)
A Serious Man (2009)
I already talked about this—my favorite trailer of all time—in our aforementioned blog lamenting the state of film trailers on the whole, with A Serious Man being my counterpoint example of one that actually does it right. But what exactly is it doing? For one, the clip expertly conveys the tone of the movie while leaving the finer points of the actual narrative up to the viewer’s imagination. It also repurposes and repeats film footage in a hypnotic, abstract way, conveying an atmosphere of claustrophobic existential dread that communicates far more truth about what kind of movie audiences are in store for than any simple plot summary could. It’s also totally hilarious, emphasizing the absurdity of lead character Larry Gopnik’s Job-like struggle to navigate his life’s many frustrations. Throughout their careers, the Coen Brothers have consistently found humor in bleakness and vice-versa—a modus operandi summed up no purer than in this trailer. (Matt Warren)