When television crawled upon the American scene in the late 1940s there was felt to be a need to give the public something that they could not get on television.
Arch Oboler (b. 1907- d. 1987, pioneer of the ”Inner Sanctum” ”Lights Out” radio programs) was the first to devise a gimmick for his movie “Bwana Devil” known as 3D. Oboler was a radio pioneer who thought the 3D effect using polarized lenses and the showing of various objects being thrust at the viewer would revolutionize cinema. This did not work as well as planned because extended viewing caused headaches and blurry vision.
After an initial mid-fifties boom 3D died out until the early 1980s when it enjoyed a brief revival. The two abominations ”Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn” and ”Spacehunters: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone” come to mind.
Since my moviegoing consists more of movies like 'Herbie the Love Bug II' that my daughter likes than movies like 'Fitzcarraldo' I've sat like a good dad through ”Spykids: 3D” and ”The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” but missed ”Coraline” in the 3d version.
.A master of the gimmick was the lowbudget filmmaker William Castle(born as William Schloss 1914- d. 1977). In “House on Haunted Hill” with Vincent Price, this movie used the gimmick “Emergo” This consisted of a plastic glow in the dark skeleton suspended on a theater wire which appeared to move into the audience at the climax of the movie.
After an initial skeleton injured a Castle employee, a lighter skeleton was devised that did not work any better due to pranksters shooting it with BB guns. Castle was undaunted by this gimmick’s failure and developed his most famous gimmick for the Vincent Price movie “The Tingler” was “Percepto,” which was an electrical shock device attached beneath the seats of moviegoers. During the climax the Tingler monster is supposed to invade the actual theater and to stimulate the monster effect, where the monster invaded the spinal column, thus “tingling&” them to death unless they screamed. The theater owner pressed the percepto button, giving his audience an equivalent shock. William Castle even had a chair in his office wired with this gimmick. Most theatres could not afford this so they would have ushers use buzzers..
Other Castle innovations were the “fright break” where the audience would hear an announcement in the theatre nearing the end of the film that if they were too frightened they could leave the theatre and get a full refund and “Illusion-O,” which was a variation on 3D because each audience member could look through a blue or red tinted plastic to determine the outcome of the movie. .
In Castle’s “Macabre” a lesser gimmick not actually used in the course of the motion picture was the act of taking out ”fright insurance” (if the movie patron happened to die of fright during te movie) on theatergoers although some suggested “boredom insurance” being better for that film.
Other Castle pictures such as “I Saw What You Did” contain no gimmicks. In ”Mr. Sardonicus” audience members were given thumbs up or thumbs down voting device so they could decide whether Mr. Sardonicus could be cured and live or instead die. Of course the audience’s actions had no difference in the outcome of the movie..
William Castle produced ”Rosemary’s Baby” and early in his career did second unit work on one of Hitchcock’s earlier films..
A later 1950s film entitled “My World Dies Screaming” used a gimmick called “psychorama.” It is the now banned use of subliminal editing into a movie. This movie edited such horrifying objects as skeleton pictures and the word “blood” and coffin pictures for periods of less than one second at different points in the movie. This gimmick did not work for this particular movie, although some theater owners used it successfully to raise concession sales. Laws were changed to prohibit subliminal messages in movies in the late ‘60s.
.Another gimmick user was Ray Dennis Steckler (b. 1938). He created the gimmick of “Hallucinogenic Hypnovision” for his movie “Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed up Zombies.” This gimmick told audiences they would be actually surrounded by movie monsters, which ended up being theater ushers dressed up as movie monsters wielding cardboard knives when a spinning wheel appeared at various times in the movie.
It was also used for a later movie entitled “The Maniacs are Loose.”
.One of the most famous gimmicks used in movies was “Sensuround” originally used for “Earthquake” and later used for the theatrical release of the TV movie “Battlestar Gallactica.” This featured a device which shook the theater seats during the earthquake sequences. Theaters unable to afford this gimmick found they could achieve an equivalent effect by turning up the sound volume of the theaters to maximum volume.
In later years the quality of stories was looked upon as being more important than the use of gimmicks and no major gimmicks have been used in recent years. But for students of cinema looking and examining these gimmicks over the years, these make for an interesting sidelight.