Today: February 28, 2024

Cinema's Greatest Gimmicks

In the century since the birth of cinema, audiences have seen it all. Talkies, colour, 3D, windscreen, surround sound, multiplexes and IMAXs.

the century since the birth of cinema, audiences have seen it all. Talkies,
colour, 3D, windscreen, surround sound, multiplexes and IMAXs.
This week, blinkbox invited press along to preview the latest in immersive
cinema at Hop Farm in Kent. For the
last four years, Hop Farm has been host to Freak
Week (25th-31st October)
where members of the public come along to be
thrilled and chilled by the unexpected on Halloween. 2012 will be their fourth
year and they’re expecting around 7,000 people to sample what’s being billed as
the ultimate cinema experience. Exact details are shrouded in secrecy but the
weeklong event will include a specially created living room, which merges live
theatre with the terrifying thrills inspired by blinkbox’s latest horror movie
releases. And you can expect the viewing experience
to be anything but cosy.

To mark the event, Paula Hammond takes a look at
ten of the cinema’s best and most bizarre gimmicks.

This year, researchers discovered an early
‘colour’ film dating back to 1902, which was made by projecting black and white
images in front of three alternating colour filters. However it wasn’t until
1906 that the first wide scale colour process arrived. ‘Kinemacolor’ used two
alternating green and red filters and was surprisingly effective as The World, The Flesh And The Devil (1914) proved. It also paved the way
for things to come.

Although The
Jazz Singer (1927)
is usually credited as the first ever ‘talkie’, the
practice of screening film with music and dialogue recorded onto phonograph
records began in Berlin in 1896. It was in Germany, too, that the first
sound-on-film feature, The Arsonist
, was first screened. The Jazz Singer used a similar system in which
a soundtrack was recorded onto records and played in-sync with the film, but
sound-on-film wasn’t far behind and soon become standard.

In the ‘40s the big bad wolf threatening to blow
down cinema’s straw house was TV and, once again, the film industry was forced
to up their game. Although the
first ever 3D feature, The Power of Love,
was released in 1922, 3D was an expensive process and wasn’t considered worth
pursuing until ‘40s. The first commercial 3D feature appeared 1947 (Robinson Crusoe) and the format, though
never really successful, has been seen as the ‘saviour’ of cinema during every
financial crisis since.

Widescreen made its debut in the 1920s but the
format really didn’t catch on until the ‘50s when, like 3D, it was viewed as a
tool in the fight against TV. Widescreen aimed to give audiences what they
couldn’t get at home – a big screen experience. Cinema Scope (see how the name
shows its exclusive to cinemas) created images almost twice as wide as previous
formats. 20th Century Fox liked the idea so much they bought the patent and, in
1953, unleashed Biblical blockbuster The
as “the modern miracle you see without glasses”.

B-movie director William Castle was a man who really knew how to sell a movie and
some of the best gimmicks in the business came from his fevered
imagination. Illusion-O was made
to accompany the horror flick 13 Ghosts
, and allowed audience members to decide whether or not they had the
cahoonas to see the film’s ghosts. Viewers were issued with ‘visualisers’
before the film began which contained two cellophane filters, one red, one
blue. As the blue-tinted ghosts were superimposed on top of the
black-and-white, they were only visible to those using the red filter. The most
recent DVD release included versions of the film with and without the ghosts
along with a set of special viewers for the ultimate retro experience.

The name speaks for itself. Yes, Smell-O-Vision
involved releasing odours in the cinema so that the audience could smell what
was happening in the movie. The technique made its only appearance on the 1960
feature The Scent Of Mystery.
Technical glitches meant that the film was a huge flop and so ended the
Smell-O-Vision experiment. At least for the time being.

Another William Castle classic, this. Percepto
was developed to promote The Tingler
in which lobster-like parasites attach themselves onto their
victim’s spines. Towards the end of the film, one of the creatures is let loose
in the cinema, at which point electrical buzzers attached to the underside of
seats were made to vibrate. All of which cleverly ensured that audiences always
screamed, even though the film was a stinker. Castle’s gimmicks have achieved
such cult status among filmmakers that they are even referenced in modern
movies such as Gremlins 2: The New Batch
and Matinee (1993).

Whack up the bass on your in-screen sound system
and what do you get? Sensurround.
In 1974, Universal Studios wanted something ‘special’ to make their new
disaster movie, Earthquake, stand
out from the crowd. After
rejecting several ideas, Universal’s sound department eventually came up with
‘Sensurround’ which used a series of vast speakers and a 1,500 watt amplifier
to pump sub-audible ‘infra bass’ into the auditorium. The result was said to be
the equivalent to the sound made when a jet takes off. The film was a massive
success and the effect was used again on Midway
), Rollercoaster (1977) and
Battlestar Galactica (1979). The
2006 DVD release featured the original audio track though, wisely, they didn’t
give DVD buyers the full, nose bleed-inducing sound effects.


It was arguably the threat of cheap home videos
in the 1980s that prompted the building of luxury multiplexes. If people could
choose what they watched at home, then why not give them the same choice at the
cinema? Sugary snacks, caffeinated drinks and licensed bars didn’t harm
business any either.

With audiences already tiring of 3D, could
Aromascope be the gimmick to get us back to the cinemas? Director Robert Rodriguez thought so with Spy Kids 4: All The Time In The World (Main Picture);
a film which gave audiences scratch-and-sniff cards tied to events in the
movie. Though this foray into aroma-entertainment was much more successful than
Smell-O-Scope, it’s hard to believe it represents the cinema of the future.
However, if reports are to be believed, scientists at the University of
California are even now trying to create aroma-synthesising screens and plan to
put the technology into cinemas, iPads and iPhones. Sounds crazy doesn’t it?
But then who’d have thought that those new fangled talkies would ever catch on

blinkbox Freak Week experience will be open to the public from October 25th
till the October 31st.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email:

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