Late last month, after multiple delays and bad buzz, The New Mutants arrived in theaters as one of the first major releases of the pandemic. It was easy to presume that this was bad news: the marketing was slim, with few cast members signal-boosting the film on social media (one exception was Maisie Williams, snarkily retweeting a review that dubbed the film the worst X-Men movie ever), and critics didn’t get an advanced screening or screener link. That seems like a bad-news hat trick: minimal advertising, no cast member promotion, and critics not getting an advance look. But sometimes there are exceptions that prove the rule, and this month marks the 60th anniversary of the biggest exception: Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal 1960 horror film Psycho.
There was an ad for Psycho, but even when movie advertising tended to last a few minutes, this trailer goes beyond. The marketing tool ran six and a half minutes, featuring no scenes from the film, with Hitchcock gaily walking through the Bates Motel set and tiptoeing up to revealing critical plot points before backing away. All of this is given the aural backdrop of Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score and… Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s 1955 black comedy The Trouble With Harry, which sounds lighter than you’d expect for a film in which people are killed by a mentally ill man dressing up as his dead mother.
Sixty years on, most audiences — even those who haven’t seen Psycho (hot take: it’s pretty good!) — know why Hitchcock was comfortable teasing surprises without revealing them. Janet Leigh, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, playing a compromised young woman who gets killed almost halfway through the film was a massive shock. That twist is compounded by the final reveal that the awkward but good-natured Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) was the murderer, his personality partially dominated by his mother even after her death. But the ad campaign was truly remarkable; as Leigh wrote in a 1995 behind-the-scenes memoir, neither she nor Perkins did any serious promotion, and critics weren’t given advance screenings. This combination helped turn a low-budget film into one of the most widely celebrated, influential films of all time.
Yet the way in which Psycho was marketed has rarely been replicated, in terms of teasing surprises or breaking the fourth wall. Two modern films that did follow suit are as disparate as possible: the 1999 indie thriller The Minus Man, and Pixar’s 2008 sci-fi masterpiece WALL-E.
First, consider The Minus Man, starring Owen Wilson as a would-be Norman Bates, and its ad. his isn’t the first modern movie to boast a trailer with no scenes from the movie itself, but that gambit typically involves actors from the film and/or scenes that might occur. This trailer’s different: we see a young couple leaving the theater, and arguing the meaning of character motivations and metaphorical elements.
The Minus Man inspires such a passionate debate that the couple talks all night, before the young woman realizes she’s late for work as a lifeguard. She dashes over and, upon entering the pool area, she’s shocked…to find two dead bodies. “Careful, you can talk about it for hours” is the ensuing tagline, hinting at surprises without telling you…anything about the movie (which is arguably remembered more for this trailer).
WALL-E began its marketing campaign in 2007, setting the stage by embracing the Pixar legacy far beyond Easter eggs such as the recurrence of the Pizza Planet truck sprinkled in the background of a shot. “In the spring of 1994, there was a lunch,” Andrew Stanton, co-writer and director, intones at the start of a teaser that leads to clips of a big-eyed trash-collecting robot with a funky-sounding voice. The basic thrust is that, a year before Toy Story, Stanton and fellow luminaries like Pete Docter and John Lasseter met to discuss story ideas should the 1995 computer-animated feature become a hit. WALL-E was one of those ideas, of course, yet the ad is as much about the studio as the film.
These unique trailers are even more special because few other modern ads lean into the behind-the-scenes details, or hype a movie as worthy of endless audience debates. The risk is as big as the reward; The Minus Man’s lack of success implies that a form-breaking trailer didn’t work. But the form is so familiar that it needs to be broken. It’s far too easy to watch a trailer for a new film and recognize all the cliches. Blockbuster ads often feature a slow cover of an upbeat song, the images shroud the characters in darkness, and the action’s likely to be heavily edited. (The Batman broke this latter tradition with an unbroken shot of Robert Pattinson’s Caped Crusader laying down the hurt on some bad dudes.)
Trailers can be hilarious or thrilling or terrifying, but we’re too often given a variation on the same thing. Sixty years ago, Psycho upended expectations even before audiences saw the film. It broke new ground, but sadly, too few studios have followed in the footsteps of one of the medium’s most legendary auteurs. If Alfred Hitchcock’s films inspired generations of directors, so should the way he sold those films to the public.