The Low-Budget Movie Gimmicks of Cinema Past

By David Konow

Like Smell-O-Vision, there have been many gimmicks that tried to give audiences much more than a regular movie could provide, often with a much smaller budget and less resources than the major studios had to play with. Here are a few of my favorites.

With so many people watching movies at home with Blu-ray or through streaming services, Hollywood has been desperate to bring people back to theaters. This is why we’ve had the big 3D revival. With the success of films like Gravity, IMAX has also been a hot ticket. And overseas, 4D cinema has been very successful as well.

4D is a cinema technology that can encompass many different experiences, and one that used to be most associated with the gimmick of Smell-O-Vision. In Asia, there are theaters that pump scents into the theater, providing the audience with the extra "dimension" of smell. There has been some effort to try and have theaters like this in the States, and Robert Rodriguez tried a similar version with scratch-and-sniff cards, unsuccessfully, for Spy Kids: All the Time in the World. (Perhaps he shouldn’t have made a soiled diaper one of the scents.)

As silly as this gimmick may sound, when you look back in cinema history, it was something that was attempted way back in 1960. In fact, there have been many gimmicks that tried to give audiences much more than a regular movie could provide, often with a much smaller budget and less resources than the major studios had to play with.

As we’ve previously reported, the first 3D feature film, Bwana Devil, was an attempt to get people into theaters again, because a brand new technological innovation, television, was keeping a lot of people at home. In fact, the ads for Bwana Devil promised you would be seeing something “Newer than television!”

And even in the case of 3D, it was a cheaper technology because it was trying to give audiences something spectacular that was much less expensive than Cinerama widescreen, which required major reworking of theaters to support. With other gimmicks that followed, a lot of filmmakers have tried to bring audiences into theaters for cut-rate prices, and many of these innovations are amusing to look back on today. Here are some of my favorites.

The original version of 4D was first called “glorious Smell-O-Vision,” and it was used back in 1960 in the movie The Scent of Mystery. The technology was first developed by Mike Todd, a famous impresario who was married to Elizabeth Taylor. Todd produced the film Around the World in 80 Days, and he also developed the Todd A-O widescreen process, which was a variation on Cinerama with some of the bugs ironed out. Todd died in a plane crash in 1958, and his son, Mike Todd Jr., finished up his father’s work with Smell-O-Vision, and finally brought it to the big screen with Scent of Mystery.

Like 4D today, scents were pumped into the theater by tubes that were located under the seats. The smells that filled the air included roses, peaches, wood shavings, shoe polish, oil paint, garlic, the ocean breeze, incense, gun smoke, and more. This film was a mystery story, and the scents helped audiences follow the clues left behind, like perfume, and pipe tobacco, which the villain smoked.

The scents helped audiences follow the clues left behind, like perfume, and pipe tobacco, which the villain smoked.

The film had a “smell track” that released the right smells at the right time, but according to the book The Golden Turkey Awards (an early version of the Razzies) the wrong smells would be unleashed at the wrong time as well.

Funny enough, as the Golden Turkeys tells us, there was another film that was competing with Scent of Mystery at the time, Behind the Great Wall, a documentary on China, which was released in AromaRama. In this instance, the scents were pumped into the theater through the air conditioner. The film’s tagline promised, “You must breathe it to believe it!”

Scent of Mystery, which starred Peter Lorre and Denholm Elliott, reportedly made a small profit, but the reviews weren’t great. Films and Filming wrote, “Denuded of its aromas, it still stinks,” and Time reported, “most customers will probably agree that the smell they liked best was the one they got during intermission: fresh air.” The film also didn’t get a wide release; you could only see it L.A., New York, and Chicago.

In 1981, John Waters did his own variation of Smell-O-Vision, “Odoroma,” in his film Polyester. Like Rodriguez, Waters gave theatergoers scratch-and-sniff cards, and the smells included a rose, farts, a skunk, brand new leather car upholstery, and more. The stickers on the cards had numbers, and when a number flashed on the screen, it told you what number on the card to scratch and sniff.

Considering its low budget origins, it’s funny to see Smell-O-Vision, or 4D as it’s called today, make a minor comeback. But there’s plenty of other gimmicks we can’t imagine ever returning. Producer William Castle was the first filmmaker to offer theatergoers "death insurance" in case they died of fright from watching his movie Macabre. Castle knew nobody would collect, and the insurance company Lloyds of London went along with the gimmick, which made the movie a big hit.

“In the event of a coronary, insanity or death suffered during and / or following the showing of said motion pictures, I hereby hold this theater harmless.”

Several other low budget trashola movies from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s did something similar. For the triple bill of The Corpse Grinders, the Undertaker and His Pals, and The Embalmer, attendees were given a Certificate of Insurance--a disclaimer to sign saying their health was strong enough to take the shock of these three movies. It read: “In the event of a coronary, insanity or death suffered during and / or following the showing of said motion pictures, I hereby hold this theater harmless.” Trust me, nobody collected on this one either.

Night of a Thousand Cats, a crazy Mexican horror film about a millionaire who seduces women then feeds him to his army of felines, promised if you died of fright watching the movie, you would be given a “nice but simple funeral at no cost to the family.” Then in fine print, the ad read: “Casket optional on West Coast only.”

Another famed horror gimmick that launched in the early sixties was giving out barf bags to the audience. Blood Feast, which was the original gore film, did this first, and the gimmick was repeated for the seventies horror flick Mark of the Devil, as well as in the 1979 undead gorefest Zombie. It’s not known if these bags were ever utilized by theatergoers or not, although audiences definitely lost their lunch seeing the Exorcist, and some theaters lined the floors with kitty litter. (We couldn’t find any Blood Feast or Zombie barf-bags on Ebay, but we wouldn’t be surprised if they were worth a few bucks today.)

One of the kings of gimmicks in the ‘70’s was an exploitation producer named Sam Sherman, the man behind such cinema classics as Satan’s Sadists, an incredible late sixties biker film, and Dracula Vs. Frankenstein, the Plan 9 From Outer Space of the ‘70’s.

For the Sherman produced western Five Bloody Graves, the ads promised: “Free to the lucky winner, based on a drawing: ONE FROZEN-STIFF CORPSE.” The winner was given a deli coupon good for a frozen chicken. Horror of the Blood Monsters was two separate films cut together, one in color, one in black and white. The black and white footage was then supposed to be on another planet, and Sherman tinted it different solid colors every few minutes, which was supposed to be the planet’s atmosphere. This was dubbed Spectrum-X in advertisements.

For the Mad Doctor of Blood Island, you were given packets of what was supposed to be green monster blood at the door. The beginning of the film had a ritual where the audience had to stand up in the theater, recite an oath, then drink it. This again was Sherman’s idea, and once the green blood was made up and packaged, he tried drinking it himself. He had dysentery for two days.

The major studios weren’t above doing gimmicks, and two of my favorites were both done for premieres. In 1970, Paramount had a big budget film called The Adventurers, based on a trashy novel by Harold Robbins. The film premiered on an airplane, which was a brilliant idea because nobody would walk out on it, although the film was so bad I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone on the flight was frantically searching for a parachute.

Speaking of unique premieres, The Aviator reminded the world of the films Howard Hughes made when he romped through Hollywood such as Hell’s Angels and The Outlaw. Yet one Hughes film The Aviator didn’t cover was Underwater, which literally premiered underwater for 150 aqua-lunged guests. (Hughes’s moviemaking days ended with The Conqueror, a megaflop starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan).

A few others I’ll throw in I always found amusing. How about the 1973 horror film Wicked Wicked, which was done almost entirely in split screen, which MGM dubbed “Duo-Vision.” The ads promised: “See the hunter, see the hunted both at the same time.” (Split screen was a popular cinematic device back then, thanks to Woodstock, and Brian DePalma also used it in Sisters, Carrie, and Blow Out.)

I also loved that for Hammer film Rasputin the Mad Monk, starring Christopher Lee in the title role, you were given Rasputin beards at the door that you could wear during the screening. For one barely seen drive-in horror film, Scream Bloody Murder, you were given a blindfold at the box office because it was improbably too scary to bear. “So horrifying you need a blindfold to see it!,” the ads screamed.

All this stuff is funny to read about today, and yes, there were a lot of schlockmeisters who were trying to bring audiences into movies that were pretty awful to begin with, and wouldn’t have drawn flies without them. But also remember that with many of these gimmicks, some filmmakers were trying to give audiences something spectacular, something more than just a mere movie can offer, and while they often weren’t successful, we certainly appreciate the effort.