“You’ve Gotta Get a Gimmick” [Song from the Musical, “Gypsy” (1959)]
Movies, TV, and even to a lesser extent, the theater, have tried to do different things over the years in order to attract attention or publicity to something. This is to ultimately obtain appeal and hopefully, financial success. Such actions can be called many things but what I’d like to discuss in this particular post is something called a “Gimmick!” According to “Dictionary.com” the word “Gimmick” means,
“A trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or business.”
Many times, a Gimmick can have little intrinsic value or even have the connotation of applying to something crooked or illegal. The ever immortal über schlockmeister producer/director William Castle made a living out of having cheap, wacky, and tacky gimmicks to publicize his movies. His more successful movies were designed to evoke cheap scares, thrills, and terror even if artistically, they wouldn’t rank as anything better than something you’d find at the bottom of a sump pump.
Take for example, his movie, “House on Haunted Hill” (1959). In it, he had a skeleton (probably made of 100% virgin plastic) with red lighted eye sockets attached to a wire swinging over the viewing audience at a pivotal moment in the movie when a skeleton emerged from a vat of acid to terrorize Vincent Price’s evil wife. The movie was filmed in something that Castle called “Emergo” (it probably should have been called “E-Crapo”). Naturally, the movie was a big hit. Or how about his movie, “Strait-Jacket” (1964) where Castle had his star Joan Crawford (with 5 lbs. of makeup baked on her face) playing a former insane axe murderer go on a movie promotional tour at select theaters where Castle had printed paper axes handed out to patrons before the movie started. I’ll bet a lot of those patrons wished they were “real” axes after seeing Joan’s performance. Of course this was also a hit movie. However, my all time favorite “Gimmick” Castle movie was “The Tingler” (1959).
The ridiculous pilot was that a pathologist, Vincent Price (of course), discovers that a parasite (The Tingler) is in everyone which grows bigger inside a person when they are afraid unless it is neutralized by a person screaming (Couldn’t they have just used a large economy sized can of Raid?). Of course circumstances result in one growing large and when removed from a body it escapes and runs amuck in a crowded movie theater. The Tingler was basically just a large lunchbox sized rubber centipede which looked more like a reject from a Toys “R” Us Halloween aisle than an actual insect. However, for this movie, Castle pulled out all the stops.
Castle had military surplus airplane wing de-icers (consisting of vibrating motors) attached to select seats and the buzzers were activated when Price’s character tells the movie’s movie theater audience to “Scream-scream for your lives!” Castle called this little stunt “Percepto” although it probably would have been better if it was really called, “Hemorrhoido”. Not to leave anything to chance, he also sometimes had shills in the audiences scream at appropriate moments during the film. He even had fake fainters with fake nurses stationed in the theaters with the fainters being carried out on stretchers sometimes into an ambulance parked outside.
I can vouch for this myself because I was one of those sucker… I mean, discerning patrons who fell for this mess, hook, line, and sinker when I was a little kid. Never sat on a vibrating whoopee cushion seat but sure saw fainters being carried out on stretchers. For a little kid, that movie scared the Hell out of me and was the cause of my resulting nightmares for weeks on end (which was probably what Castle wanted patrons to experience from the very beginning). Of course, this movie was a big hit too. Vincent Price was probably laughing all the way to the bank since between these two movies and his “The Fly” and “Return of the Fly” movies done around the same time he found a second career as the newly titled “Master of Menace” for junk horror movies which he milked on and off for the rest of his life. P.T. Barnum could have learned a thing or two from William Castle.
Moving right along, I’m going to now mention four different type of “Gimmicks” which have been used in movies and TV. The first, is for the movie, “The List of Adrian Messenger” (1963). This was a pretty good mystery movie (maybe because it was directed by John Huston) with the premise revolving around a bunch of supposedly unrelated people being murdered by someone who was a master of disguise. You know who the killer is right off the bat. However, the mystery is not “who” the killer is, but “why” the killer is eliminating these people. Director Huston’s “Gimmick” was that he had such stars as Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, and Burt Lancaster playing different characters in disguise and advertising this fact to customers in advance before they ever saw the movie. The fun was not just the mystery, which was a good one, but whether you could spot the different stars in disguise. Of course, at the end, each star removes his disguise during the closing credits. Just about everyone, except Mitchum (no make-up artist could disguise that mug), is reasonably unrecognizable. A TV show that also used the makeup “Gimmick” was “Mission Impossible” although the make-up disguises were so bad that Helen Keller could see through them.
The second “Gimmick” on my list was what is called a “subjective camera” technique [A.K.A. Point-of-view (POV) shot] in which the viewer sees the action through the protagonist’s eyes (which would be the camera). A number of movies have used this technique briefly in films such as the original “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931) and “Strange Days” (1995). However, only a few movies used POV extensively. One was in the movie, “Lady in the Lake” (1946) starring and directed by Robert Montgomery. It was the first movie Montgomery directed and he played Raymond Chandler’s famous detective, Phillip Marlowe. What was unusual was that the entire movie was shown through Marlowe’s eyes except for brief moments before, during, and after the story ends. The only other time you actually saw Montgomery’s character was in reflections on mirrors. Otherwise, the entire movie was POV. Unfortunately, this movie was not a success and it was uniformly dismissed by critics. I don’t give a Damn! I liked it a lot. Chandler’s arrogant and cynically funny dialogue, the cool cinematography by future Oscar winner Paul Vogel, and great performances by Lloyd Nolan and especially, Jane Meadows (Yep, future Mrs. Steve Allen) who should have been Supporting Actor Oscar nominated, makes this movie a treat.
However, another better received movie was the Humphrey Bogart film noir, “Dark Passage” (1947) which did POV for the first 62 minutes of the movie. This movie had Bogey as an escaped San Quentin convict unjustly convicted of murder who ultimately gets plastic surgery to alter his appearance. You do not get to see his face until after it is wrapped up after surgery. When the bandages finally come off, you get to see Justin Bieber (Oh No! It’s a Horror Movie!) Just kidding, it’s Bogey. Although the storyline is far-fetched, the movie is still fun and who doesn’t like seeing a Bogey and Bacall movie.
Other more recent POV movies have been flicks like “Maniac” (2012) a psycho-slasher movie, and “Hardcore Henry” (2015), the later, a S/F action film where you never even see the main protagonist (Why can’t Sylvester Stallone make more movies like this?) Except for either sadists or thumb-sucking basement dwelling albino gamer enthusiasts, these two particular movies are best to avoid.
The third “Gimmick” on my list and, you’ll know the movie before I even finish this sentence, is when the main character that you deeply identify with is killed early in the movie. Hmm? Now I wonder what movie that could ever possibly be? Could it be a movie where you just might not want to stop for the night at a cheap motel? Could it be a movie where you just might not want to take a shower unless you can have a loaded 45 automatic with you as a substitute scrub-brush? Hmm? I just wonder what movie it could ever be…
Yeah, you and I both know it’s “PSYCHO!”
“Psycho” (1960) blew the lid off of movie censorship in so many ways. However, the “Gimmick” of the apparent central character, Janet Leigh, being killed so early in the movie was a bombshell. Unfortunately, this also led to its use in other far more inferior movies and in a varied manner in an acclaimed popular cable mini-series which might have been influenced indirectly by “Psycho”.
In 1963 a cheap “Psycho” rip-off produced by Roger Corman (and William Castle’s illegitimate psychic Twin) was made for American International Pictures (which also probably sold used Amway Products on the side). That classic was “Dementia 13”. Don’t remember it? Francis Ford (“Godfather”) Coppola probably wishes he couldn’t remember it either since it was the first thing he ever directed. If you want to waste 75 or 80 minutes of your life [80 with prologue; 75 without prologue (I’m not kidding!)] then by all means, see it. However, if you’d rather watch paint dry, then I’ll lend you five bucks for your paint purchase. Overrated Director Brian DePalma (when he wasn’t trying to rip off Alfred Hitchcock whenever he could in all of his films) also did a couple of similar movies with a lead character being killed early on in stinkers such as “Sisters” (1972) and “Dressed to Kill” (1980).
However, this Gimmick was later used to better effect in previously said acclaimed cable mini-series, “Game of Thrones.” In Season 1, the main heroic character, Ned Stark is unexpectedly executed (Episode 9: “Baelor”). Then, as if that was not bad enough, in Season 3, another major heroic character, Robb Stark (unlucky Ned’s son) and his wife and bannermen are brutally murdered during a wedding (Episode 29: “The Rains of Castamere”). With probably 80 episodes of the series I think both of these instances can easily meet “Psycho” quality standards for a major character’s early demise.
The fourth, and last example of a “Gimmick” is actually an actor either entirely alone, or an actor alone and not saying a word. Now I am not referring to a one man/woman show in a theater production. A variation of this “Gimmick” could be found in an episode of the old TV program, “Combat”. Anyone under “50” years old remember that show? …. I’m waiting…. I’m still waiting…..
“Combat” (1962 to 1967) was about a squad of American soldiers fighting the Germans in France during World War II. This was back before such things as Vietnam and Iraq changed many people’s views about the U.S. military and it was the longest and most popular World War II drama on TV. I always laugh when I think about this show now because that stupid squad was fighting Germans in France longer than the entire time the United States actually fought in World War II. Maybe if you visit France anytime soon you might still find that squad (probably in their walkers and wheelchairs now) fighting German tourists up near the Belgium border.
Anyway, check out Season 3: Episode 68 (The Duel). In it, actor Vic Morrow (Sgt. Saunders) fights a German tank alone with no one around other than himself and his sub-machine gun and grenades trying to stop the tank before it turns around a bend where a lone truck driver is trying to change a flat tire under a munitions laden truck. Other than Morrow’s talking with the driver in the truck after he catches a lift in the beginning of the episode, briefly in the middle, and at the very end, along with some comments in German by the Germans in the tank during their fight with Morrow, there is no dialogue at all. It’s a terrific suspenseful episode and Morrow is great as an outmatched and desperate soldier trying to do anything he can to stop that tank.
Another example of a lone actor with basically no dialogue occurred for an episode of an even older TV program, “77 Sunset Strip” (1958 to 1964). Anyone under “60” years old remember this show? …. I’m waiting… I’m… Ah, forget it!
This show was about a pair of private detectives whose “stylish” offices were at 77 Sunset Strip in Los Angeles (sort of looked like a cross between a cheap roadside motel and a sixties Howard Johnson Restaurant). Actors Roger Smith (as Jeff Spencer) and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (as Stuart Bailey) played two ex-government agents who were private detectives with additional cast members that changed over the years. The episode that I want to mention was with Efrem Zimbalist titled, “Reserved for Mr. Bailey” (Season 4, Episode 12).
In it, Bailey, during a late night alone, is knocked out and when he awakens the next day discovers that he is in a desert with nothing around except a deserted ghost town nearby. He walks into the town, finds nothing at first glance except for some manikins in different locations, a card that says, “Reserved for Mr. Bailey”(subtlety was not a big thing for fifties TV shows then), and a feeling that he is being watched. Of course he is being watched on different television screens by someone unseen and soon enough this person announces himself to Bailey from microphones situated all over town along with the TV screens watching his every move.
Basically, this person wants to kill Bailey because he and a few others supposedly caused the death of someone he loved (but of course, Bailey is innocent). This person bought the town, rigged it up with booby traps, and then set his victims loose to die while trying to escape with the face-less bad guy tormenting them throughout their ordeal. Despite the ridiculousness of the plot (he could have just locked Bailey in a local Chuck E. Cheese with a bunch of screaming four-year olds to get the same results) there is real suspense. Zimbalist even breaks the “fourth wall” by talking directly into the camera at times to make it feel like you and Zimbalist are experiencing this same terrifying situation together. He ultimately triumphs while you never see anyone else in the entire episode.
A couple of recent movies also used the lone individual without anyone else around or with little or no dialogue “Gimmick”. Both movies also involved a fight for survival. The first was “All Is Lost” (2013) with Robert Redford starring as a lone sailor trying to stay alive after his sailing boat is struck by a shipping container. The movie is basically dialogue free (the script is only 32 pages long) and you never even know what his character’s name is. I really tried to like this movie (maybe for its premise). However, ultimately, I just could not. The reason was that for a supposedly smart, independent, and very experienced sailor, he makes some of the absolutely dumbest decisions that I have ever seen. Redford was always very limited as an actor, but he has, at times, been able to do a few competent workman-like performances such as this one. However, he just cannot overcome this colossal movie flaw which is basically the fault of director J.C. Chandor. It almost makes you wish that there was someone else in the boat with him (maybe the ghost of Paul Newman) saying, “What the Hell are you doing, you Idiot?”
The second movie, and a far better tale of survival, was the recent movie, “Arctic” (2018). It stars Mads Milkkelsen (a far better actor than Robert Redford could ever be) as a man named Overgard, the lone survivor of a plane crash somewhere in the Arctic Circle. Milkkelsen’s only dialogue is basically when he speaks into a radio trying to contact anyone, to himself, and to another victim of a helicopter crash, Maria Thelma Smaradottir, who is so badly injured that she can hardly say a word. Milkkelsen is terrific in the role and the hardships that he experiences are believable and frightening. He conveys so many different emotions without saying a word that one can really identify with his plight, especially when he has to make a desperate decision to save his wounded companion by pulling her on a sled over the brutal landscape to obtain help.
“Gimmicks” can, like anything else, be good or bad as I hope I’ve shown in the above examples. It still depends on how they are used and whether they are either believable or properly suspend our disbelief. However, whether I can say if they entertaining or not, well…
Nothing up my sleeve!