Smell-O-Vision and a history of movies that -- literally -- stink


It seems so obvious. Film is a feast for the eyes and ears—why not the nose? Imagine smelling Rick’s cigarette in Casablanca or the Italian feast of Big Night. What we have, though, is an array of aromatic horrors from shlock maestro John Waters.

The year was 1981. The movie was Polyester. The method was the trademarked Odorama. Waters, the director who had made heave-worthy history with Pink Flamingos eight years earlier, drew his inspiration from director-producer William Castle’s gimmick films of the ’50s and ’60s and the Smell-O-Vision from the obscure 1960 Mike Todd-produced stinker Scent of Mystery. “A critic had said, ‘If you see ‘John Waters’ on a marquee, hold your nose,” says the director. “So I made a movie that really stank.” That it did, as Waters’ drag-queen muse Divine and her crude brood whipped up a smelly smorgasbord that included old sneakers, fish, and, of course, gas.

Worried that the scent-producing 3M Co., which had created children’s scratch-and-sniff products, would turn up its nose at him, Waters says he placed orders for “PG smells.” “We couldn’t say, ‘We’d like a million farts,'” recalls the director. “We’d say, ‘a million rotten eggs.’ They had a library of smells; some we used, some we mixed, some they made for us.” Scratch-and-sniff cards with numbers that corresponded to on-screen fume-filled scenes were given to moviegoers, who responded surprisingly well. Waters remembers seeing an audience laugh when they got a whiff: “It was an incredible cinematic high.”

Despite a 1993 laserdisc edition of Polyester that included cards, why hasn’t Odorama wafted back? “It’s hard enough to get theater owners to pay for indie films—try adding Odorama,” Waters says. Still, he enthuses, “I got to see audiences pay to smell s—. It’s a scatological world.”

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