The Hype: Fearful of revealing any of his film’s twists, Alfred Hitchcock didn’t let Psycho‘s stars do any prerelease press. Instead, previews featured Hitchcock himself giving a tour of the set. He also demanded that movie theaters follow a policy of disallowing any late admissions to the film.
How’d It Rate: 10. Psycho features one of the great plot twists in film history, killing off its apparent heroine 40 minutes into the movie. The film defined a whole genre of horror, and a type of prerelease hype that filmmakers like J.J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan have practically turned into an art form unto itself.
The Crying Game
The Hype: Miramax begged/insisted that reviewers not divulge Game‘s gender-bending big twist, so all the viewing public knew was that the movie had a big secret.
How’d It Rate: 7. Game‘s big revelation — that sultry, beautiful bar singer Dil was actually a man — lead the film to a sizable worldwide gross. Who even remembers that the movie was about the IRA?
The Hype: For a full year, trailers and posters promised moviegoers that they would not believe how awesome the new Godzilla would be. The monster’s design was kept under wraps, but the tagline said it all: ”Size Does Matter.”
How’d It Rate: 1. The movie? Terrible. The monster? Utterly unmemorable. Somehow, this thing grossed almost $400 million.
The Hype: The trailer featured awe-inspiring special effects, including the first look at ”bullet time.” As for what, exactly, the film was about? Leave it to Laurence Fishburne: ”Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”
How’d It Rate: 9. The Matrix wound up inspiring all sorts of cult worship — for its special effects, for its mind-bending plotline, for all the lofty philosophizing. It seemed to point the way forward to a new, brainier kind of action flick. Too bad about those sequels, eh?
Eyes Wide Shut
The Hype: Stanley Kubrick’s final film was in production for about two years, and the rumormongering never abated during that whole time. Among the most popular: that then-married costars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were playing married sex therapists; that Cruise would don a dress and shoot heroin for one scene; and that the movie was generally the sexiest film about sex that ever sexed.
How’d It Rate: 5. Just about every rumor about Eyes Wide Shut was untrue, and audiences who had been primed for a sexfest were mostly put off by a slow, meditative, resolutely unerotic peek into the mind of the married man. (Even the big orgy sequence is mostly just remembered now for the freaky masks.)
The Blair Witch Project
The Hype: In the first great viral campaign of the Internet age, the studio claimed that Project was genuine found footage, filmed by people who actually did go missing in the woods.
How’d It Rate: 5. Depending on whom you ask, Blair Witch was either a nifty experimental horror film that thrived on the power of suggestion…or an epic tease that featured nothing scarier than bad camera work.
The Hype: It’s Blair Witch, except with much better camera technology! And also, you’re going to actually see scary things — we swear!
How’d It Rate: 8. Handheld camera aside, Paranormal Activity turned out to be an endearingly old-fashioned spooky-house thriller…and after that last scene, nobody could accuse the film of just being a Blair Witch-style tease.
The Hype: A group of NYC twentysomethings are having a party to send off their buddy. A loud roar stops everyone short. A building explodes in the distance. And, in a moment that might well define the whole notion of ”hype,” the head of the Statue of Liberty plummets to the ground. When that trailer debuted before Transformers, the movie didn’t even have a name, just a release date.
How’d It Rate: 4. Cloverfield set a January record for opening-weekend box office ($40 million), but conversations about the movie usually run in two directions: how disappointed you were, and whether the shaky camera gave you motion sickness.
The Hype: Coming off the disappointing movie The Village and the galactically underwhelming Lady in the Water, The Happening looked like M. Night Shyamalan’s comeback. The trailer looked mysterious, the cast was nifty (Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel), and it was the director’s first R-rated movie.
How’d It Rate: 3. The ”mystery” turned out to be insurmountably lame — killer plants, boom, you’ve been spoiled! The film tanked at the box office, and even its star has disowned it, but it works great as an unintentional comedy.
The Hype: The trailer showed eye-popping images of cities turning in on themselves. It seemed to have something to do with dreams. Most importantly, it was Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to a little film called The Dark Knight.
How’d It Rate: 9. Inception mixed a Matrix-worthy amount of exciting visual effects (and worlds-within-worlds psychobabble) with a twisty heist plotline and a surprisingly emotional core. Even better, no sequels! (We hope.)
The Tree of Life
The Hype: Brad Pitt and Sean Penn are in this movie! It’s about an all-American family in the 1950s, or possibly about the birth and death of the universe. There might be an IMAX spin-off. Also, dinosaurs! (We think.)
How’d It Rate: 9. Hey, if you know Terrence Malick, you know you’re in for an impressionistic, nonlinear, plotlessly meandering meditation on human existence, and The Tree of Life is the rare mystery project where even the craziest rumors have turned out to be true. (Even that IMAX spin-off might still happen.)
The Hype: Cute kids see a mysterious train crash. The dogs go missing. People start dying. It’s an alien, maybe? Somehow, Steven Spielberg is involved.
How’d It Rate: We’ll have to wait and see.