Thursday, August 26, 2010

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10 Great Movie Technologies That Never Caught On

1.) Smell-O-Vision (Scent of Mystery - 1960)

Producer Mike Todd (l) and inventor Hans Laube (r) flank the amazing Smell-O-Vision machine.
Imagine a mystery movie where the most important clues are scents the viewer smells courtesy of a system piping it to all the seats in the theater. Now imagine all of those smells adding to each other and combining over the course of the movie into one big reek by the climax, and you'll know why Mike Todd's scentsational process never really caught on.

2.) Odorama (Polyester - 1981)

Technology at its zenith: The Odorama card.
Here's a less cumbersome version of the same idea, but this time, instead of pumped in smells, this John Waters comedy used numbered scratch-n-sniff cards. When the number flashed on the screen, a scratch and a sniff got you the scent of what was on screen. Of course, they played a couple of tricks, flashing the number on a shot of something pleasant smelling (like a vase of roses) and then panning while the viewer was scratching and sniffing to a pile of dog poo or a pair of old gym shoes. Cute idea, but the intrusiveness of the flashing numbers and the expense of producing the cards meant this would not be a widely used process.

3.) Duovision (Wicked Wicked - 1973)

Duovision in action - a character's flashback to youth plays out beside a modern day scene.

Although directors Brian DePalma and Steven Soderbergh have made use of the split screen technique to show two or more actions occurring at the same time in their movies, they didn't give it a rather pompous name and announce it in the trailer like this horror flick did. A masked psycho stalks and kills women in a luxury hotel, and we see pretty much the whole movie through a split screen. Sometimes it's the same action from two angles, sometimes it's two different characters in two different places. Interestingly, this means the movie is really about three hours long, but thanks to most of it doubling up you can watch it in an hour and forty minutes or so. The movie really wasn't bad, but it is a bit of sensory overload. It also prevented the movie from being shown on television or being released on video for many years since the very wide screen was needed to see both sides of the action. No one seemed to like the movie back then, and it had no second life on tv or video due to the extremely widescreen picture(s), so Wicked Wicked bombed and Duovision became Don'tovision.

4.) Hallucinogenic Hypnovision (The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies - 1964)

As the woman branded with "the wart of horror" looks on, Hallucinogenic Hypnovision strikes!
This is probably the most technologically advanced and complicated of the processes on this list. I'll try to explain it as simply as I can. Here goes: at a couple of points in the movie, guys wearing monster masks would come out and run up and down the aisles. Wow, the mind boggles.

5.) Emergo (The House on Haunted Hill - 1959)

Master gimmick guy William Castle gives us his first improbably named one-film-only process for this horror movie. When Vincent Price menaces someone in the movie with a skeleton on wires, a glowing inflatable skeleton would emerge from a container mounted over the screen and sail on wires over the audience's heads. Legend has it that after word got around about it among neighborhood kids who saw the first couple of shows, the skeleton would find itself attacked by some wisenheimer with a slingshot and usually not survive to the end of the movie's run in that theater.

6.) Percepto (The Tingler - 1959)

The second of William Castle's super gimmicks appeared in his second Vincent Price fright flick. When a killer worm-like creature in the movie gets loose in a movie theater, the film seems to break in YOUR theater and a voice tells you to scream for your life since that sound will kill the little beastie. To help get you in the mood, several theater seats would be wired to "tingle" and give your backside the feeling of a worm invasion.

7.) Illusion-O (13 Ghosts - 1960)

To complete his gimmick hat trick William Castle used a 3-D like process on his suburban family vs ghosts epic, rendering the spirity ones viewable only through special glasses given out in the theater supposedly to allow the meek in the audience to avoid seeing the spooky specters.

8.) Cinemagic (The Angry Red Planet - 1959)

To make their low budget special effects a little more special, they colored all of those shots reddish-pink in this "astronauts vs monsters on Mars" movie. Kinda went big on the name there, huh? Maybe they should have called it Cine-Not-That-Special.

9.) Psychorama (Terror in the Haunted House - 1958)

Turns out our newer technology, the DVD freeze frame, trumps Psychorama.
To make their not-particularly-frightening scarepic a bit more terrifying, the producers latched on to the then-new process of subliminal imagery, flashing quick split-second shots of images chosen to produce fear, or at least a sense on unease in the viewer. It didn't really work, so they tried again the next year with A Date with Death. However, someone in authority somewhere suddenly got nervous about Psychorama, and soon after the process was banned from being used in films or television for years, so the producers went back to making their usual boring movies.

10.) Sensurround (Earthquake - 1974 / Midway - 1976 / Rollercoaster - 1977 / Battlestar Galactica: The Movie - 1978) ]

All right, four films across five years, maybe that doesn't entirely count as "never catching on." However, the story of Sensurround is too good to miss. With an extra set of special speakers installed in the theater, Sensurround utilized ultra low frequency sound waves to produce real vibrations and rumbles which could actually be felt by the patrons. This process was used during the noisier parts of the earthquake scenes since the low frequency also produced sound in addition to the vibrations. During Earthquake's run, Mann's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles developed cracks in the ceiling (however, the theater owners installed netting to catch the plaster rather than end the hit film's run); several people experienced nosebleeds across the country; some theaters and adjacent buildings were structurally damaged; and reportedly one poor soul somewhere suffered cracked ribs! The process was refined twice, adding more sound range for Midway and Rollercoaster and then culminating in Sensurround III for Battlestar Galactica. For the latter, the process used infrasonic effects that could be felt but NOT heard. Thus, scenes could have dialogue and other audio at standard levels while accompanied by the effect of movement. Or, the infrasonic sounds could be combined with higher frequency sounds to create the effect of wind; this was used when the Battlestar Atlantia explodes. And as the Viper spaceships took off down the launch tubes, the infrasonic waves were quickly 'panned' from the back to the front of the theater, creating the sensation of "launching" in the audience. However, the fact that the system had to be specially installed (800 theaters had it in the U.S.), that there was a weekly rental fee to Universal Studios, and that it could only be used for special movies eventually killed Sensurround.

Until next time...you can Poke Me With A Fork, Cause I Am Outta Here!


  1. Most of these are obviously pretty gimmicky. But the Sensurround--that sounds cool! Boom goes the Death Star, and you feel the rush of wind, or a breeze when the x-wings drop into the trench.

    Or maybe not.

    For me, these effects raise a question. What, precisely, is a movie? And when does something go from being a film to being a theme park ride?

    I've experienced similar things at Disney, where characters drop from the ceiling, or water is jetted into the theater. Is it still cinema when an integral part of the experience is delivered through touch or smell, rather than sight and sound?

    Outside Epcot Center, I've yet to see a 3D movie. I talked about seeing the next Harry Potter in 3D, but my 12-year-old waived the idea, saying he thought the fx would distract him from the film. Made me smile; pretty sharp insight for a junior high kid.

    For now, we'll limit our "tactile" film experience to extra butter on the popcorn.

    Excellent post!

  2. Thanks for the kind words! Of all of these, I'd most like to have seen one of the four Sensurround pictures - and really like your idea of Star Wars in Sensurround! I think a movie is a movie when it can be enjoyed with full entertainment value without the extra process(es). Every movie listed here would qualify except for Scent of Mystery. I guess you could still watch it (I would like to if I could find it) but a big part of the experience would be gone without the fragrances. So, those things you've seen at Disney and Epcot would mostly not be movies, as you probably wouldn't settle in to watch the visual, projected parts at the house on a given evening.
    I think it's great that your son is so analytical at his age (I was mostly still entranced by shiny things at his age) but I'm going to have to provide counsel for the prosecution here - I strongly recommend choosing a movie that is less looked forward to than Harry Potter and check it out in 3-D. When it's done well (ie, the movie was shot in the process and not converted later - Piranha 3-D excused) it is an amazingly cool addition to the moviegoing experience. I don't think the current trend of 3-D is going to last too long - or it will undergo a technological advance that will change the experience dramatically - but right now going into a theater to watch three dimensional movie characters while wearing glasses is something people have been doing off and on now for almost 60 years! That's a nice piece of history you can still experience if you give it a try. So I'm suggesting not panning the 3-D Harry Potter until you guys try something else in 3-D, as your son may change his mind when he sees just what the third dimension can bring!

  3. Love me some Hallucinogenic Hypnovision! Isn't it about time that one made a comeback?

  4. Count DV - oh yes - total agreement - in fact, I think they upgraded Avatar for the rerelease that started today - 3-D, IMAX, and Hallucinogenic Hypnovision! It'll make another billion!

  5. Smellavision, that would have to be my favorite, just like watching tv w/ my brothers.

  6. Cinemagic and Sensurround are news to me, but I love all the other "technologies" ;-)