Sensory overload

Smell-o-vision, haunted cinemas and 3D: Time Out looks at some buzzing movie gimmicks.

The very first mention of 3D film appeared as a patent filed in the late 19th century by British filmmaker William Friese-Greene, but it wasn’t until the 50s that its golden era began. Horror and adventure was its bread and butter, with a host of intriguingly titled efforts such as Robot Monster, The Mad Magician and, perhaps most famously, Creature From The Black Lagoon, pulling in audiences. The era even spawned the only 3D slapstick comedies in The Three Stooges’ Spooks and Pardon My Backfire.

Gimmicks such as William Castle’s 13 Ghosts, where the spectres could only be seen using special glasses, and his ‘pioneering’ Emergo technology (basically a pulley), in which a skeleton was winched over the heads of the audience during showings of his House On The Haunted Hill, provided interesting off-shoots. But 3D never really went away; in the 60s it re-emerged as Space Vision 3D, and again as a fad in 80s horror films (Jaws 3, Amityville 3 etc). Today, the advent of Imax and James Cameron’s documentary Ghosts Of The Abyss made 3D a family event, and now the REAL D technology currently behind Journey To The Centre Of The Earth has brought it right into the digital age.

Sensory cinema comes in many guises, though. In 1967, the Czech technique known as Kino-Automat signalled ‘the world’s first interactive movie’. It made use of a push-button panel, which allowed the audience to decide what happened. The film, Clovêk A Jeho Dum, would stop at selected moments and a performer would ask the audience to vote between a choice of scenes before progressing. It didn’t do much for the film’s pacing, but when you consider that its title translates as One Man And His House, those expecting cheap thrills might be disappointed.

For cheap thrills we return to 50s B-movie impresario William Castle, a man who also attached electric buzzers to the underside of cinema chairs during the screening of The Tingler. The buzzers were surplus vibrators left over from World War II and were originally used to shake ice loose from the wings of planes. The plot was ingenious – a scientist discovers that the tingling sensation which goes up your spine when frightened is actually caused by a small parasite which can kill unless it is destroyed by screaming. Prior to the film’s showing, the voice of Vincent Price would announce: ‘The Tingler is loose in the theatre! Scream, scream for your lives.’ Then Castle would buzz them repeatedly for 82 minutes. Classy.

Sadly the days of physically violating your audience are over. However, this era also spawned an equally invasive variety of cinema that still reappears. The 40s, 50s and 60s saw the dawn of Scentovision, Aroma-Rama and the original Smell-O-Vision, pioneered by Hollywood producer Mike Todd. Few stuck around long. In most cases, the scents were released via the air-conditioning – a matter of simply soaking cotton wool in your chosen substance (e.g. rose oil) and letting the fans do their work.

The majority were gimmicks by cinema owners rather than the studios; however, Todd created the only film specifically designed for ‘scent cinema’, a 1960s whodunit called Scent Of Mystery, starring Elizabeth Taylor. It was a smell-plotted film in which the assassin is revealed by the scent of tobacco. But reports of a distracting hissing sound from the machinery and complaints that those in the balconies were suffering an olfactory lag-time signalled its demise.

In the 80s, cult director John Waters paid brief homage to Smell-O-Vision by releasing an Odorama version of Polyester, issuing the audience with scratch ’n’ sniff cards; but it wasn’t until 2006 that a Japanese cinema revived the technique for Colin Farrell colonial drama The New World. (Yes, the film stunk in every way.) For reasons known only to its Japanese cinema owners, love scenes were accompanied by a floral scent and tear-jerking moments by peppermint and rosemary. The result: a perfume of After Eight mints and potpourri – basically a 80s dinner party.

Sadly the dawn of ‘taste cinema’ is yet to appear, but, as we’ve seen, the senses of touch, sight, sound and smell are all well catered for. They did make The Sixth Sense, but that’s not really the same thing, although the idea of ESP (Extra Sensory Perception) cinema does appeal – presumably you’d have to intuit the plot. In the end, it’s all just good fun, and if more films used electric buzzers, 3D projectors and elaborate smells, we’d probably fall in love with the cinema all over again.

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