VHS Revival looks back at some of cinema’s best loved taglines.
Taglines are an essential part of any promotional package.
Along with posters and teaser trailers, their aim is to sell a movie without giving too much away. A great movie tagline says an awful lot using very little. It is clever and memorable, selling a picture to its potential audience by giving them an idea of what to expect without giving too much away.
In the first of an ongoing series, VHS Revival looks back at some of cinema’s most ingenious and effective taglines.
Tagline: In Space No One Can Hear You Scream
Movie: Alien (1979)
It is only fitting that one of the most terrifying movies of all time has a tagline as chillingly ominous. They say the key to any great horror is isolation. Whether you’re running barefoot through a desolate forest or find yourself kidnapped and taken to the deserted outback, knowing there is nobody around for miles is about as frightening as it gets. If those scenarios are not desperate enough for you, then imagine being alone in the vastness of space with only a Xenomorph to keep you company.
Alien takes this tried-and-tested formula and ramps the tension up to hyper-speed, plunging our female protagonist into the depths of outer space with one of the most unrelenting monsters you could ever dare to dream of. Establishing a cold and paranoid environment, the director keeps the movie’s biggest threat largely in the shadows, finally unleashing the Xenomorph in all of its drooling glory as Ripley finds herself without a soul to aid her.
The very thought of someone screaming into space leaves you with an image of anguished silence, a breathless and contorted face in an environment stripped of humanity. Alien has one of the most potent taglines ever imagined, and like all great horror teasers it taps into the innate fears of the human condition, opening a window of uncertainty and daring you to peer inside.
Tagline: One Man’s Struggle to Take it Easy
Movie: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
This is a fine example of a simple tagline with the ability to stick in one’s mind. It is punchy, succinct in its description of the movie’s central character, and indicative of the overall tone; this has ‘John Hughes movie’ written all over it.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is one of those movies that isn’t really about anything, although a lot seems to happen. Okay, so there is the typical Hughes morality play – this time regarding the alienation of upper middle class youth – but it is basically a tale about a cheeky young chap and his ongoing battle with bureaucratic authority in the form of the wonderfully petty Mr Rooney (Jeffrey Jones).
Cameron’s personal demons aside, Hughes’ ode to youthful exuberance is a cute and playful movie which speaks to the general indifference of teenagers to the ever-looming cloud of adult responsibility, and it is this carefree attitude that the tagline surmises so cleverly.
Tagline: Be Afraid. Be very afraid
Movie: The Fly (1986)
I remember seeing a teaser trailer for The Fly on VHS, and though it gave very little away regarding the actual events of the movie, I remember being scared witless, and along with a progressive soundtrack of ominous foreboding, the reason for this was Gina Davis making the immortal statement that constitutes this particular movie’s memorable tagline.
Repetition is regarded as one of the biggest crimes in language, but when used correctly and effectively there is nothing more definitive when trying to punctuate a point. This is a delightful example of repetition with purpose. Its delivery is sharp and distinctive, and hammers home an emotion all horror movies set out to instil: fear.
Cronenberg‘s remake of the 1958 schlocky sci-fi effort of the same name was released around the time of the AIDS epidemic, and its grotesque depiction of physical deterioration really struck a nerve with a society caught up in the panic of a new and frightening disease that went beyond the realms of gore-laden fantasy.
Tagline: Love is in the Hair
Movie: There’s Something About Mary (1998)
Now for undoubtedly the most perverse and lowbrow tagline on the list, and one that proves a winner for those very reasons. The Farrelly brothers hit the big time during the 1990‘s, working with stellar comic names such as Woody Harrelson and Jim Carrey, and the duo arguably peaked with 1998‘s cringeworthy tale of love, honour, betrayal, and a new, revolutionary kind of hair wax.
This particular tagline is a play on words designed to raise eyebrows as well as other follicle based bodily features. Thanks to an even bigger descent into the devastatingly puerile, the directors’ place as one of the innovators in mainstream comedy was relatively short-lived, but ‘Mary’ trod that line of decency with a fleet-footedness that resulted in a highly successful formula.
Unsophisticated? Yes. But that is the idea, and this five word teaser ticked all of the promotional boxes.
Tagline: Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.
Movie: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
In purely poetic terms, this is one of the finest taglines you will ever see, but perhaps that is its biggest drawback as well as its finest achievement. Based on the short story ‘Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption’ by horror maestro Stephen King, the movie adaptation did notoriously bad business at the box office, and only became a smash following its VHS release.
Perhaps this was in small part due to a tagline bereft of gimmickry, but just because it wasn’t hugely effective doesn’t take away from its impact in artistic terms. For anyone who has seen the movie—which I’m probably accurate in guessing is all of you—these two sentences encapsulate perfectly the breathless journey of turmoil, hope and redemption which makes ‘Shawshank’ one of the best-loved and immensely moving motion pictures in modern cinema.
It can be argued that this particular tagline was a failure, and in terms of immediate effectiveness that may very well be the case, but in retrospect it is one of the most exquisitely relevant of them all, much like the movie itself.
Cedric Smarts: Editor-in-Chief and Art Director
Science fiction author, horror enthusiast, scourge of plutocracy, shortlisted for the H. G. Wells Award, creator of vhsrevival.com
Likes: 80s poster art, Vangelis, classical liberalism, dystopian allegories, dissident political activism, Noam Chomsky, George Orwell, George Saunders, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut