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Screen Gimmicks Nothing New

Though I've never personally experienced the Tingler or Ghost-a-Rama, my life as a moviegoer has touched on most of the other legendary film gimmicks.

When the interactive movie "Mr. Payback" opens Friday in Rolling Meadows, it will go down in movie history on a list that also includes, in alphabetical order:

Cinerama: The idea of a movie shot with three cameras and shown with three projectors on an ultrawide screen was first used by Abel Gance in his silent classic "Napoleon" (1927). Showman Mike Todd resurrected it with Cinerama in the early 1950s. I remember seeing "This Is Cinerama," with its introduction by broadcaster Lowell Thomas, who spoke from a standard-sized screen, and then stood back as the screen got wider.

Odorama: I missed the original 1950s experiments with "Smell-o-Vision," which pumped scents into the theater, timed to match the images on the screen. The scents unfortunately tended to linger, combining to make the theater smell like a compost heap.

But I was there at Cannes in 1981 for the world premiere of John Waters' attempt to update the process with "Polyester," a movie that came with a scratch-n-sniff card. As a number flashed on the bottom of the screen, viewers scratched the matching number on their cards, smelling roses, gasoline and (Waters' naughty little trick on the audience) doggy doo. Odorama inspired no successors, but a laser disc of "Polyester" was recently issued, complete with sniff cards.

Sensurround: This was a high-powered sound system developed by Universal for showings of its epic disaster movie "Earthquake" (1974). The low rumblings from the big bass speakers were supposed to duplicate the sound and feel of a real earthquake. When the system premiered at the United Artists in Chicago, it worked all too well, shaking pieces of plaster loose from the theater's ceiling. City officials switched it off.

Showscan: Developed by special-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull ("2001"), this still ranks as the most realistic film process ever demonstrated. Using 70-mm. film at 60 frames a second (2.5 times more frames than a standard film), Trumbull created a picture so incredibly high in quality that the screen seemed to be a transparent window revealing an actual image. Magician Ricky Jay worked with Trumbull to create an illusion in which the lights seem to go on behind the screen, and a janitor appears, walks forward, and stretches the fabric of the screen. He seems to be there - but it's all a movie.

Subliminal Images: This idea was first popularized in Vance Packard's book The Hidden Persuaders. The theory was that flash-frames spelling out words such as "thirsty" could inspire trips to the refreshment counter.

The problem is that the eye can see a single frame if it stands out from the rest of the movie; on the rare occasions when the technique has been used, the subliminal image is more blended in.

3-D: The first modern 3-D movie was Arch Oboler's "Bwana Devil" (1952). Like most of the 3-D movies to follow, it relied heavily on throwing spears and other objects at the audience. There was a resurgence of 3-D in 1983, but the movies all suffered from weaknesses: (1) Picture brightness was low because of the glasses viewers had to wear; (2) the image was never really as convincing as 2-D, and (3) it got tiresome having things thrown at you.

But 3-D finally came into its own just recently, with the new 3-D process in IMAX theaters, which use not only a six-story-high screen but expensive glasses with built-in electronic sensors that invisibly flicker the lenses in perfect timing with the images for the left and right eyes.

Tingler and Ghost-a-Rama: Both were used by 1950s exploitation pioneer William Castle. The first was used in a 1959 movie where Vincent Price exclaimed in horror that "The Tingler" had escaped from the movie and was loose in the theater; Castle wired some seats for low-level electric shocks. The second consisted of a ghost on the end of a fishing pole that the theater manager was supposed to swing above the audience.

It was Castle, too, who first made a movie with alternate endings. The audience was asked to vote, "while the projectionist stands by." Castle would qualify, I submit, as the inventor of "interactive movies" - if it were not for the suspicion of Castle admirers such as John Waters that the projectionist actually had only one ending, the more violent one, because he guessed correctly that no audience would vote to be bored.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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