Hanging proudly on the wall of a room in my house where I escape to watch films and play videogames (a room that you can call anything you like, but – for the love of all that is decent – must not be referred to as a ‘man cave’) is a framed poster for a movie I have never seen. A movie that I shall probably never see.
It takes pride of place nestled between The Shining, which is the wife’s joint favourite film ever (tied with Overboard), and Batman ’89. Why? Because it has arguably the single greatest tagline ever plastered over a film advertisement:
“Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the president of the United States.”
It just makes me smile every time I enter the room. As Den of Geek end-of-level boss Ryan Lambie pointed out on Twitter, it’s the word ‘unwittingly’ that elevates it to greatness. The film is The Day Of The Dolphin, and I have yet to ascertain exactly why George C Scott was unaware that his porpoise-conditioning methods could result in a presidential assassination attempt, because frankly the movie can’t possibly match the awesomeness I have imagined in my brain. It’s one of those rare occasions where the tagline is so good it puts me off the idea of actually watching the film itself.
And let us be in no doubt, that’s what the tagline is otherwise there for: to sell a flick – to tempt punters into the cinema so that they may part with their hard-earned cash. It’s advertising in its purest sense, and the closest movie marketing gets to the traditional print ad.
Brevity in copywriting is a criminally underappreciated skill. Successfully communicating a brand in just a few words or with an eye-catching slogan is tantamount to black magic as far as I’m concerned. If I were in charge of Nike’s marketing department back in the 80s I probably would have come up with something along the lines of “We make really good trainers so that you can excel at all the exercise and sports-based shenanigans you like to get up to, even when you don’t feel like doing them because it can be really hard to find the motivation sometimes, can’t it? Especially first thing in the morning… or when you hit that wall. Am I right?”
To be fair, it probably wouldn’t have made it through market research; but I hope the guy or gal who came up with “Just do it” is set up for life. With ruthless economy of words, a company’s ethos is defined so richly and on so many levels that it has sustained their brand for 30 years.
And when you think about it, a movie is no less an unwieldy entity to encapsulate than a line of sneakers. Genre, stars, plot, tone, and the special USP that sets it apart from all the other offerings at the multiplex… When a simple line does all that justice, it’s quite a thing to behold.
Married with an eye-catching visual, a good poster tagline can help us envision fantastic new worlds, promise us a good cry or a belly laugh, and set the tone for what lies beyond those hallowed movie theatre doors. And, crucially, it can conjure the imagination without spoiling a single frame of the movie, creating anticipation in a way that preserves the surprise of actually seeing the film in motion – a notion that modern trailers are guilty of betraying
And so, if you will indulge me, I’d like to share with you some examples of this often over-looked art form. I don’t purport that these are the best ever written – some are personal favourites, some are curios, and some are frankly rubbish – but they have all caught my attention for one reason or another.
Or, as the writers would put it: mission accomplished.
“In space no one can hear you scream.”: Alien (1979)
Let’s get the heavy-hitters out of the way first. Back in the late seventies the marriage of science fiction and horror was still a novel concept to many cinemagoers, and so the combination of a sci-fi title and a horror-inflected tagline was a slice of understated genius in setting the tone for this seminal classic.
It’s also scientifically correct: as we all know – due to the vacuum of space – sound does not travel, so a scream would not be heard. Would you even be able to muster the explosive exhalation required for a scream in space? Possibly not… But ‘In space you can’t scream’ doesn’t have the same ring. The fact of the matter is that no one tries to scream in the vacuum of space during the whole film – it all takes place either on a planet with an atmosphere or on a pressurised space vessel, where the screams are very much heard. Except at the end, where the xenomorph gets blown out of the airlock. OH MY GOD, THE TAGLINE IS A WARNING FOR THE ALIEN! Mind blown…
“Be afraid. Be very afraid.”: The Fly (1986)
An odd one this… It’s not often a tagline is spoken within the film itself. Apollo 13 (“Houston, we have a problem”) and Poltergeist (“They’re here”) are rare examples. The script, of course, is written and the lines spoken long before the marketers get to compose the poster copy. But if they hear something in the movie that they think will work on the poster – especially if it’s already an iconic line, like Apollo 13 – it stands to reason they’re going to nick it.
The thing about The Fly is that the line works so much better on the poster than it does in the film. It’s one of the all-time greats in print, next to a picture of a dry ice-spewing telepod, but uttered by Geena Davis in the movie itself it feels a little forced. It also immediately reminds you that it’s the movie’s amazing tagline, taking you out of the film for a split second. Had they stuck with one of the lesser-used taglines instead – Something went wrong in the lab today. Very wrong – we might have been spared that jarring interjection of reality. But we also would have been robbed of that creepily effective poster copy.
“Man is the warmest place to hide”: The Thing (1982)
Is it a coincidence that so many of the more highly regarded taglines are for horror films? Probably not: the best examples of flash fiction – those literary experiments where authors try to tell a story with only a handful of words – are also on the creepy side. My personal favourite: “Such beautiful eyes. I kept them.” (I’d try to attribute it, but everyone and their dog have claimed it as theirs.)
Evidently, it’s easier to conjure feelings of dread and unease with a limited word count than some of the more fluffy emotions. What makes the tag for The Thing so impressive, though, is how much more it communicates in just seven words.
It references ‘man’, indicating immediately that the focal point of this film is not human. It let’s you know that ‘it’ hides, setting up the paranoia and tension that sits at the heart of the movie. The preference for a warm hiding place draws on the icy Antarctic backdrop. And, of course, it simply summons an icky feeling when considered as a whole; the concept reflective of the gooey and visceral special effects that the film showcases.
Truth be told, I’ve never been a great horror fan, and my trepidation at finally tackling The Thing in my late teens was amplified ten-fold by that terrifyingly effective tagline.
“He’s in town with a few days to kill”: Predator 2 (1990)
Taglines are ripe for wordplay, and the double meaning of a pun can be particularly useful when you’ve got a limited word count to sum up a film. What’s perhaps a little surprising is how many non-comedic movies rely upon them. The Predator 2 tag may beautifully encapsulate the film’s plot, but it’s also a great gag that would have perhaps suited a more overtly witty film like Grosse Pointe Blank a little better.
“When he pours, he reigns”: Cocktail (1988)
I have nothing to add other than this being a quintessential example of the tagline being better than the entire film. And yes, I know it’s got Bryan Brown in it.
“The greatest hero ever assembled”: Inspector Gadget (1999)
See above. Although can you imagine if this had been released after The Avengers had entered the public consciousness? That tagline would have got a standing ovation as well as a round of applause.
“Family isn’t a word. It’s a sentence.”: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Not only a glorious bit of wordplay, but a sentiment that raises a smile before plunging the reader into a melancholic dirge of introspection and reluctant acceptance. Just me? Ok, moving on…
“You’ll believe a man can fly”: Superman (1978)
Ah, Superman. In promoting your first big-screen appearance you made a hell of a claim, but you delivered.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of tagline: those that are ‘in universe’ and those – like Superman – that acknowledge the experience being sold is artifice. Movies where the core appeal rests upon the shoulders of its star rather than the plot or setting tend to do the latter. Silent Rage, for example, calculated – correctly, it has to be said – that the best thing about a Chuck Norris film is Chuck Norris. Thus you ended up with the glorious tagline: “Science created him. Now Chuck Norris must destroy him.” Who needs to know what character he’s playing or what he does for a living, or how he ended up in this mess? It’s Chuck Norris versus something that sounds vaguely sci-fi. I’m in!
It could be argued that Superman was such a well-known property there was no need for a pithy tagline to introduce the concept to the masses. Hell, the comics had already crafted a well-worn ready-to-go slogan involving an avian/aviation mix-up that wouldn’t have looked out of place on any poster. But instead, the marketing department bet big by making a promise about the film’s special effects. It was ballsy, but that (well-founded) cockiness no doubt helped get a few extra bums on seats by piquing audience curiosity.
“The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92”: Suspiria (1977)
Yup. Fair enough.
The slightly meta
“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water”: Jaws 2 (1978)
A good one for pub quizzes this, as over-eager punters scribble down Jaws without stopping to appreciate that its sequel status is spelled out right there in front of them. It doesn’t help that the original’s tag (“The terrifying motion picture from the terrifying No.1 best seller”) is eminently forgettable.
This one, though, sank deep into the collective subconscious, and it’s because it spoke to the audience about their own behaviour as much as it reflected the fears of the characters in the film. Younger generations fail to appreciate just how the first film traumatised the general public, making vast swathes of the populous terrified to take a dip into the ocean. Then, after a few years of getting over this celluloid-induced phobia, along comes another entry in the series to remind us that swimming at the beach could possibly result in us drowning in a fountain of claret. Yup, that tagline was right on the money.
“Whoever wins… We lose.”: Alien Vs. Predator (2004)
It’s always a risk to go with a tagline that can be easily twisted by film critics into a comment on the poor quality of the end product. Truth be told, AVP isn’t a terrible film in most people’s opinion – just not a very good one.
But the problem with a critic-baiting tag like that, where the ‘we’ could refer either to the humans in the film or the audience in the cinema, is that you have to be an excellent film for bullish critics to resist the red rag. I wonder how many 2 or 3 star reviews were downgraded purely so their joke would land?
The missed opportunities
“Can two friends sleep together and still love each other in the morning?”: When Harry Met Sally (1989)
This one pains me so much because it’s one of my favourite films of all time; yet the wit and sparkle present in the screenplay is MIA in the perfunctory and rather misleading tagline.
Let’s ignore the fact that Harry and Sally’s coitus is a late-in-the-game plot development, and thus could easily be classified as a spoiler. Let’s also ignore the fact that the tag suggests they were in love with each other before they slept together, which makes them less friends and more, well, lovers. Unless that ‘love’ is the platonic love of friendship. In which case, a better phrasing would surely be: Can two people sleep together and still be friends in the morning? In fact, I would have given that a pass. But nobody asked me.
No, what’s most infuriating is that it completely mischaracterises the central, oft-repeated question posed by the movie: can men and women be friends, or does the sex part always get in the way? Can two people be chums without acting upon any mutual attraction between them? Can two handsome, unrelated and single people have a meaningful relationship without sleeping with each other?
This tagline is pretty much THE OPPOSITE of that. Like a defective Mr Meeseeks (look at me!) it does not fulfil its purpose!
“More daddies. More problems.”: Daddy’s Home 2 (2017)
This one’s not even out yet and already it’s rubbed me up the wrong way. Is there any reason on Chuck Norris’s green Earth that the word ‘problems’ couldn’t have been swapped for ‘issues’ to create what is clearly a superior tagline? ‘Daddy issues’. It’s a thing. Unlike ‘daddy problems’, which just sounds weird. What’s wrong with you poster people?!
The ones not mentioned in this article
What do you mean I left out one of the best taglines ever written? Oh go on then, you’d probably better tell us about it in the comments…