Movie trailers are a divisive topic. While some love being hyped-up about coming attractions, others dislike how modern trailers give away practically the entire plot. There’s also the fact that many don’t properly advertise their film is actually about. Since many are produced by independent marketing firms and are often put together with unfinished footage, there are many featuring scenes that fail to appear in the final cut or suggest that a film is much different than it turns out to be. Here is a look at a few excellent examples of misleading trailers, in one form or another. (Please be advised that spoilers may be ahead.)
Alien 3 (1992)
Alien 3 has one of the most infamously misleading teaser trailers of all-time. Featuring zero footage from the final film, the voiceover promises, “On Earth, everyone can hear you scream.” This excited audiences, who were expecting Ripley to clash with the Xenomorphs on her home planet. However, this teaser was made while the film was still in-production and final script stages; it turned out the final version took place on an off-world penal colony. This teaser was just one of countless problems for David Fincher’s notoriously troubled first production.
Executive Decision (1996)
Steven Seagal was a rising action star in the ’90s and Executive Decision was poised to join Out for Justice and Under Siege in the now much-beloved Seagal cannon. However, the trailer failed to make apparent the fact that Seagal’s character sacrifices himself at the end of the first act and the film is actually an action vehicle for co-star Kurt Russell.
At the time of release, Drew Barrymore was the most recognizable cast member of Wes Craven’s meta-slasher film, Scream. As such, it was no surprise that Barrymore was heavily featured in the trailer. In a shocking twist, Barrymore’s character was killed in the film’s opening scene. While not only referencing Janet Leigh’s early death in Psycho, this killing conveyed the message that no one was safe. Unfortunately, it would become a common trope of both the Scream franchise and slasher films in general to off a familiar face in the opening scene.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Viewers who watched the trailer for Donnie Darko would be forgiven if they thought it was a horror film about a sociopathic, troubled teen. While Richard Kelly’s 2001 cult classic does indeed feature elements of horror, particularly involving Frank the Rabbit, the film is actually an ’80s period drama, with elements of sci-fi and dark comedy. Another aspect not apparent in the trailer is the film’s somewhat convoluted plot, involving time travel and tangential universes, requiring multiple viewings to properly comprehend.
Red Eye (2005)
The initial teaser trailer for Wes Craven’s 2005 thriller, Red Eye, wasn’t misleading, per se, since the film is indeed about Rachel McAdams meeting a charming stranger on an airplane, who turns outs to be much more sinister. In fact, the trailer would have been more misleading if it maintained the rom-com plotline it appeared to be developing. However, an element that threw many was the fact that Cillian Murphy’s eye literally turns red at the end of the trailer. In hindsight, it’s a clever marketing ploy, but it caused many to believe he was some sort of supernatural villain. While Red Eye is a solid thriller—arguably one of Wes Craven’s better late career films—the trailer created false expectations for many horror fans.
Bridge to Terabithia (2007)
The 2007 young adult adaptation of Bridge to Terabithia was advertised as a full-on fantasy film. However, the movie was actually a tearjerker of a drama, in which the fantastical elements played only a small role. This included a very dark tonal shift that turned off viewers expecting something similar to Walden Media’s The Chronicles of Narnia.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
With the exception of about 30 seconds, the trailer for Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street all but hides the fact that the film is a musical. While not a surprise to those familiar with the original stage production, those expecting Sweeney Todd to be a dark and violent tale of revenge, which it still is, were in for a shock when they saw the characters begin to sing.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)
The North American trailer for the original 2009 Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel is a prime example of trailers for foreign language films being purposely misleading. It featured not a single line of dialogue and was edited to appear like a trailer for a typical Hollywood thriller, complete with voiceover narration. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is far from the first foreign language film to receive this treatment, with Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth another notable example. Presumably this is done to attempt and counteract the prejudices some viewers have regarding films with subtitles, instead marketing the movie based upon the visuals and genre. It’s not exactly misleading; but, there were undoubtedly viewers caught off-guard when they saw the film.
Here’s an example where a misleading movie trailer actually resulted in a lawsuit against the distributors. The trailer for Nicolas Winding Refn’s dark crime drama makes Drive appear like an action film inspired by The Fast & the Furious. In reality, there’s very little driving and the film features just as many slow character moments as extreme violence. At least one moviegoer was not amused at the misleading marketing and preceded to file a lawsuit when the film failed to live up to expectations. Drive wasn’t the first or last time a trailer for one of Nicolas Winding Refn’s films mislead audiences; Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives suggest very different films.
The Grey (2011)
The blame can be placed on Liam Neeson’s late career resurgence as an action star, which heightened expectations for Joe Carnahan’s wilderness thriller, The Grey. There likely wasn’t a person who didn’t go to the film expecting to see Liam Neeson punch a wolf, with his unique set of skills. While the film did end up receiving quite a bit of acclaim, the lack of actual wolf punching undoubtedly left many disappointed.
There are no signs of any overplayed, Oscar-winning power ballads in the initial teaser trailer for Frozen, which focused entirely on snowman Olaf and reindeer Sven. Featuring absolutely zero footage from the final film, this trailer was practically a short film independent from the feature. In fact, the marketing focused so much on Olaf that many were likely surprised when the film turned out to be about the relationship between two princess sisters.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
The marketing for the third Iron Man film promised something fans of the comics were hoping for since the first: Iron Man facing arch-nemesis the Mandarin. Since the depiction of the Mandarin in the comics was essentially an Asian stereotype, it wouldn’t have been politically correct for the producers to include that version, although the film did have a promising reimagining of the Mandarin as a terrorist played by Ben Kingsley. Imagine the shock when people went to see the film and found out that this Mandarin was actually a comic stooge for Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian, the film’s true antagonist. While many praised Kingsley’s performance, comic fans expecting an epic Iron Man/Mandarin clash were left fuming.
Goodnight Mommy (2014)
The trailer for Goodnight Mommy is an interesting example of showing scenes from a film out of context. This trailer makes Goodnight Mommy look like a terrifying supernatural horror film. Those who saw the film realized that while Goodnight Mommy was very much a horror film, it wasn’t the type advertised. In fact, it can argued that the entire trailer is from the perspective of the central two boys, who become convinced that the woman in their home isn’t their mother.