Are modern-day horror movie trailers promising us too much?

Adam Wingard's latest horror film The Woods is being billed by its first trailer as “one of the scariest movies ever made” — at least according to a quote from Bloody Disgusting founder, HitFix friend and my former boss Brad Miska. But is that ultimately promising moviegoers too much? 

Hyperbole has become standard issue in trailers for upcoming horror films, but it's a marketing technique that's been known to backfire as of late. Take, for example, the release of Robert Eggers' period horror film The Witch, which featured such out-of-context critical plaudits as “Soul-shaking” (Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com), “Unforgettable” (Adam Chitwood, Collider) and “It feels like we're watching something we should not be seeing” (HitFix's own Drew McWeeny). It's not that The Witch wasn't scary; it's that almost no film in history could possibly live up to that level of praise. Resultingly, many filmgoers came away feeling cheated when the giant expectations engendered by A24's aggressive marketing campaign went unmet. Suddenly, excellent horror films like The Witch and last year's arthouse sensation Goodnight Mommy become not just disappointments but utter failures in the enraged minds of those who feel they were promised far more than what was ultimately delivered. (Luckily for The Witch, the backlash wasn't enough to keep the film from becoming a minor hit.)

All we really know about The Woods at this point is that it a) takes a found footage approach and b) centers on a group of young people venturing into the forest where horrible things happen to them. The plot has largely been kept under wraps by Wingard and his screenwriter/creative partner Simon Barrett, and this less-is-more approach has succeeded in lending the project a certain mystique. The trailer itself doesn't give us much more to go on, but distributor Lionsgate has clearly taken a page from A24's playbook with its liberal use of extravagant critical quotes, from “A new beginning for horror films” (Brad Miska, Bloody Disgusting) to “A nightmare of classic proportions” (Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York). If you ask me, that's some pretty towering praise.

Particularly for smaller films that mainstream audiences might otherwise ignore, these quotes can be effective selling points; on the flipside, they often heighten expectations to an unrealistic degree. Shorn of its context in a larger review, a quote like “a new beginning for horror films” sounds revolutionary, but the likelihood of The Woods (or any movie) living up to that incredibly high bar is all-but-non-existent. (For the record, this is no fault of the person being quoted.) Yes, there's a case to be made that individual moviegoers bear some responsibility for casting a critical eye on such assertions. Still, there's something to be said for exercising some measure of restraint in the selling of a film — not least because the films themselves, as noted above, often suffer negative repercussions as a result of marketing overkill.

It doesn't help that with the name of the individual/outlet typically being shrunk down to microscopic size, in the context of a powerfully-persuasive trailer those words of praise take on the force of an explicit promise as opposed to the subjective interpretation of one individual. Though our rational minds know better, we nevertheless carry those embedded promises with us into the darkened theater — only for our hopes to be inevitably dashed once the lights come back on and our souls are not, as it turns out, shaken.

Personally, I'm not convinced that critical hyperbole is necessary to market an under-the-radar horror film to the masses. Though overflowing plaudits certainly help put an exclamation point on the unsettling imagery being unspooled, shouldn't that imagery on its own be enough to sell the horror? I look at the elegant, quote-free, still-hugely-effective trailers for such classic horror films as The Exorcist, Alien and The Shining and wonder why studios suddenly feel the need to embellish that tried-and-true approach. In an industry built on a code of “show, don't tell,” there's a whole lot of “telling” going on in the current cycle of horror movie trailers, and I wonder if it doesn't ultimately do a disservice to the films they're promoting.