Peter Hartlaub Pop Culture
Drink from me and live forever - the art of the movie tagline
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
When he pours, he reigns.
I remember the first time I noticed a tagline for a Tom Cruise film, on an advertisement for his 1988 bottle-flipping bartender romance "Cocktail." From that moment on, I became a lifelong fan - not of Cruise's acting but of the snippets of text that appear on his movie posters.
There was Cruise like Thunder for "Days of Thunder," Drink from me and live forever promoting "Interview With a Vampire" and Expect the impossible ... again for "Mission Impossible II." And even as the actor's career continues into the 21st century, he can still bring it. Many saw evil ... they dared to stop it on the poster of the current release "Valkyrie" isn't as overwrought or self-referential as Cruise's best work. But it's still the product of a man who, after more than a quarter century in the business, is near the top of his game.
Taglines are the promotional lines for a film, usually anywhere from a few words to three sentences in length, that appear on movie posters and other advertising. They're often more entertaining than the film itself. I haven't paid to see a Steven Seagal film in a theater since 1995, but I eagerly await each of his taglines, which remain among the best in the business.
Taglines are also proof that in the minds of Hollywood marketing executives, the IQ of the average moviegoer is about 63. Either that or the IQ of the average tagline writer is 63. How else to explain this sentence on the poster of the 1977 movie "Suspiria": The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92. Or this gem, from the 1982 action film "Silent Rage": Science created him. Now Chuck Norris must destroy him. Other taglines seem painfully obvious (See "The Matrix Revolutions") or intentionally cryptic. I'm still trying to figure out what this tagline means, from the 1998 film "Urban Legends": It happened to someone who knows someone you know ... you're next.
Not all taglines are campy or laughable or just plain bad. Lines such as Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water and They're back remain part of the lexicon decades after everyone has forgotten the bad sequels that spurred them. (New journalism rule: Every time a lazy columnist, blogger or editor in the American media uses a variation of "They're ba-aaack," he or she gets a week's suspension without pay.)
But all too often, it would be better to say nothing at all. Sequels in particular seem to get the most negligent tagline treatment. Search on IMDb.com and you can find more than two dozen sequels where the tagline writer did nothing more than add "... again!" to a line from the original film. A sampling:
"Hellbound: Hellraiser II": It will tear your soul apart ... again!
"Home Alone 3": It's bad news for bad guys .... again.
"Alien 3": Start running .... again.
"Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh": Dare you say his name 5 times ... again!
"Poltergeist III": They're back ... again.
Academy Award-caliber movies tend to play it safe with their marketing. Still, there's little relation between the quality of a movie and its corresponding tagline. There was absolutely nothing good about the 1986 Sylvester Stallone movie "Cobra" except the tagline, Crime is a disease. He's the cure. If you look at the 11 films on my all-time-best tagline list accompanying this article, six were panned by critics.
But there are definitely good years and good eras for taglines. Despite a few memorable entries ("The Happening": We've sensed it. We've seen the signs. Now ... it's happening), the year 2008 doesn't match up with anything in the late 1980s, when Arnold Schwarzenegger, Patrick Swayze, Stallone and Cruise were each good for at least one memorable tagline per year.
And there are good and bad tagline actors. Tom Hanks may have more Oscars, but his taglines will never be as awesome as Swayze's.
The dancing's over. Now it gets dirty.
Now, if that doesn't make you rush home and put "Road House" in your DVD player, nothing will.
The best taglines
Here are my choices for the all-time-best taglines, judged for their ability to sell the movie, not for campiness or so-bad-it's-good qualities. I was born in the 1970s and watch a lot of bad science fiction and horror films, so your picks might differ. Add your favorites to the online version of this story at SFGate.com.
"Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (1974): Who will survive and what will be left of them?
"Rocky" (1976): His whole life was a million-to-one shot
"Jaws 2" (1978): Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water ...
"Alien" (1979): In space, no one can hear you scream
"This Is Spinal Tap" (1984): "Does for rock and roll what "The Sound of Music" did for hills
"Poltergeist II: The Other Side" (1986): They're back
"Jaws: The Revenge" (1987): This time, it's personal
"Predator 2" (1990): He's in town with a few days to kill
"Army of Darkness" (1992): Trapped in time. Surrounded by evil. Low on gas.
"Volcano" (1997): The coast is toast
"Monster's Inc." (2001): You won't believe your eye
- Peter Hartlaub
E-mail Peter Hartlaub at firstname.lastname@example.org.