With the year coming to a close, I have been reflecting on my favorites from this year, as well as some of the controversy that happened. I started thinking of one of the biggest among film Twitter, the epic trailer spoilers of Pet Sematary. That got me thinking about how Us did the same thing, albeit on a smaller scale. Two of the biggest releases in horror this year had significant twists that were to some extent spoiled in their trailers, and it honestly kind of trips me up. I don’t want to bash either movie. I did Impressions pieces on both, and I loved Us and liked Pet Sematary more than the average horror fan it seems. So, in either case, I don’t think the movies were ruined. I do think the trailer spoilers had an impact, though.
So I wanted to talk about these movies and that impact. And no, not in a vague “I hate all spoilers” way. I don’t hate all spoilers. I will admit that from time to time if I am worried about a particular something happening in a movie (show, game, etc.) that I will even spoil it for myself, although I try not to. But spoilers can actually matter because it changes how we experience the movie the first time, and I think in both cases it did.
Also warning… there are going to spoilers in this. It is kind of hard to talk about trailers spoiling movies without talking about the spoilers from the trailers and the movies.
Honestly, this is the prime example of a trailer spoiling a movie. Even if you haven’t seen it, you likely know what everyone was talking about. The trailer very neatly spells out for the audience that it will not be Gage that is hit by the truck but in fact, Ellie. To be honest, before I watched the movie, I didn’t get all the drama over this spoiler, and even immediately after it didn’t seem that important to me. We know a kid is going to die, we know that kid is going to come back, and we know the kid will not be right when they do so. Whether the kid is Ellie or Gage doesn’t seem to matter much. This is especially true when you consider that the movie does a poor job of hiding this as well, as Ellie is so heavily focused on in the movie. She is the central character, not Louis or anybody else, Ellie. Her parents dote on her, and Jud is immediately taken with her, while Gage almost seems to disappear into the background.
So then why does it matter? Well, for two reasons. One, despite featuring Ellie so heavily, the movie does make an attempt to make the audience think it will be Gage. The movie was clearly made with the expectation that most of the people in the audience think they know what is going to happen and wants to play with that. There are a lot of red herrings to make you think, “it will still be Gage,” but they don’t land. We know, based on the trailer, that it will be Ellie, and there is little room to doubt this even with all the things thrown at the audience to try to make us believe otherwise. It starts to become a bit tedious to watch them try to play with our expectations.
It also negatively impacts the death scene itself. Up until the last possible second, the movie still wants us to think it will be Gage, and so it should have been an extremely tense scene. However, we know that Gage is going to get saved, and Ellie will not, so the tension is lost. It is still heartbreaking but does not have the impact that it might have.
This also all happens at the start of the movie, of course, so our expectations and experience have been lowered and negatively impacted. A powerful scene is weakened, and there is some slight annoyance with the movie trying to make us believe something they already told us was not going to happen. It sets us up to not enjoy the second half the movie as much as we might have.
The actual death scene probably could have stayed the same either way. It is still tragic and not completely devoid of tension. However, either the red herrings needed to be removed or the trailer needed to take more care.
The Us spoiler that bothered me is not exactly as in your face, but damn was it a trailer misstep. At the end of the movie, we get full confirmation that the person we think is Adelaide is actually her tethered version that attacked her as a child. Who we think of as Red is really child Adelaide who was forced to grow up among the tethered (and damn are there a lot of frightening implications of what she went through).
So the trailer spoiler? Well, the first time “Red” speaks, her voice is cracked, and she struggles to do so. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that she is the first tethered who has ever gained the ability to speak, so her voice is a bi-product of whatever the tethered are. It is revealed to us at the very end that she was strangled as a child when her tethered counterpart took over her life… it was also revealed in the trailer.
The moment that “Red” begins to speak, I kept flashing back to the moment from the trailer and thinking to myself, “I wonder why that moment wasn’t shown at the start,” and this answer is because it was meant to be hidden. We weren’t meant to connect the dots that easily and that early. It is not as blunt as the Pet Sematary spoiler, but it certainly was there, and a lot of people picked up on it.
In the case of Us, I think the impact is also less heavy than it was with Pet Sematary. The movie is still enjoyable if you start to question who is really Red and Adelaide early on. The problem is the movie is really best experienced once without that knowledge and once with it. There are choices made in the story, and with Lupita Nyong’o’s acting that it is nice to view through two different lenses, but you don’t really get that opportunity if you start to question it almost from the beginning.
There are those that argue this choice was intentional, and you are supposed to question the whole time. I don’t actually know. I do know that even if this is the case, that moment in the trailer makes it a little too obvious, especially with the effort put at the end for the reveal. Why show us in the trailer an injury that gives the character a distinct characteristic if we aren’t supposed to realize she got the injury until much later?
Admittedly not every movie can do what Hereditary did, nor do I even think it would be a good thing if every movie tried. However, Hereditary was a coordinated effort by everyone involved to make the audience expect one thing with the trailer and then goes in a different direction (or heads in a different direction as my husband likes to say with giggles).
Based on the trailers, we expect Hereditary to be about Annie dealing with the loss of her mother. Her daughter Charlie, who was very close with her grandmother, appears to be acting strangely in the wake of the death, and Annie begins to look into her mom. She discovers her mother’s connection to a pagan like religion, and creepy things start to happen to the family with Annie and Charlie as the center of it.
Then you watch the movie and roughly half an hour or so in Charlie is decapitated in a car wreck. What? The girl that was so heavily featured in the trailers with implications that she is the conduit for all the horror about to happen to the family is dead? It is shocking, it is unsettling, and most of all, it means that the rest of the movie is going to be nothing like we had prepared ourselves for.
And yet the trailer never actually lies.
Annie’s mother is involved in a pagan like cult. Her death does spark strange and horrific things happening to the family, including Charlie’s death itself. And Charlie is the central focus of the movie she’s just not actually there. All of this is being done to elevate Charlie.
It brilliantly subverts your expectations but without ever crossing the line into directly lying. Charlie’s brother is mostly left out of the trailers even though he is a key player, but he is there. Annie does start falling apart with the death of her mother, it is just heightened with the death of her daughter. And it just so happens that most of Charlie’s scenes are in the trailer.
It was a brilliant strategy and one that was thankfully helped by the audience, seemingly getting that they need to keep quiet so that others could experience the surprise they did as well. (Excellent job horror fans we are amazing).
So I want to know, how in one year we got that and in the next we got two massive releases spoiling themselves? Was it a lack of communication between filmmakers and those that make trailers? Was it that they looked at the trailers and didn’t see the spoilers?
Again the actual effort to basically trick the audience with Hereditary is not something that can be done over and over. I also think there are frightening implications of what might happen if every studio movie tries to trick their audience. I do believe that there is something to learn from this, though. That everyone can come together and make sure they have a clear line of intention. Filmmakers should be able to tell their studios, “these scenes absolutely cannot be in the trailer,” and studios should listen. There should also be more thought about what is a spoiler that might be annoying but won’t change the viewing experience vs. those that actually can so those ones especially can be avoided.
I loved Us, and I liked Pet Sematary. The experiences were not ruined for me by what the trailers did. I do have to question what my experience might have been like without those trailer spoilers, though. Would I have believed the red herrings and genuinely be shocked by Ellie’s death? Would I have spent less time thinking about the missing moments from young Adelaide’s scene in the funhouse? Or am I just nitpicking, and it would have all be the same?
I think either way it is worth care and attention to avoid trailer spoilers. I hope that maybe looking at people’s reactions to the bait and switch of the Hereditary trailers vs. the disappointment of the spoilers in the Pet Sematary trailers might have that little bit of a positive impact.
What do you think? Have there been movies that the trailers spoiled something for you? Did it matter, or do you think it’s all the same regardless?