Among the masters of horror movie trailers was director and producer William Castle. This should come as no surprise as William Castle was a master at promoting his movies as it was. He was well known for the various gimmicks he used to promote his films, from "Emergo" of House on Haunted Hill to the "Percepto" of The Tingler. This talent for promotion extended to his trailers, which William Castle often introduced himself much in the same way that Alfred Hitchock introduced episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Here is the classic trailer to William Castle's House on Haunted Hill.
Hyperbole played a large role in horror movie trailers, as did a sense of humour. Both can be seen in the movie X--The Man With the X-Ray Eyes. The trailer boasts that it features Ray Milland in "his most challenging role since his Academy Award winning Lost Weekend." The film also tends to focus on some of the most unsavoury parts of the film (that is, sex and gambling). As far as actually giving the viewer an accurate portrait of X--The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, in some respects the trailer is rather poor. It is actually a rather well done, disturbing film.
Horror film trailers were still very much an art in the Seventies, as is shown by the trailer for Wes Craven's controversial film Last House on the Left (1972). Other than giving the viewer the idea that it is a horror movie, the trailer ultimately tells us very little about Last House on the Left. Instead, it emphasises how shocking the film will be, along with one of the best taglines for any movie ever, "...It's only a movie."
It must be pointed out that making trailers for horror movies was not a particularly American art. The British were capable of making great horror movie trailers as well. Indeed, much of the success of Hammer Films' The Curse of Frankenstein may have been due to its trailer. This trailer combines shocks, sex, and violence all in a little over two minutes.
Indeed, perhaps the greatest horror movie ever made was by a director of English descent. At nearly seen minutes in length, Alfred Hitchock's teaser trailer for Psycho (1960). The trailer is absolutely brilliant, with Hitchcock giving a tour of the places in the film (such as the Bates' house) and nearly giving away particulars of the film before catching himself. Of course, it is the trailer's end that makes the trailer.
I would say the Golden Age for horror movie trailers lasted from the Fifties to the Eighties, although there have been a few great trailers released since then. So far I have only listed trailers for classic films, but a few clunkers have had great trailers as well. A perfect example of this is the trailer to The Blair Witch Project. It tells us little about the movie and is very effective in building anticipation for the film. While the trailer was quite effective, however, The Blair Witch Project was itself a huge disappointment. In fact, I would actually class it as one of the worst movies of all time. I honestly believe that the promotion for the film (including various critics raving over the film) could be counted as one of the greatest con jobs of the 20th Century. It is definitely a case of the trailer being far better than the film.
Sadly, the trailer to The Blair Witch Project has been the exception to horror movie trailers in the past thirty years. Today there is little to differentiate the standard horror movie trailer from movie trailers of other genres. Gone are the hyperbole, the frantic narration, the great taglines, and the kinetic typography. Many of the trailers of horror movies made from the Fifties to the Seventies were truly great, even when the movies might not have been.