Scare Tactics Agencies find horror parodies can be a scream

At first glance, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre might not seem the best movie to parody in a commercial. Hitchhiking necro philiacs and sexually confused, chain saw-wielding maniacs aren’t the friendliest people. And you might think twice about paying homage to a film Harper’s once called “a vile piece of sick crap … with literally nothing to recommend it.”

Nike didn’t see it that way. No stranger to controversy, the sneaker maker took its chances last summer and rolled out “Horror,” a darkly funny, beautifully shot Chain Saw parody created by Wieden + Kennedy.

The ad, which broke nationally in prime time during the Summer Olympics, improbably recast the film’s sadistic chase scenes as a parable of female empowerment. In place of the tortured, hysterical Sally Hardesty was U.S. distance runner Suzy Favor Hamilton—fit, self-sufficient and happy to buck the horror trend by outrunning her pursuer and his whirring, phallic weapon. “Why sport?” the tagline asked soberly. “You’ll live longer.”

The parody was clever, funny and daring, not only reversing the woman’s traditional role in slasher films but subverting Chain Saw’s entire message. (Nike-style capitalism in the movie is what turns ordinary people into killers.) Still, many critics didn’t get the joke.

“Taste less, exploitative and inappropriate,” railed the New York Post—an ad with “no redeeming features.” Deluged by angry phone calls, NBC quickly pulled the spot.

For the Portland, Ore., agency, it was an unexpected nightmare. “The controversy surprised us,” creative director Hal Curtis admits. “The spot is about blowing up a stereotype. We took a film genre everyone knows the ending to and we turned it upside down.”

Ironically, the parody was probably too accomplished. Unlike the comical, self-conscious horror movies of today, in which stylish, wisecracking teens torment various Party of Five stars, Chain Saw’s horror is bleak and unrelenting. Faithfully recreated in the ad, this atmosphere of dread proved too much. Even though the woman prevailed, the ad couldn’t survive the scrutiny of a national media buy.

“Chain Saw and its ilk raise the hackles of many folks and always will,” says Joe “Renfield” Meadows, publisher of Horror-Wood, a Web zine. “It’s cult-classic horror and not exactly to the general public’s taste.”

In general, horror films—cult or mainstream—might seem an unlikely ally to advertising. As explorations of our collective nightmares, they aim to undermine the sense of security—physical and psychological—that advertisers work so hard to build. And outside of anti-smoking ads, death and evil are rarely useful as marketing themes.

But as advertisers know, horror draws people in. For whatever reason, we feel compelled to confront our fears in dark theaters—and we tend to remember the images that terrify us.

“Like most societies, I think we’re fascinated with the morbid side of things,” says Chris Crane, a senior copywriter at The Neiman Group in Harrisburg, Pa., which recently created fright-filled ads for a regional coffeehouse chain. “It’s like the 6 o’clock news. You’re horrified, but you can’t look away.”

That compulsion is particularly keen lately. While horror films have been popular since Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari debuted in the 1920s, movies like The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project and the Scream series have put the genre in the hip column.

“There’s so much of it out there right now,” says Timothy Cawley, a senior copywriter at Pagano, Schenk & Kay in Boston. “Dark Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the rerelease of The Exorcist. You can’t help but absorb those things, and then rework and synthesize them.”

The ad parodies that result exploit the images while taming them—often comically—for audiences. In Cawley’s case, the hours of pop horror on the WB inspired a humorous ad for Digital Broadband Communications in which high-tech vampire hunters ambush their prey by e-mailing him a sunrise. Portraying one of your customers as a bloodsucker isn’t the most traditional strategy, but the client gave the green light.

“We showed them the idea, and half the people in the room said, ‘Ah, like on Buffy!’ ” Cawley says.

Concerned that it might turn out goofy, the agency made “Vampire” a dark comedy—much as Wieden did with “Horror.” Newton Thomas Sigel, who had just wrapped X-Men, was brought in as director of photography, and Peter Darley Miller, known for his grand-scale productions (including a Frankenstein-themed PlayStation spot), was chosen as director.

“We wanted the John Carpenter vampire, not the Nicolas Cage Vampire’s Kiss vampire,” Cawley says. “We wanted dark, gritty, urban—a grand comic-book feel, not a teen feel like the Scream movies.”

“Vampire” isn’t particularly scary. (E-mail attacks on the undead somehow aren’t too threatening.) But it’s as visually compelling as the films it’s based on—something many creatives say is essential to horror parodies.

“The mental imagery people have from when they first saw these movies can be very strong,” says Fred Hammer quist, executive creative director at FCB in Seattle. “If you can tap into that, you can have an immediate impact.”

Hammerquist had a chance to test his theory last year for Giant Bicycles. Giant had just welcomed a new president, Skip Hess, who was well-known in the industry. (He had been a major force at Schwinn, and his father had founded Mongoose bikes.) To announce his arrival, the agency—then operating as the independent Hammerquist & Halver son—built print ads around a character reminiscent of Damien, the feisty devil’s spawn from the Omen films.

“In horror movies, children are the messengers of change, and Skip did grow up in the bike industry,” says Hammerquist.

To help his creatives brush up on their evil kid expertise, Ham merquist rented the Omen movies and played them in the agency’s lunchroom. The resulting ads featured an immaculately coiffed, evil-looking kid named Ekib (“bike” spelled backwards) who is marked, ominously, with the Giant logo on his forehead and obsesses over bikes in various gothic-tinged settings.

Hammerquist says the Damien theme worked because it wasn’t forced—it emerged organically as a logical fit with the company’s strategy. “If you’re just going for shock value, you can use horror for just about anything,” he says. “That stuff is good craft and is often funny. But if you can connect it to the strategy, the impact is better.”

The parodies can be unexpected, even outlandish. Filias Advertising in Portsmouth, N.H., for instance, managed to promote a run-of-the-mill utility, Eastern Propane Gas, by invoking the grandest of all horror moments—the shower scene from Psycho, the seminal horror film from onetime advertising art director Alfred Hitchcock. In the ad, a Janet Leigh look-alike is threatened not by a madman’s knife but by terrifyingly chilly water coming from the showerhead.

“The scene is so iconic,” says Greg Filias, agency president and creative director. “We looked at it frame by frame to get it right.”

The director, Harry McCoy, was overjoyed to do it. “He’s a big Hitchcock fan,” says Filias. “When we took him the storyboards, he lit up like a Christmas tree.”

Not everyone is as keen. Suzette Troche, for example, had steadfastly avoided watching The Exorcist her whole life and wasn’t thrilled to have to shoot a parody photo of the film last year.

“At first I said, ‘Ugh! I don’t want to work on this. It’s too weird!’ ” recalls the co-founder of 2wist Photo in Los Angeles. “Then they explained the concept, and I thought it was hysterical.”

The idea, developed by Under ground Adver tising in Baltimore, was to promote software company Seva with the line “Software fixes everything.” The line wasn’t meant literally—it was actually a running joke in the computer industry—and Under ground wanted to turn it on its head, to find things software obviously couldn’t fix. Enter Regan, the world’s best-known crucifix-wielding, projectile-vomiting 12-year-old.

2wist found an actress who looked just like Linda Blair and shot her tied to a bed in full writhing mode. The image of a priest’s hand holding a software package was added later.

“Possession by devils and demons—that’s obviously something software couldn’t handle,” says Under ground creative director Eric Hartsock.

Troche, who usually works on shoots for fashion ads, forced herself to watch one scene from the movie as research—and managed to have some fun with the project after all. “We changed some colors—made her eyes glow, made the green puke more neon-y,” she says. “We brought out all the high points.”

As anyone who’s been afraid of the dark knows, what you don’t see is often as scary as what you do—which makes horror a viable genre for radio, too. “Those who do radio well are able to paint the kind of pictures they did in the 1930s, when radio was king,” says Ron Irons, creative director at Trone Adver tising, High Point, N.C. “Horror can be good for that.”

Trone, which once used the image of Boris Karloff as Franken stein in a print ad aimed at potential bone marrow donors, recently developed radio ads for “virtual neighborhood” The spots describe the creepy happenings in a fictional community, à la Poltergeist.

“People can paint a pretty good picture when they hear these ads—maybe even a more scary picture than you had in mind,” says Irons.

To be sure, horror can be stylish and grand—witness Tim Burton’s recent ad for Timex, filmed last year in Prague. But it can also be dicey. The genre’s love of violence makes it a target in the media, especially today, and parodies can get into trouble if they step over the line.

“It depends on the size of the budget and where the ads run,” argues Hammerquist. The downfall of Nike’s “Horror” spot, he says, was simply its media placement. “My hat’s off to them for taking the risk, though,” he says. “For every person who was offended, I’m sure there were thousands who liked it.”

“It can be a tough swallow in some client meetings,” adds Cawley, who also applauds Nike. “A lot of companies don’t have the backbone to take the criticism for going a little darker.”

John Butler, president and creative director of Butler, Shine & Stern in Sausalito, Calif., has a unique perspective on the Nike ad: He created a similar commercial for Reebok a decade ago. Much less polished than “Horror,” Butler’s spot featured a guy with a chain saw chasing a group of friends through the woods. Created for Halloween, it aired a few times during Saturday Night Live.

“I didn’t feel ripped off. Theirs was better. We shot ours for like a dollar,” says Butler, whose office walls sport posters for several old horror films, including the Vincent Price flicks Scream and Scream Again and The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

Butler agrees his ad survived where Nike’s didn’t partly because it was tamer (for one thing, the victims included a man) and because it ran late at night. But he also thinks the cultural landscape has changed. Partly, he says, the “knee-jerk politically correct eye” has advertising in its sights. But he also thinks movies like Chain Saw may simply cut too close to the bone in today’s world to be fun, even as a parody.

“I remember [Chain Saw director] Tobe Hooper once saying that Godzilla, Frankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula, those kind of monsters never scared him. People scared him,” Butler says. “Maybe that’s what got the Nike ad—the realization that there’s a level of evil out there that’s way worse than the Creature from the Black Lagoon.”