1. Alien (1979): “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
There’s some consensus that Alien has the single greatest tagline in movie history, and for good reason: It’s punchy, memorable, and perfectly evocative of Ridley Scott’s seminal horror film. The series would add Marines to take on the alien threat in the sequel, but the original Alien plays effectively on the futility of being isolated in deep space and facing a deadly, relentless threat. There’s no escape, no calling for help, just a wail into the void.
2. Anna Christie (1930): “Garbo talks!”
Whenever a big silent-movie star made his or her first talking picture, there was suspense built in: Would the voice attached to the famous face enhance or undercut the star’s image? MGM was confident enough in the long-term prospects for Greta Garbo that they met the challenge head on, proclaiming that now, after feasting their eyes on their idol, fans could finally hear her, too. The studio was so successful in making Garbo’s first spoken line an event that it recycled the approach for her first comedy, Ninotchka, which used the banner line “Garbo laughs!” (Pauline Kael, master of the backhanded compliment, once suggested that MGM should have recognized Garbo’s achievement with what Kael considered her finest performance, in Camille, by using the tagline “Garbo acts!”)
3. Highlander (1986): “There can be only one.”
Short, succinct, to the point, and certainly memorable, the Highlander tagline (and repeated dialogue line) conjures up the image of a never-ending death-match between equal foes, a bracket with life on the line. For those who don’t know the film, the statement prompts the kneejerk response, “One what?” Anyone driven to answer that question by looking a little further into what the film is about instantly justifies the marketing campaign.
4. Green Card (1990): “The story of two people who got married, met, and then fell in love.”
An old journalism aphorism has it that “dog bites man” isn’t news, but “man bites dog” is. This tagline follows that precept with a reversal of the obvious rom-com timeline. It aims to prompt double-takes in readers who might think, “Oh, another one of those. Wait, what?” Hopefully “Made you look!” equates to “Made you watch our actually pretty conventional rom-com!”
5. Lolita (1962): “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”
The answer, of course, is by expurgating the hell out of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel; even Stanley Kubrick’s clout only went so far in 1962. But that didn’t stop MGM from craftily reminding viewers of its taboo-flouting reputation. “For persons over 18 years of age,” the poster added with a wink and a nod, even though the sexual relationship between Humbert and Lolita never gets more explicit than him painting her toenails.
6. Jaws 2 (1978): “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…”
The sequel to Jaws saw a steep drop in quality—director Jeannot Szwarc was no Steven Spielberg, go figure—but at least the promotional team had it together. Just as Psycho reportedly had Americans swearing off showers for a while, Spielberg’s classic horror-thriller made some skittish about diving into the ocean. The tagline for Jaws 2 preyed on those fears expertly.
7. The Fly (1986): “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
The tagline for David Cronenberg’s superb updating of George Langelaan’s 1957 short story repurposes a key piece of dialogue from the film’s latter half. After dating a scientist (Jeff Goldblum) who has put himself (and a fly) through the teleportation machine he invented, a journalist (Geena Davis) witnesses his dramatic physical and psychological transformation from man to manimal. The line comes when she intervenes on behalf of a frightened date, and it represents a turning point where the scientist has lost touch with his humanity for good.
8. Suspiria (1977): “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92.”
The claim made by this tagline is arguable. In fact, the first 12 minutes of Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece are the most terrifying, because they lay out the film’s striking visual and aural palate and establish the shocking goings-on at an isolated ballet academy in entirely cinematic terms. (The dubbed, expository dialogue in Argento’s work is always its weakest quality.) But as a piece of carnival barkery, the tagline catches the eye.
9. The Last House On The Left (1972): “To avoid fainting, keep repeating: ‘It’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…’”
The key to a successful exploitation movie is attracting an audience. Usually this involves a titillating trailer promising lots of sex and violence, but for The Last House On The Left—a gory, uncomfortable shocker about rape, murder, and revenge—the production team promised a barely endurable cinematic experience. The resultant tagline teased theatergoers with the potential of a movie so intense it was possible to forget they were watching a movie at all, and helped elevate Wes Craven’s directorial debut to profitable cult status.
10. Back To The Future (1985): “He was never in time for his classes... He wasn’t in time for his dinner... Then one day... he wasn’t in his time at all.”
Time-travel movies can get confusing fast, so to promote Robert Zemeckis’ paradox-inducing adventure, copywriters decided to focus on the story’s protagonist. Any kid can relate to a teenager perpetually late for all the boring obligations of the day, and to find out the hero pays for his tardiness by being kicked off the clock altogether is both an entertaining short (very short) story, and an enticement to find out what happens next.
11. Alien Vs. Predator (2004): “Whoever wins… we lose.”
There’s a simple problem with a movie that pits the xenomorphs from Alien and Aliens against the hunters from Predator: It sounds fun, but it lacks meaningful stakes for humanity. The title suggests an all-baddies cage match where viewers can cheer for their favorites from a safe remove, and maybe take bets about who will win. This concise, punchy tagline brings humans out of their armchairs and back into the game, and promises a story that isn’t just a cross-franchise take on Deadliest Warrior.
12. 12 Angry Men (1957): “Life is in their hands—death is on their minds.”
Reginald Rose’s play 12 Angry Men pits the members of a jury against each other on a capital case, but the title doesn’t tell the whole story; those 12 angry men could be union strikers or irked pastry chefs for all the average viewer knows. The tagline makes it clear that their decision about the guilt of a young man could send him to the electric chair, and that they’re seriously considering it. The parallel structure gets both life and death, and the sense of a precarious balance between them, into potential viewers’ minds, as well as the characters’.
13. Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948): “The nearer they get to their treasure, the farther they get from the law.”
Much better than the alternate poster tagline, “They sold their souls for The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre,” this one employs the irresistible parallelism that turns a phrase into a mnemonic, and summons up the image of perpetual, implacable movement toward a goal that should never be attained. It promises two different kinds of excitement: a treasure hunt and an outbreak of violence. Both of which the film delivers on in generous measure.
14. The Muppet Movie (1979): “More entertaining than humanly possible.”
At first, The Muppet Movie’s tagline seems like an exaggeration. On second look, it’s meant to be accurate and descriptive: Its cast really isn’t human. It’s almost punnish in its humor, but it’s the kind of thing that sinks in and sticks with viewers because it means a little more than it initially appears to.
15. Chicken Run (2000): “Escape, or die frying.”
Puns make for okay taglines. Puns that actually describe the film aptly and with a sense of humor make fairly great taglines. This one hits the latter marks: The chickens trying to escape a farm in this film really are trying to avoid the frying pan.
16. Hardbodies (1984): “If you see only one movie this year... then go see this one, also.”
Few movie-and-tagline combos better illustrate the sometimes-empty promise of a clever ad campaign. Hardbodies is a perfectly ordinary, deservedly forgotten teen skin flick, and the tagline on the movie poster is similarly inane. (“If you don’t know what they are, you don’t know what you’re missing.”) But the trailer is witty enough to acknowledge its inconsequentiality while holding out hope that it may offer a smarter variety of cheap thrills than it does, ending with this much-better quip that should have been the official tagline.
17. Bonnie And Clyde (1967): “They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people.”
By joining “young” and “in love” to the blunt word “kill,” this tagline actually manages to suggest both the movie-star glamour that made this picture a box-office sensation and the daring mix of tones and frank depiction of violence that made it a groundbreaking American film. Six years later, another film based on an actual pair of criminals on the run, Badlands, might have been paying homage to it with its own tagline: “In 1959, a lot of people were killing time. Kit and Holly were killing people.”
18. Army Of Darkness (1992): “Trapped in time. Surrounded by evil. Low on gas.”
The final film in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy stars Bruce Campbell as a time-traveling ghoul-hunter armed with a double-barreled shotgun and a chainsaw. He introduces himself and his weaponry to his new friends by announcing, “All right, you primitive screwheads, listen up. See this? This is my boomstick!” It has some claim to being the perfect Bruce Campbell line, and this is the perfect Bruce Campbell movie tagline.
19. Easy Rider (1969): “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere...”
If, as legend has it, this movie perfectly caught the mood of young audiences in 1969, that mood must have been accusatory, ironic, bewildered, and sad all at the same time. This tagline captures all of that, with none of the smugness and incoherence that sometimes taints the film itself.
20. The Thing (1982): “Man is the warmest place to hide.”
In 1982, the first thing sci-fi fans might have wanted to know about John Carpenter’s horror remake was how it differed from the 1951 original. Somehow, someone in the publicity department came up with a single, seven-word sentence that suggests both the terrible, lashing cold of the Antarctic setting and the fact that, in this movie, the alternative to the cold isn’t nurturing, comfortable warmth, but hot blood and steaming gore spilling out in all directions.
21. Jurassic Park (1993): “An adventure 65 million years in the making”
Jurassic Park’s poster is the soft-spoken Richard Attenborough soliloquy amid the stomping feet and gnashing teeth of the film’s marketing campaign: An elegant blend of striking typography and the instantly recognizable Chip Kidd-designed dust cover of Crichton’s bestseller, both underlined by a quietly evocative tagline promising thrills, chills, and a modicum of scientific accuracy. Signifying a singularly Spielbergian strain of terror and wonder, the tagline is, to paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm, the butterfly that flapped its wings in Peking and made it rain money in Hollywood.
22. Dr. Giggles (1992): “The doctor is out… of his mind”
Ellipses are like exclamation points: When used artfully, they can be powerful, even essential tools in a writer’s arsenal, but when abused, they can be insufferable. The tagline for Dr. Giggles, a forgettable 1992 shocker that cast L.A. Law’s Larry Drake as a deranged mass murderer with a sick medical fetish, transforms the sly use of ellipses into an artform by following the blandly descriptive “The Doctor is out” with the wonderfully deranged “of his mind.” A paired tag-line similarly followed “The doctor is in” with the slightly alarming “sane.” Is it any wonder these joyously macabre quips are just about the only thing anyone remembers about Dr. Giggles?
23. The Funhouse (1981): “Pay to get in, pray to get out.”
Since The Funhouse was released during the heyday of the low-budget, gore-heavy slasher film, it could’ve easily have gotten lost in the bloody tide; and since it was directed by Tobe Hooper, the man behind the notorious The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the movie could’ve frightened away some people who’d be otherwise inclined to appreciate its clever riffs on classic horror tropes, and its comparison of fright flicks to one big carnival ride. Hence the witty tagline, which signals that this shocker actually has a brain, and a sense of humor (perverse as it is). For whom is The Funhouse fun? Perhaps for moviegoers.
24. Hardware Wars (1978): “You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! You’ll kiss three bucks goodbye!”
Ernie Fosselius made Hardware Wars on the super-cheap because that’s the effect he was trying to achieve: a parody of Star Wars that not only poked fun of the movie’s melodramatic stories and acting, but also its then-state-of-the-art special effects. The tagline reflects the fact that if viewers paid the then-princely sum of $3 (!) to see the movie—it was a short but pretended to be an extended trailer for a real movie—they’d be disappointed with the shoddy editing, wooden acting, the sight of an iron suspended on a wire fleeing a toaster suspended on a wire, and an orange Cookie Monster puppet playing “Chewchilla.”
25. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005): “The longer you wait, the harder it gets.”
It works on so many levels! Well, two levels. Like Judd Apatow’s film as a whole, this tagline manages to host both a dirty joke and a dramatic truth. Steve Carell’s character makes it to middle age in accidental celibacy until his co-workers attempt to help him finally get laid, so the “hard” part is, yes, a gesture toward the physical effects of several decades of sexual frustration. But it’s also a reference to the difficulty he has in opening up and feeling comfortable enough to do the deed when he does find someone, as the film makes its case that sex is significant, whether it’s someone’s first time or not.
26. The Laughing Policeman (1973): “This movie is so real it makes every other movie in this town look like a movie.”
Helmed by Cool Hand Luke and The Pope Of Greenwich Village director Stuart Rosenberg, The Laughing Policeman was one of several films in the early-to-mid-’70s that cast a well-weathered Walter Matthau as a snarling, though still a bit lethargic, badass. The Laughing Policeman is a pretty serviceable police procedural, leavened considerably by Matthau’s scowling and withered cynicism, and co-star Bruce Dern’s 12-pound moustache. If anything distinguishes it, it’s the violence (pretty convincingly gritty even by post-Dirty Harry standards) and its muddy, street-level lensing of San Francisco. Maybe it’s these touches, in conjunction with Matthau’s muted heroics, that earned The Laughing Policeman its incredible tagline.