Some movies are liars. They’re trolls, with secrets that are only revealed after you’ve bought your ticket or hit the “play” button. Whether for marketing reasons, artistic reasons, or by accident, each of these 10 films is not what it appears to be.
For some of these movies, the double-identity is the entire point, and some are just so bad that no one would ever watch them if they weren’t being tricked into doing so. There are many more examples of the form, so let me know what infamous entries I’m forgetting in the comments.
The Fireplace (2022)
TV listings and streaming descriptions for The Fireplace promise one of those “yule log” videos: a locked-off shot of some logs burning in a fireplace set to cheesy holiday music, intended to serve as a background for your Christmas party or present wrapping. But it actually contains a full length feature: a holiday-centered comedy/horror movie that begins with that logs-in-the-fireplace shot and goes to places you can’t possibly imagine.
A Deadly Adoption (2015)
A Deadly Adoption could have been the funniest cinematic joke of all time. The plan was for AAA-list comedy stars Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig to star in a cheap made-for-Lifetime thriller while playing it completely straight. The plan was to dump it into Lifetime’s regular basic-cable release schedule with no promotion, just so random people might happen to catch it and be like, “wait, what the hell is going on here?”
But someone spilled the beans. Advance details of the movie leaked to the press, ruining the surprise and, really, the entire movie — because it’s nothing more than this single joke. The source of the leak was never revealed, but my guess is Lifetime itself. Mainly because The Hollywood Reporter seems to have been sent a full press release about it on April 1. Lifetime paid for the film, and no doubt valued the ratings that would come with having a new Ferrell/Wiig movie to promote more than the integrity of a joke, even if that joke is the only reason the movie existed to begin with. The only downside was Ferrell being mad at them (which he was), but it’s not like he was planning to make another Lifetime movie.
The Lady in the Water (2006)
There are plenty of movie trailers designed to make viewers think they’re going to see a better movie than the one that was actually made, but The Lady in the Water’s initial trailer was advertising a different genre of film altogether. It screams “horror movie” from the rooftops, leading audiences to believe director M. Night Shyamalan was returning to his roots and releasing something like The Sixth Sense. But The Lady in the Water is not a horror movie. It’s a horrible movie, a nearly unwatchable “urban fairytale” that will make you wish the monsters would get on with murdering everyone onscreen.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
A lot has been written about the groundbreaking viral marketing campaign that made The Blair Witch Project into one of the most profitable independent movies in history, but it only worked so well because the film’s found-footage style was so convincing, and so unfamiliar to late 1990s audiences. Now that it’s been done a million times, it’s hard to believe how some shaky camcorder footage and a few websites were able to so thoroughly convince people that what they were seeing was real, or at least might be real.
Too Many Cooks (2014)
Back in 2014, the Adult Swim network sandwiched surrealist comedy short Too Many Cooks into a block of infomercial programming that aired at 4a.m. They didn’t tell anyone it was coming. They just let anyone who happened to be watching infomercials in the middle of the night discover it. If that had been you (was it you?), imagine trying to tell your friends what you’d seen. “It was like, the opening of a sit-com. But it just kept going on and on. And people started getting murdered, and it was in space and…Yes, I was high. What does that have to do with anything?”
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Rumours of a “snuff movies” have been around since the 1970s, but there don’t seem to be any actual flicks where actors are killed on camera for the entertainment (or gratification, ew) of audiences. Lots of movies tried to fool audiences into thinking they were watching death-for-profit footage however. The best of these is 1980’s seminal found-footage flick Cannibal Holocaust. It faked its documentary footage of murder so successfully that director Ruggero Deodato was charged with murder in Italy for it. Luckily, the actors he’d supposedly killed were in fact alive, and appeared in court to clear Deodato’s “good” name.
The Wizard (1989)
Starring that kid from The Wonder Years, that guy from Heathers, and future indie songstress Jenny Lewis, The Wizard fooled critics and parents alike by purporting to be a movie, when it was actually a feature-length commercial for Nintendo. It may have been widely derided upon its release for its endless product placement, but not by its intended audience. The kids wanted a two-hour commercial for Nintendo, and that it was wrapped in a reasonably entertaining kids-on-a-road trip movie was just the icing. Where else could you see gameplay footage of yet-to-be-released-in-America Super Mario 3 and learn how to get the warp whistle? Where else could you hear dialogue like “I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad?” Just in The Wizard, baby.
Nudist “documentaries” (1930s-1950s)
On-screen nudity wasn’t necessarily legal until the 1950s, so earlier exploitation filmmakers had to get creative. Thus, the nudist documentary was born. To barely skirt obscenity laws, shady producers slapped an “educational” voice-over on shaky footage of potato-like post-war nudists. I don’t imagine they actually fooled their audience or local authorities, but they “fooled” the law by providing just enough “social commentary” to keep everyone out of jail.
Imagine sitting through two hours of incredibly boring “documentary” footage just to see glimpses of dumpy people with strategically placed plants and volleyballs covering their naughty bits. The amount of trouble our pervy grandparents went to in order to see naked people in movies is a testament to the perseverance and resilience of the Greatest Generation.
Mum and Dad (1944)
Nudism documentaries are one thing, but notorious 1940s exploitation flick Mum and Dad is on another level. It fooled the authorities and audiences in opposite ways. Mum and Dad presented itself as moral lesson so cops would stay away, but to audiences, it promised new levels of illicit on-screen thrills.
To keep his operation quasi-legal, producer Kroger Babs styled Mum and Dad as an educational experience. He went as far as hiring actors to portray “eminent hygiene commentator” Elliott Forbes and deliver lectures before every showing. The movie itself is a dreary, moralizing docudrama about perils of teenage pregnancy. Audiences who sat through all that to get to the “good parts” must have been primed for some steamy action, but the payoff was medical footage of STDs, a cesarean section operation, and a birth. Nudity, sure, but, probably not the kind of nudity anyone had in mind.
What’s Up: Balloon to the Rescue (2009)
I love unusual, non-mainstream films. I will happily sit through hours of bottom-of-the-barrel cinematic garbage if there’s something even vaguely engaging about it. But my interest doesn’t extend to “mockbusters,” those movies made to trick people into thinking they’re another, better (of at least bigger budgeted) movie. I don’t find anything amusing about them. They’re not “so bad they’re good.” They’re just bad. I doubt the people who make them even care if anyone watches them, as long as they get their money. So I hate What’s Up: Balloon to the Rescue and all its brothers and sisters on principle. I picture some exhausted single-mother in front of the Redbox machine at the 7-11 accidentally renting this piece of garbage instead of Pixar’s Up and coming home to a pack of enraged 6-year-olds for her trouble. I can practically hear her the defeated little sigh when she slips it into the DVD player and realises she’s been tricked. Again.