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Why I made the list: Trailers for films are funny things. The majority of modern movie trailers go out of their way to spell out exactly what the viewer can expect from the final product, often plowing through the entire plot of the film beat by beat.
Many leave little to the imagination and in many cases outright spoil major twists that we should really be allowed to discover for ourselves in the cinema.
I’ve lost count of the number of times, when, halfway through a trailer, I’ve suddenly closed the tab with a horrified scream when I realized it had basically just summarized the entire story from beginning to end. Other times, the personality of the final film is entirely lacking in the promo in favor of sticking to a generic template designed to maximize the work’s commercial appeal.
I understand that film producers and distributors want to make sure they are getting the product across well to their potential audience. However, there are far better ways to give a sense of your film than cramming everything important into 2 minutes and then ramming it down a viewer’s throat.
Criteria for a Great Underrated Film Trailer
It’s always a pleasant surprise when you come across a perfectly crafted trailer that gives an intriguing tease of the final feature without showing all of its cards. The problem is that some of these excellent films with equally excellent trailers never get seen by a wide audience and end up flying under the radar.
My aim with this list, then, is to spotlight some of these great promos with the ultimate goal to get you to check out the final product, if you haven’t seen it. For the most part, I’ve selected perfectly pitched trailers either presented in a unique or creative format, or that give a good sense of the finished film without giving too much away.
The majority of the selection are films that I thought were fantastic but that largely flew under the radar of general audiences. I’ve excluded great trailers for films that ultimately turned out to be mostly disappointing, as well as great trailers for films that I haven’t got around to seeing yet, such as the trailer for Antebellum (2020) – which incidentally got pretty terrible reviews upon release.
Check out my second article on underrated trailers if you don’t find a promo you think belongs on this list!
10. Sint (2010)
However, Sint is a rather unique spin on the trope, focusing as it does on the Dutch variation of Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, and on subverting the distinct iconography and traditions associated with the character in Holland.
Therefore, we get a horrifically mutilated zombie Sinterklaas and realistic burn victim versions of Black Pete hunting down unsuspecting citizens of Amsterdam on December 5th.
While far from high art, Sint is an enjoyably bonkers horror-comedy and boasts a pleasingly dark sense of humor and some thrilling setpieces. The trailer reflects all of this pretty well, aided by an effective heavy metal version of a Christmas carol that nails the tone of the final film.
9. The Vast of Night (2019)
I had zero expectations when I went into this low-budget sci-fi flick set in 1950s small-town America. But The Vast of Night turned out to be one of those little films that could that come completely out of the blue and shock and thrill you with their cinematic robustness and competency.
I was blown away by the film’s carefully constructed atmosphere and period details, the compelling performances, and the sheer technical skill on display. The trailer perfectly captures the pleasingly Spielbergian approach to the material and gives a great sense of the mix of retro sci-fi mystery and down-to-earth realism The Vast of Night manages to pull off.
8. Margaret (2011)
Filmed in 2005, You Can Count on Me director Kenneth Lonergan’s ambitious drama Margaret faced a long and arduous battle to finally being released, thanks to a lengthy dispute with producers about the final running time of the piece.
The sprawling film focuses on a teenage girl, played by Anna Paquin, who faces difficult moral dilemmas after being involved in a bus accident. Across 150 minutes, it takes in a whole raft of subplots and features numerous prominent supporting characters played by the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Allison Janney, Matthew Broderick, and Matt Damon.
The trailer does an excellent job at distilling the essential conflicts that make up the bulk of Margaret‘s narrative while spotlighting the superlative performances from all involved, particularly Paquin and the incredibly underrated J. Smith Cameron as her weary actress mother.
7. Spring (2014)
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead are becoming a serious force in crafting innovative and engrossing horror and sci-fi stories told with a human touch. I was pretty impressed by both of their last 2 films, The Endless (2017) and Synchronic (2019), but their high watermark for me remains 2014’s Spring.
The trailer for Spring gives an excellent sense of the unique vibe of the film, basically Before Sunset meets a variation on a werewolf narrative, smartly focusing on the sweet romance that develops between the two likable main characters.
It also manages to avoid spelling out the exact specifics of the supernatural obstacle that the couple has to overcome to find their happily ever after, leaving you to discover that in the film itself.
6. Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
I have to admit that the trailer for Velvet Buzzsaw gives a little bit more away about the plot progression than I usually care for from a promo. However, it also completely captures the vibe of Dan Gilroy’s bizarre but brilliant genre mash-up of art world satire and supernatural slasher flick.
As in the film itself, the trailer first presents us with a sharp satire of pompous art world types, before sinister horror elements gradually begin to bleed into proceedings.
Accompanied by a snappy score, it smartly presents the choicest bits of dialogue from Gilroy’s genius script, expertly delivered by his on-point cast, particularly Rene Russo as ruthless agent Rhodora and absolute treasure Toni Collette as two-faced gallery manager Gretchen.
5. Little Sister (2016)
The very definition of a criminally underseen film, Little Sister is a charmingly offbeat comedy/drama that I cannot say enough good things about (and often do). Similar in many ways to the widely seen and critically lauded Lady Bird (2017), Little Sister is just as deserving of a watch, and maybe even more so.
The great trailer outlines the basic premise of the film, showcases the excellent performances and script, and nails the punky yet sweet vibe of the story without giving too much away. Also, got to love those pink-and-black title cards.
4. Somewhere (2010)
When it comes to crafting trailers for her films, it seems that Sofia Coppola just isn’t content to let some marketing team figure out how to sell the finished product. Exhibit A) the trailer for her intimate 2010 drama Somewhere, which is carefully edited using a well-chosen track reflective of the tone of the final piece, in this case the lovely “I’ll Try Anything Once,” by The Strokes.
The finished film may prove to be a bit too slight and understated for some people, but I totally loved the languid pace and sweet father-daughter dynamic in Somewhere. And the trailer does a great job of indicating what kind of a ride the viewer is in for without spelling out the entire narrative.
3. The King (2005)
This early English-language vehicle for Mexican heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal got mixed reviews on release and has largely been forgotten in the years since, and that’s a crying shame.
While a fairly simple sins-of-the-father story on the surface, the film is hugely elevated by its excellent cast including William Hurt, Pell James, and Mulholland Drive‘s Laura Harring, as well as by James Marsh (Man on Wire, Shadow Dancer)’s ace direction.
The King also benefits from beautiful, lyrical cinematography and a haunting score, both of which are on full display in the film’s perfectly balanced trailer.
2. Marie Antoinette (2006)
The second trailer for a Sofia Coppola film on this list, Marie Antoinette was perhaps the first indication that the director really knows how to sell her films in an innovative, creative way.
Completely dialogue-free, Coppola uses the brilliant Age of Consent by New Order as a backdrop for a carefully edited guide through some of the best moments of her offbeat biopic of the French monarch starring Kirsten Dunst.
Fully capturing the frothy and exuberant vibe of the finished film, the trailer for Marie Antoinette is something of a work of art in itself, coming across as more of a lavish music video than a promo for a feature film.
1. Dredd (2012)
The 2012 film adaptation of the Judge Dredd character from the 2000 AD comic books is undoubtedly one of the most underrated films in recent memory. It was largely ignored by the masses upon its release and failed to make enough at the box office to greenlight the two sequels that writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later) had planned.
As far as I can tell, this was largely due to the lingering sour aftertaste left by the calamitous first attempt to bring to the screen with Sylvester Stallone back in 1995. I remember asking one friend if they were planning to see the new film at the cinema, only to be told “No thanks, the first one was bad enough”.
The poisoning influence of the earlier film and a lackluster marketing campaign helped to keep audiences away from the cinema, and for me, this is one of the biggest cinematic injustices in history. Dredd is a lean, mean, and efficiently told self-contained story set in the futuristic hellscape of Mega-City One.
Although its scope is small -it mostly takes place within one huge skyscraper – Dredd boasts excellent production design, simple but effective character arcs, and superlative acting from Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, and Lena Headey. It also boasts some incredibly striking effects work in several standout slo-mo sequences – Dredd is probably the most memorable 3D experience I’ve ever had in a cinema (sorry, Avatar).
Although it descends into a bit of a generic action movie trailer template later on, the promo for Dredd expertly transmits all of these outstanding elements, propelled by a brilliant remix of In for the Kill by La Roux.
I think that the trailer is so well crafted that I often find myself with the urge to give it a rewatch. However, this is always a bit of a bittersweet experience as it makes me think of the live-action follow-ups we never got but that Dredd so sorely deserved.
Stay tuned for my review of a recent Christmas-themed horror film.