READERS OF A CERTAIN age may recall a classic B-movie thriller called "The Tingler," made in 1959 by one of the most inventive showmen in Hollywood history, William Castle. The movie is much less known for its eponymous rubbery monster or its snappy dialogue than for the hucksterish innovation, called "Percepto," that Castle created to lure audiences into theaters.
Audience members were warned that suppressing their screams could be fatal; at some theaters, fake nurses were positioned in the lobby. Selected chairs were equipped with hidden vibrating devices. At the film's climactic moment, the scorpion-like Tingler seemed to rip through the screen toward the audience, then the room went black and Vincent Price's voice boomed through the speakers: "The Tingler is loose in this theater! Scream for your lives!" Cue the vibrators.
We mention all this because director James Cameron is helping bring back the 3-D movie. The question remains whether the development will be more like "Titanic" or "Percepto II." At a time when theater attendance is threatened by the explosion in home entertainment choices, filmmakers and exhibitors are eager to come up with an experience that can't be duplicated at home. But this is not your father's 3-D.
Digital technology can produce 3-D images far superior to the old red/green eye tricks of the 1960s. Theaters are scrambling to install the special screens and projectors; Variety reports that there are only 250 3-D theaters in the world today, but 1,000 are expected by the end of this year.
Meanwhile, on Monday, Walt Disney Studios signed a production deal with director Robert Zemeckis for a slate of motion-capture 3-D films, a technology that Zemeckis soon will bring to the screen with "Beowulf." But the real impetus behind the 3-D revival is Cameron, whose "Avatar" will be the first wide-release, live-action movie made exclusively for modern, digital 3-D. By the time it comes out in 2009, there are expected to be 2,000 U.S. theaters equipped to screen it.
Anybody who has been to an IMAX theater or California Adventure's "It's Tough to Be a Bug" knows it's a fun experience. But Hollywood history is littered with the bones of past technological gimmickry -- as are Hollywood's streets. The ArcLight theater on Sunset Boulevard, for example, used to be the Cinerama Dome, which was built to project movies filmed with special cameras onto a giant wraparound screen, a revolutionary process that failed to sweep the country.
Then again, Technicolor didn't work out too badly, nor did sound. Innovation is always a gamble (and often great fun); the only thing certain is that good stories told well will always succeed, no matter how many dimensions are involved.