Movie titles have gotten lazy. More recently, the trend has become to give a film a name that gives everything away before the first trailer drops. Some titles are so painstakingly obvious they may spoil the ending, while others give away a crucial plot detail without you even noticing. Either way, this way of shopping movies to customers is so ubiquitous that we could rattle off candidates for days. But just because a title qualifies as literal doesn’t always mean it tells you everything you need to know.
Although we can date obvious titles back to the monster movies of the 1950s and 60s, the trend has only recently been resuscitated. If we were to take a popular movie from this year, say X-Men: Apocalypse, the name would seem obvious to a comic book fan. It identifies the characters and gives some indication of the plot. To most audiences, however, questions arise. Sometimes, however, a title comes along that says it all. It’s those kind of titles which can truly be named the 15 Most Literal Movie Titles of All Time.
15. Throw Momma from the Train
Mothers: they’re all trying to do the best for their children. But sometimes it takes some serious patience to not put them away altogether. If you’re anything like Owen from Danny DeVito’s 1987 dark comedy, then you’ve daydreamed of the most efficient ways to off your mother. If you’re paying close attention to the title, you may think throwing someone from a train would be one way of carrying out the deed. Despite the train setting at the end of the movie, Momma Lift doesn’t actually die. Still, the movie outright tells you what will come to pass for the demeaning parent, exposing a crucial point of the plot and spoiling it for everyone.
From the title, we can gather a few things. Firstly, someone’s got a problem with their mom that needs some taking care of. Secondly, that person has given the order to remove that problem. And thirdly, they are looking to do it on a locomotive. Those three things together describe the movie’s conclusion pretty accurately. Assuming audiences aren’t upset that too much may have been given away, throwing someone off a train should have enough appeal to put people in seats. And when they find out Momma Lift is okay, they’ll realize just how thankful they are that nobody died a horrible death for their viewing pleasure.
14. Hobo with a Shotgun
A throwback to the simpler days of grindhouse B-flicks, Hobo with a Shotgun is the kind of title that exhibits grit. It’s a tale of vigilante justice, excessive gore and overt sexuality. The name is reminiscent of the cheap, dingy imagery of the 1960s exploitation films and the cult followings they accumulated. But more importantly is the recognition of the shotgun itself. Our hobo vigilante, while occasionally resorting to other means of mutilation, never waivers when it comes to his weapon of choice. He sticks to his guns, both figuratively and literally, and is never seen without his trusted friend somewhere within reach.
Although some entries on this list were original titles, Hobo with a Shotgun first got its start as a fake trailer attached to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double feature Grindhouse. As part of an international contest, the fan-made trailer stood out with its darkly comic sentiments on gun violence. Removing guns from hardened criminals and placing them into the hands of society’s most unfortunate civilians flipped the script, giving rise to the unlikeliest of protagonists. The straightforward title was much appreciated and the Hobo took to cleaning up the streets one victim at a time.
13. We Bought a Zoo
We Bought a Zoo has such an innocuous name that it sounds tedious before even watching the movie. The story is as advertised: a widowed father starts his life anew with his two children when they move close to a wildlife park. Persuaded by his kids, he works to renovate the park and reopen it to the public after suffering from years of neglect.
From the title, you can surmise that there will be a superfluous amount of animals playing supporting roles to the widowed father’s young children. You may also guess that there will be some family bonding moments coupled with moments of reflection and interspersed with shots of animals doing something funny to show off their human side. The movie gives away its setting and plot, while never straying far away from it unapologetic sappiness. But we can’t be mad at Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson and the rest of the zookeepers in this one. They told everybody exactly what to expect. If you came in expecting anything other than a family-friendly drama, you probably didn’t pay attention to the name. Nevertheless, a title has never been more on the nose.
12. Cowboys & Aliens
It’s a long, checkered past that first kicked off the rivalry between these two. As we all know, the first known signs of extraterrestrial life can be traced to the old west. The first cowboy, a man with the appearance of Daniel Craig, awoke in the New Mexico Territory with an alien weapon on his wrist. It wasn’t until the first attack that the townsfolk grew suspicious of the flying objects in the sky. Ever since, cowboys and aliens haven’t gotten along.
It’s a new rule in Hollywood that if one genre grows old, all you have to do is mix it with another. As the western started to fade, some studio exec realized what was missing. And so the cowboy and alien came together to create a sci-fi western. The title reflects the uniting of the old and the new; the past and the future; the horse drawn carriage and the UFO. Alone, neither cowboys nor aliens sound all that exciting, but placed under one contextual roof in a movie where the two are going at it for complete supremacy, it sounds like the very best movie the SyFy channel has to offer. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, it’s the appreciation for the two character types which made audiences want the movie to be good. Sadly, the final result couldn’t live up to the name.
11. My Dinner with Andre
Casual discussions about contrasting philosophical outlooks on life may not sound like the kind of movie the general public pays to see, but trust us when we say My Dinner with Andre provides an array of life questions over the course of its meal time. Intended for selective audiences, viewers can get a general feel for the pacing and niche appeal before watching the film. But because two people chewing on a steak cannot be called a premise on its own, it stands to reason that the story will revolve around what happens during the course of the dinner. And with Andre’s name in the title, we can assume most of the plot will revolve around his stories.
This sadly under-viewed and undervalued movie by writers and frequent collaborators Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, playing fictional versions of themselves, reflects on the hot topics that come with living life. The more reserved Wallace listens to Andre recount his experiences after quitting his job as a theater director in New York. Wallace then begins a discussion about their differing views, all the while sitting inside the Café des Artistes on West 67th Street. Sure, a movie about a dinner doesn’t sound like the popcorn adventures we’re used to, but at least the title isn’t trying to cover it up.
10. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
So often, the history books get it wrong. If you listened in school, you probably know nothing about Abraham Lincoln’s vampire hunting days. Why would you? Most of it preceded his presidency and he was rarely rewarded for his sacrifices. But they happened, and he deserves to be as widely recognized as Buffy for all his vampire-slaying efforts. He couldn’t complain too much, though. That’s probably hard to do when a country votes for you to be their leader.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter isn’t the only literal title to feature someone’s name in it, but it’s the only one we know of that has the name of the 16th U.S. President in it. Come to think of it, we can’t remember a movie with a better gimmick. It’s got everything. There’s non-stop fighting, nefarious blood-sucking villains, a spot-on performance of Honest Abe (take that, Daniel Day-Lewis) and a gripping depiction of the Gettysburg Address. The only downside is the movie was never as tongue-in-cheek as the title would have you believe. It was criticized heavily for its self-seriousness and grim tone, two things which should never come up when talking about America’s monster-killing past. But when it comes to history, we prefer to get all the facts no matter how unsettling they are.
9. It Follows
Before we get into too much detail about how literal It Follows is, we acknowledge that there is some confusion surrounding this horror flick’s invisible antagonist. We don’t actually know what it is based on the title. What precisely is it following? But here’s our argument. Even after multiple viewings, we still have no idea what’s doing all the following. Some would have you believe it is a metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases teaching teens the hard way to always use protection. But we’re not here for all that analysis. What we know is it is scary as hell and has the most persistence we’ve seen from any horror movie baddie ever.
Our first thought while watching It Follows was to put a Fitbit on whatever it was to see exactly how many steps that thing has taken over the course of its life. Are there limits to where it is actually willing to go? If someone were to jump off a cliff, would it follow them? These are questions seemingly answered by the title alone. If it truly does follow, then it should go without saying that this unstoppable force will go through anything or transform into anyone to reach its next teenage victim. And if it’s out there, it’s not eating or sleeping. It doesn’t rest. It never gives up. It doesn’t ask for a breather. All it does is follow.
8. Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Before you get any ideas, we’ll start by saying this isn’t the type of movie that the title makes it out to be. We’re sure there’s a whole slew of X-rated titles that take things too literally. But a list like that isn’t necessarily safe for work and we’re not sure we’d want to hear them anyway. So by all accounts, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a pretty tame name for a movie with such an adult theme.
When it comes to making movies, Kevin Smith isn’t exactly new to naming them after two characters in action. Prior to Zack and Miri, we had Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. But unlike the former, we don’t really know what Jay and Silent Bob is entirely about from the name alone. Who are they striking back against and why? With Zack and Miri we need no further explanation. They’re making a porno? Great. It sounds like they either need money or really like porn. Either way, the ‘why’ doesn’t really seem to matter much. We know we can expect crude humor and that’s all we could really ask from a movie with such a premise.
7. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
What’s this movie about again? Quite possibly, the world’s worst movie parents. There’s a bit more to it than just bad parenting. You can always tell an obvious sci-fi movie by its key words of unfeasibility. Contrary to the rules of science fiction, you can’t actually take a life-sized person and miniaturize them down to the scale of a peanut. Nothing good ever comes from being reduced to such a size. You live in fear of being crushed by every walking shoe and crossing the path of pretty much any living insect. At least in this case, you have someone else to blame if you end up drowning in a bowl of Cheerios.
Something must have gone right for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids as it spawned two sequels. The less obvious follow-up Honey, I Blew Up the Kid unfortunately sounds like an accident gone wrong with an exploding toddler, thus explaining its absence from this list. In fact, if it weren’t for the endearing inclusion of the word ‘honey’, we would almost feel inclined to call the first two films a twisted, sci-fi horror series about abusing children. Luckily, this movie’s actual name comes off much more tame and Disney-friendly, leaving us with an obvious but memorable title.
6. Hot Tub Time Machine
Reflecting on all the great time travel movies, audiences have been treated with some off the oddest ways of rewinding the clock. From the spacious interior of the TARDIS in Doctor Who to the cramped confines of the phone booth in Bill and Ted’s, few time machines have the bonus of doubling as a relaxing hot tub. Even more than that, none of them were so cool that they could market a movie on their name alone. Sure, Hot Tub Time Machine doesn’t exactly tell us much about the time travelling paradigm or how it came to be, but it doesn’t have to. All we know is, there’s going to be a hot tub and it’s going to time travel. What more could you want?
As the movie neared its release, audiences were given a more detailed description of the plot through viral marketing. The poster featured younger versions of the film’s stars in prominent 80s fashions and red band trailers dropped to give a feel for all the adult humor. But it was the premise and ludicrous title which first sparked viewer interest, leading to the well-crafted campaign that followed.
5. Monster Trucks
Finally, a movie about slinging mud, smashing junk cars and making donuts with 66 inch tires. That sounds like a night out at the theater for the whole family. But wait, what’s that you say? There’s an actual monster inside the truck? The movie isn’t about the professional lives of monster truck drivers? This all comes from the guy who made Ice Age? Okay, we still want to see it – just for different reasons than before.
Since Steven Spielberg first introduced E.T. to the world, the creature-human buddy movie has become a staple for children’s films. But E.T. never jumped inside the engine of a truck and took possession of it, turning it into a breathing Autobot. Also, we’re pretty sure it’s cheating if you enter it into any rallies or competitions. Now, what kind of message does that send to kids?
We’ll probably see Monster Trucks based off its clever title alone, but we’d be lying if we said the recent trailer wasn’t a departure from what we expected. Still, coming off all the emotions of X-Men: Apocalypse, seeing Lucas Till as someone besides Havok could be comforting. So long as that monster stays friendly, we’re down for some old fashioned family fun.
4. Snakes on a Plane
When Hollywood runs out of new ideas, we imagine all the best minds of the entertainment industry come together to mull over what to do next. And in this moment, when they realize there’s nothing creative left to say, they inevitably throw their hands in the air with a collective sigh and come up with something like Snakes on a Plane. Now, we’re not disagreeing with anyone who enjoyed Samuel L. Jackson fighting off a bunch of slithery foes, but putting a threat to human life in a confined space has been a recipe for action flicks for years. More commonly, the protagonist is faced with a ticking bomb or probably some biological weapon, but snakes take things to a whole different level.
Snakes on a Plane checks off two critical points on our “need to know” list for literal titles. We know the setting (an airplane) and the threat (snakes). Together, those two make a great motivator to kick ass and save lives. From the title, we can surmise that things won’t go well for the passengers and anyone with ophidiophobia (a fear of snakes) is likely to pass out from anxiety alone. We’re also left to wonder how anyone manages to stay alive more than a half-hour aboard an aircraft of venomous serpents. But most importantly, we’re left asking “Where exactly is a bundle of parachutes when you need them?”
3. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle
Let it be known, a premise isn’t everything when it comes to pitching movie ideas. How do you convince a room full of movie execs to approve a project about two friends visiting a fast food joint? Simply endorse the restaurant with a case of blatant product placement in the title. In case you’re thinking the movie is about two friends visiting some medieval architecture for its brick work, each poster features the fast food chain’s signature burger and logo. Top that off with a tagline like “Fast food. High times” and we can pretty much guess why these two guys are taking a trip to grab some grub.
The literal titles trend was such a hit with the first Harold and Kumar that the duo found themselves in another obvious adventure in Escape from Guantanamo Bay four years later. And although Guantanamo Bay wasn’t the movie-advertisement hybrid we came to know in the first movie, it managed to make up for it with a hefty share of political satire. It seems the simpler the title, the less time you have to spend convincing audiences what the movie’s about. That leaves you with plenty of time to focus on all the jokes when the first trailer drops. It’s all in a good day’s work from the guys over in the marketing department.
2. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe
What’s a bet between friends if you never commit to your promise? In April 1979, living up to his word, the always enigmatic Werner Herzog boiled and ate his own shoe at the UC Theatre in Berkeley, California. The German-born director responsible for such films as Aguirre, Wrath of God and Stroszek came to the decision after taking a gamble that his friend and fellow filmmaker Errol Morris would never finish his first feature film Gates of Heaven. When filming finally wrapped on Morris’s first documentary, Herzog employed professional chef Alice Waters to safely boil the leather shoe with garlic and herbs. The event was filmed by noted documentarian Les Blank and intercut with another shoe eating scene from Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.
Understandably, the 21-minute short film included clips from Morris’s Gates of Heaven and Herzog’s own film Even Dwarfs Started Small to fill in the time. But for the most part, the documentary sticks to its name. Herzog struggles through the tough leather exterior, eating everything but the sole. And since another movie of Herzog eating his shoe hasn’t come out since, we’d imagine he’s learned the error of his ways. There is a moral to the story though. If you’re going to bet against your friends, make sure it’s something you’re willing to go through with. It may just make a memorable documentary with an even more memorable title.
1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Did the title just spoil the movie before we even watched it?
Hollywood doesn’t always get it right when it comes to naming movies. There are some which stand out as particularly confusing, then there are lesser one word titles which simply aren’t compelling. But something went seriously wrong with Jesse James. Sure, if we were up to date on our western history, we would know about Robert Ford’s assassination of the infamous outlaw. But some viewers out there want to hear the story for the first time as it unfolds on screen. Take that into account along with the fact that merely calling the movie by its name leaves you winded and you’re left with a movie that would be virtually unmarketable if it weren’t for its star Brad Pitt.
In all fairness, it’s not director Andrew Dominik’s fault that his movie ended up with such a long, straightforward title. The film’s source material, a novel by Ron Hansen, has the same name. But rather than crediting Hansen for his work and abbreviating the title to something more accessible to the general public, the studio decided to target a niche audience whose tolerance for spoilers obviously exceeds that of most people. Granted, the movie is a well-crafted account of Jesse James’s relationship with the envious Robert Ford, but exceptional storytelling doesn’t always equal box office revenue. That’s why it’s best to stick to a title people can share without a spoiler tag.
Bonus: RoboCop 2
Looking at this entry, you must be wondering why we’ve included it as a bonus on our list. By definition, RoboCop 2 sounds less like a literal movie title and more like the most boring, cliche name for a sequel imaginable. And while it is common to simply tack on a ‘2’ to the end of a title for the follow-up, RoboCop 2 has the pleasure of being perhaps the only sequel to double as the name of the movie’s villain, which counts as a crucial plot point in the movie.
Let’s consider just how special a case this is for a part two. The first RoboCop doesn’t exactly qualify as a good literal title. Sure, the movie is about a RoboCop, but without any further information you don’t really know what happens in the movie. With the sequel, the title literally gives us the name of the villain, a second RoboCop gone rogue called RoboCop 2, giving us the entire premise of the story. Forgetting just how unimaginative such a name is, we acknowledge that this title isn’t exactly straightforward either. But when an everyday title to a movie sequel turns out to be a revealing plot point, it makes it impossible to pass up for your reading pleasure.