Since theatrical posters and advertising campaigns became just as important to selling a motion picture as the cast and crew assembled, the significance of a well-worded tagline was too large to overlook. Whether relying on humor, wit, horror, or simply a playful tease of things to come, the best in the movie business have turned taglines into an art form, giving rise to some truly fantastic one-line summaries that didn’t just catch consumer attention, but occasionally ended up to be more immortalized than their respective films.
Some might ask exactly how a tagline could communicate more than a film’s title, stars, director, or writer – but for the average moviegoer, a clever combination of words can turn a film from a curiosity into a much-anticipated theatrical experience. We’ve already taken the time to point out some of the worst taglines in movie history, but figured some praise was in order as well.
There are plenty to choose from, but here is our list of the 10 Best Movie Taglines.
10. I Am Legend (2007)
Technically, I Am Legend deserves as much credit for its chilling tagline as The Omega Man, also an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s original novel. But the promise that Robert Neville (Will Smith) would not be able to enjoy the peace and quiet of being the last man on Earth because of an unknown inhabitant is as effective as ever.
The single sentence manages to convey all the central themes of the film – isolation, paranoia, danger – to the point that the simple phrase could almost be considered an extremely short story in itself. The fact that the marketing department decided to leave the vampire/crazed remnant of humanity off of the theatrical posters and let the creeping fear of the unknown build tension instead, shows that they knew their tagline embodied the overall ‘less is more’ philosophy.
9. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Hollywood has turned the tongue-in-cheek one-liner into a fairly common trope for cheesy taglines, but the one chosen for Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead manages to escape criticism due to the simple fact that “a romantic comedy, with zombies” actually gives an accurate depiction of what message the film is seeking to send. The story may be set during a zombie outbreak, but as is the case in all of Wright’s films, love and friendship are the true core of the story.
The horde of stumbling, flesh-eating zombies may result in some truly horrific violence and head-smashing, but the film is less about what you can survive and more about who you would want to survive beside. In this case, it takes the end of the world for Shaun (Simon Pegg) to realize that his life needs direction, and to stop taking the love of his life for granted. In other words: it’s a romantic comedy. With zombies.
8. Day of the Dolphin (1973)
There are times when those charged with concocting a tagline craft a masterpiece: a simple phrase so evocative, so witty, or so chilling that it sells the movie all by itself. But then there are times when the movie is so ridiculous, so far-fetched, and so hopelessly ill-conceived, that no tagline could be clever enough to fool audiences into thinking there is more to the film than meets the eye.
Mike Nichols’ The Day of the Dolphin is clearly a case of the latter, when – let’s be honest – the absurdity of the premise was its primary selling point (aside from star George C. Scott). Telling the tale of a humble scientist trying to teach dolphins to communicate with human beings takes a shocking turn when it is revealed that he has actually been training them – unwittingly, of course – to execute a strike on the President. The tagline has been singled out by many as an example of a “bad” tagline, but considering what they had to work with, we feel those responsible made the right call.
7. Cocktail (1988)
Not everybody is a fan of puns, and movies featuring a sly wink or play on words tend to elicit more eye-rolls than awards. But with Cocktail, a tagline was conceived (to a chorus of cheers and high fives, we assume) that managed to not only offer a pun for the ages, but actually capture the entire spirit and character arc of the protagonist Brian Flanagan (Tom Cruise).
The tagline is serious, cocky, filled with bravado, but inherently implies that the film’s hero is… less than kingly when he isn’t tossing bottles and martini shakers behind a bar top. Those assumptions are a perfect expectation of the film’s conflict, while also capturing enough of the 1980s Hollywood love affair with Tom Cruise to make a movie about a bartender still sound like much, much more.
6. Ghostbusters (1984)
There are several entries on our list that made their way from film tagline to household phrase, but few are as widespread and well-recognized as that of Ghostbusters – specifically, the call and response of the movie’s theme song. To this day, ask any group of people “who ya gonna call?” and you’re likely to hear a chorus of voices shouting “Ghostbusters.”
What makes the popularity of the catchphrase even more amazing is the fact that it isn’t actually used in the movie, with the team’s slogan actually being “we’re ready to believe you!” Yet even the film’s initial tagline proclaiming the group of comically-un-heroic parapsychologists “here to save the world” made an exaggerated claim capture the spirit of the film when juxtaposed with the bumbling stars.
5. Quiz Show (1994)
The tagline of director Robert Redford’s Quiz Show may sound like it belongs to a film following a magician or con artist, but it actually belonged to a much less fantastical tale. Following the quiz show scandals of the 1950s (in which multiple game shows were revealed to be heavily choreographed and rigged by producers), the movie offered a star-studded re-telling of an era when game shows caught the eye of the United States Congress and the Supreme Court.
Besides being as coy and intriguing as a tagline can ever truly get, the line does for the scandalous period of television history what the film itself did for the scandal: heightened it to become the stuff of legend. In reality, the scandals were a simple case of producers manufacturing suspense and spectacle to please their sponsors. But in a movie as heard-hitting as Quiz Show, and with a tagline to match, the devious con made the American public the mark, with none of them the wiser.
4. Jaws 2 (1978)
With Jaws, director Stephen Spielberg changed the world in multiple ways, from the simplistic-but-chilling musical score to the looming fear that every body of water could - could – contain a man-eating great white shark. So it’s somewhat surprising that the most clever and arguably well-known tagline from the series actually came from the film’s sequel, Jaws 2.
To this day, there are likely those who have heard the tagline “just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…” without actually realizing exactly what movie monster helps complete the sentence. It’s far more haunting than any of the original film’s taglines, and helped establish the villainous shark at the heart of each installment as a certified horror movie killer.
3. Superman: The Movie (1978)
It’s hard to think of a time before movie audiences were able to believe in superheroes, let alone flock to superhero blockbusters more than almost any other. But make no mistake: when the producers of Superman: The Movie set out to bring the most iconic superhero to live on the big screen for a new generation, they were doing so against overwhelming odds. The perfect tagline, then? A promise that the film would do what no other before it had managed to.
These days, claiming a film will make audiences “believe a man can fly” would normally be left to director and actor interviews. But back in 1978, audiences needed it in writing. The film delivered, using a mix of wire work and projection to make Christopher Reeve appear to fly through the air. Had the film fallen short of the tagline, the modern age of superhero films may not have happened. So let’s all count ourselves lucky.
2. Alien (1979)
Little explanation is needed for Alien‘s tagline, as Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror film’s place in cinema history is already guaranteed. Audiences couldn’t have known that the glowing alien eggs seen in the theatrical posters would be the ultimate cause of the many, many screams uttered throughout the film, but the tagline made the film’s desire to shock and terrorize its audience clear from the outset.
The tagline offered a brief lesson in physics by warning that sound can’t carry through the vacuum of space (a fact most films still choose to ignore), but also communicated how isolating and remote the film’s setting aboard the USCSS Nostromo would be. With a single alien, and a setting that made even a person’s scream disappear from their throat, the film’s tagline (like the film itself) proved that tension is infinitely more satisfying than jump scares.
1. The Thing (1982)
Some taglines make a movie fan want to meet the mind that created it – and others are so clearly a sign of depravity that you would be better off avoiding those responsible. For John Carpenter’s The Thing, the observation that as comforting as a thick coat may be in the Antarctic, “man is the warmest place to hide” still makes our skin crawl.
Those who have yet to see the film won’t quite grasp the plot points and threads foreshadowed by the tagline, but those who have will recognize the fear, the cold, the paranoia, and the grotesque biology that made the film an instant classic. The simple sentence is disturbing enough to scare off the faint of heart, but pique the curiosity of every science fiction and horror fan in a heartbeat.
That’s just a small sample of the many taglines that have shown how a few simple words can condense an entire movie universe. Every movie fan will have their own favorites which remain as poetic as they are attention-grabbing, so be sure to name them in the comments.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.