We horror fans aren’t a group that receives a lot of respect from the mainstream critical establishment, and only in the last few decades have we been taken at all seriously in academic institutions (and there’s still a lot of ignorant genre prejudice at play there). But, for the most part, those attitudes are incidental to us; they don’t do anything to clog up our access to genre works.
But then, there are the distributors. The people making horror properties available to us ought to be – and, in some cases, are – the best friends of fandom. These days, more and more companies seem to realize the value in making high quality versions of significant genre works available and easy to find. But this too is a relatively new development. For most of the cinema’s relatively short history, genre products have been treated as disposable content for an undiscerning audience.
One of the results of this attitude has been the careless retitling of works by distributors more interesting in exploiting a flick in low-rent venues for a cheap buck. And so, sensationalism in re-titling was traditionally favored over aesthetics or even accuracy. And sometimes a distributor, anxious to keep earning off of a pre-existing title, would just slap a new name on an older property and re-release it; the more this practice was repeated with the same movie, the more contrived and bizarre the names would become.
So, here are ten examples of how sloppy American distributors could get when re-titling foreign genre works.
Granted, the ad art is rad. I have this image on a t-shirt.
“Gigantis the Fire Monster” (Godzilla Raids Again, Japan, 1955)
The first Godzilla film was released in the United States by Embassy Pictures (who would also find great success distributing Pietro Francisci’s genre-defining Hercules  and Hercules Unchained ) as Godzilla – King of the Monsters! When Warner Brothers acquired the rights to that film’s sequel, they felt they’d get better box office numbers by re-framing it as an original story. So, in their choice of title and in their dubbing, they changed the iconic Godzilla to “Gigantis” (although the dialogue in the re-edited Warner Brothers version is such a mess, characters vacillate between using this as the name of just the lead monster sometimes and using it as a broader category which also includes enemy monster Angilas at other times).
When it was made available on VHS in the US, distributors opted to replace “Gigantis” with the more direct translated title Godzilla Raids Again, though, obviously, they could not re-dub the movie to accompany this change. Thankfully, in the era of DVD, we got a stateside commercial release which includes both the “Gigantis” cut and the original Japanese version, in which the iconic Godzilla is called by his proper name.
Another one I have on a t-shirt!
“The Crawling Eye” (The Trollenberg Terror, England, 1958)
Look, I’ll admit that The Trollenberg Terror doesn’t really tell you much about what’s in store in this movie, and “The Crawling Eye” is not an entirely inaccurate description – although there’s more than one of the monsters, and there is a little more to their anatomy than just their eyes. But compare the poster art for the film’s American release with the British alternative. For the US, Distributors Corporation of America was selling the movie based on its monsters. That decision was somewhat disingenuous to the movie itself, which establishes an air of mystery around the deaths on the mountain, and only reveals the alien creatures well into the second half of the runtime. Attaching the name “The Crawling Eye” works directly against the tension and suspense of the narrative.
I love the “All English Dialogue” note. Good lord, we wouldn’t want to be exposed to any French vocabulary!
“The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus” (Eyes Without a Face, France and Italy, 1960)
This one is just a travesty.
I mean, really.
Over the course of this article, I’ll be trying to stop myself from using the words “poetic” and “lyrical” over and over again, but it’ll be a difficult temptation to resist. As I discussed in my introduction, distributors have tended to shy away from selling horror as “art” in favor of exploitation aimed at (what they presume to be) the lowest common denominator. Eyes Without a Face is a beautiful, suggestive title for a sensitive, nuanced story.
We wouldn’t want the kiddies to think we were trying to appeal to their hearts and minds, would we? Oh, no, this is a genre meant only to stimulate the most prurient of interests.
So, for the purposes of marketing, the caring, guilt-riddled and at times quite kind Doctor Génessier became the “Dr. Faustus,” and his clinic became a “Horror Chamber.”
They also got the production company, director, and special effects director’s names wrong on this box
“Attack of the Mushroom People” (Matango, Japan, 1963)
This is another case where there the title’s not technically inaccurate, but it’s still utterly tonally misleading. I mean, yeah, there are people who eat mushrooms, transform into giant mushrooms themselves, and try to get their companions to eat the mushrooms, too. It is a movie in which mushroom people attack.
But it’s also a chilling, atmospheric story of tension and violence erupting among a microcosm of Japanese society, a haunting and ironic tale of greed, lust, paranoia and betrayal; of the ease with which the best of us can slip back to our most base and animalistic roots. It is a lot more Lord of the Flies than it is schlocky monster movie, but a bit more psychedelic, and, as I love to point out at every opportunity, kind of a funhouse mirror of the more-or-less concurrently produced Gilligan’s Island.
So, yeah, it is a movie about mushroom people, but that’s kind of like calling Casablanca a movie about two pieces of paper and an airplane.
“What!” (The Whip and the Body, Italy, 1963)
Arguably, director Mario Bava and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi were the two most important figures in shaping what international audiences now think of as the Italian giallo genre. From Bava came visual style and pacing, from Gastaldi the narrative structure and thematic fixations. And The Whip and the Body is the only film to which both contributed their talents.
And make no mistake, although it’s not usually classified as such because of its gothic setting and supernatural overtones, The Whip and the Body is one of the best examples of classic giallo, from a time before exploitive excess and the tides of time made it a genre primarily about graphic violence and explicit sexuality. The sadomasochistic elements of The Whip and the Body, while thematically central, are handled briefly and tastefully, as the focus is on stylishly and atmospherically exploring the psychology of the main character.
So what was an American distributor to do (other than, y’know, give the audience some credit?). The Whip and the Body wasn’t a prurient enough movie to be sold on its sexuality, nor a violent enough movie to be sold as a bloodbath. What could it be called? What was its hook?
With no idea what to call it, somebody had the bizarre idea to call it “What!” (exclamation point included). I cannot even really call this title misleading, because that would imply that it led… anywhere at all. “What!” is barely a title at all.
“Revenge from Planet Ape” (Tombs of the Blind Dead, Spain, 1972)
I always arrange my lists chronologically, but this time I was briefly tempted to break with that policy just so that I could give this one the “number one” spot. I mean, not only is it absurdly inaccurate, the syntax is more terrifying than anything in the damned movie (and I actually find Tombs of the Blind Dead pretty scary, if not terribly, y’know, good).
“Boy, those Planet of the Apes movies sure have been successful,” observes anyone with a brain in the 1970s. “And we’ve got this movie that we’ve already released under a couple of different titles, but could still squeeze a few more dollars out of,” says the unscrupulous distributor. “But how can we make undead, blood-drinking Knights Templar fit into the Apes mold?”
The sane person says, “You cannot. Do not try.”
In this instance, sanity does not prevail.
A prologue is tacked in, in which we are told that, 3,000 years ago, our ancestors had to battle super-intelligent apes for control of the Earth. In the end, mankind won out, but, as we tortured and blinded the last remnants of the ape society, their leader vowed that his people would avenge themselves from beyond the grave.
Then the rest of the movie plays out, minus any references to the Templars.
Just crazy. Just absolutely crazy.
“The Seven Brothers and Their One Sister Meet Dracula” (Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, England and Hong Kong, 1974)
Gothic horror meets kung fu does seem like a tough one to package and sell to any but the smallest of niche audiences. Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires has a nice, mystical ring to it, but, from a distributor’s perspective, it misses one of the movie’s major selling points: Count frickin’ Dracula. I mean, leave Dracula’s name out of a Hammer Dracula movie, in which Peter Cushing is appearing (for the fifth and final time) as Van Helsing? Unthinkable.
Now, the obvious choice would be to simply tack Drac’s name onto the existing title. And in some markets, it was put out as “Dracula and the Seven Golden Vampires,” which isn’t too far off the mark, if a little strangely reminiscent of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
But, I dunno, maybe that title didn’t convey the action aspect of the movie well enough for some tastes? Check out the hideously, mercilessly and nonsensically butchered American cut (you can find it on the DVD release), and you’ll see it with the less-than-mellifluous moniker “The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula” up top. But seek out the American trailers, and you might just happen upon the word salad that is, “The Seven Brothers and Their One Sister Meet Dracula.” And, sure, it’s accurate; there are seven brothers, and they have one sister. But, boy, if you’re just going to start listing the cast, why not call it “The Seven Brothers, Their One Sister, Dr. Van Helsing, His Son, Some Rich Lady, and Eventually a Whole Chinese Village Meet Dracula and the Seven Golden Vampires”?
“The Hatchet Murders” (Deep Red, Italy, 1975)
I won’t lie; Deep Red is hands-down my favorite Dario Argento movie. It is a graceful, gorgeous, twisted, brutal, and just a little surreal examination of common giallo tropes and trends, and probably the genre’s greatest masterpiece.
It is not a movie in which even a single character is murdered with a hatchet.
I can’t imagine a more perfect title for the movie than Deep Red (though I confess that titles have never been my strong suit), but, okay, you’re trying to sell your abbreviated cut to American drive-in audiences, so you don’t want them to think it’s anything artsy, right? Gotta give it a good, straight-forward exploitation title. “The Hatchet Murders” promises exactly the kind of raw, bloody goods that Deep Red has to offer as punctuation to its masterful narrative.
But nobody is murdered with a damned hatchet!
Okay, okay, I have this one on a t-shirt, too…
“Cemetery Man” (Dellamorte Dellamore, Italy, 1994)
Moving on from Argento’s masterpiece, we come to the masterpiece of one of his disciples, Michele Soavi. Dellamorte Dellamore is a nightmarish fairy tale given life. It is thoroughly unlike any other movie ever made, an achievement so stunning, a film so precisely and masterfully crafted that the director gave up filmmaking for the following five years because he knew nothing he did would compare to it. It is a twisting Rubik’s Cube of narrative, theme, tone, and genre. Painterly, elegiac, cerebral, hilarious, cruel, romantic.
And the protagonist runs a cemetery.
Okay, yeah, Dellamorte Dellamore isn’t going to mean anything more than “snooty foreign movie” to mainstream American audiences, and “Cemetery Man” is a title they’ll more or less get, even if they’re not getting much out of it. But this movie was NEVER going to be seen by mainstream American audiences, anyway. By the mid-90s, the world of drive-in exploitation flicks was a vague memory, and esoteric foreign horror movies went straight to video and were advertised only to niche, fan audiences. I first read about “Cemetery Man” in an issue of Cult Movies Magazine, for Christ’s sake! Mainstream American audiences afraid of being challenged by anything unfamiliar were NOT reading Cult Movies Magazine!
By the time “Cemetery Man” was on (a select few) video store shelves in America, foreign horror was being sold primarily to FANS OF FOREIGN HORROR. The outré movies no longer had to be hidden behind bland and generic titles; in fact, a strange name made it all the more thrilling for the cognoscenti to drop the title of their newest esoteric discovery.
Dressed in black, hair over one eye, smoking a joint with your too-cool-for-school friends, coming out with, “Hey, man, you gotta see this tripped out horror flick, Dellamorte Dellamore” sounds a lot more impressive than, “This is about a guy in a graveyard.”
“Ringu” (Ring, Japan, 1998)
This one is a pet peeve. In fact, I think this was the title that inspired the idea of this article to begin with. Basically, sloppy transliteration has been applied to try to differentiate a Japanese movie from its American remake, and so masses of American fans are encouraged to speak like they’re doing insulting fake Japanese accents.
Yeah, the three katakana characters that make up the film’s title are generally transliterated as “ri,” “n” and “gu.” But writing the title in roman characters as “Ringu” just wilfully ignores the unmistakable intent of the title (a rendering of the ENGLISH word “Ring” in Japanese characters) and the way that said title is actually pronounced by Japanese speakers! Most Japanese consonant sounds cannot be rendered in any of their three alphabets without a vowel sound attached; in the middle of a word, a “g” would certainly always be followed by a vowel. But a “g” can be pronounced at the END of a word with no vowel sound attached, even if it can’t be written down that way. In those cases, it is fairly normal to use a character that combines the consonant with a “u,” which is the most softly pronounced vowel sounds in Japanese, often signifying nothing more than a slight aspiration.
In the years between the movie’s theatrical release in Japan and its DVD release in the United States, not only did English-language publications refer to it more properly as “The Ring” (although there’s no point to the addition of the definite article), but Japanese materials often included that same romanization.
But, oh, no! If it’s called “Ring,” DVD buyers might not be able to differentiate it from its American remake, “The Ring!” We can’t possibly trust people to notice the absence of the word “The” and the completely different advertising imagery! Better turn the title into baby talk instead!
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