Written by Zack Hohenstein, MUTV Digital Director

Image courtesy of hpbtecunit10.wordpress.com

 

We are well into spooky season now, friends.

The leaves crackle under your shoes and the autumn winds send chills down your spine. The decorations in your neighbors’ yards range from those harmless, happy scarecrows to the terrifying goblins and ghouls that spring to life if you dare to cross their motion sensor. And perhaps most dangerous of all, the pumpkin spice lattes are back on the menu.

An essential aspect of October is the month-long marathon of horror flicks that many like myself look forward to every year. A genre that’s admittedly not for everyone, good horror has the ability to make you laugh, think and scream in the same 90 minutes.

Horror author Stephen King once said, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”

Well there have been a lot of real ones this year, Stephen.

I have always loved horror. I read every single original Goosebumps book. Haunted houses were always a must in October. Recordings of AMC Fear Fest films used to clog my family’s DVR.

Thankfully, these movies don’t give me nightmares like they used to. That doesn’t mean I don’t get scared. If a horror flick startles me with an effective jump scare, I’ll give it some props. But if a horror flick leaves me unsettled long after the credits have rolled, then I really like it.

But what about before the opening credits?

Do you remember your high school English teachers telling you that your paper needed a good hook to draw the reader’s attention? Well, the same applies to cinema. So, I thought it would be a fun idea to rank my favorite openings to horror movies.

Whether it’s inducing some ominous feelings in the audience or generating some laughs with its violent absurdity, the opening scene has to set a tone.

But what constitutes an opening scene? This question’s answer is subjective so it’s necessary for me to clarify before we begin.

I considered the scene for this ranking if

  • it takes place before or during the opening credits/title card
  • it is the first setting and situation in the film

No, I have not seen every horror movie ever made. Shocking, I know. I’ve just seen a lot of them. There may be some spooky introductions that I missed. If you can think of any, be sure to let me know. More than anything, I just want this ranking to feel like a discussion because I love to talk about these movies and if you’re actually taking the time to read this then you probably do too.

And even if you don’t, keep reading anyway.

(Note: I tried to find the full openings to these movies to include in the article for you guys to watch but most of the time I had to settle for only a portion of it. And in one case, a gif will have to do)

Honorable Mentions

  • Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)
  • Ghost Ship (Steve Beck, 2002)
  • The Woman in Black (James Watkins, 2012)
  • Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (Steve Miner, 1998)
  • Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)
  • Us (Jordan Peele, 2019)
  • Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)
  • Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009)
  • The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
  • The Last of Us (Neil Druckmann, 2013)

Yes, I am aware “The Last of Us” is a PS3 game, not a movie. I don’t care. The opening scene of that game is a masterpiece and it deserves some recognition. I promise the rest of this list will actually be movies.

 

25. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Tobe Hooper, 1974

 

via GIPHY

The opening to Tobe Hooper’s horror classic is less of an introduction to the narrative and more of an initiation into the mood of the movie.

A voice-over builds up the horrific events to follow before different cadaver-filled snapshots light up the darkness for a split second each. As a radio broadcast details the local grave robbing, we pan out from the rotting corpse, melting in the Texas sun. The red tint on the image reinforces the heat that the rest of the movie rolls with and you can’t help but let it get under your skin.

Raw meat, sweat and chainsaws, baby.

 

24. Get Out

Jordan Peele, 2017

Walking alone at night through a “creepy, confusing ass suburb,” Andre Hayworth is followed by a mysterious white car.

Given his status as a black man in a racist country, he’s already forced to be more careful. He even tries to turn around and walk the opposite direction to avoid any confrontation. It doesn’t work.

Andre’s abduction sets the stage for Jordan Peele’s directorial debut with a scene that plays on the fear caused by racism that so many black people have to live with every day. And it only scratches the surface of what is to come in the Academy Award winning film.

“Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” kicks in for the opening credits and the rest is history.

 

23. The Witch

Robert Eggers, 2015

The themes of faith, isolation and family are brought to the forefront of Robert Eggers’ unsettling 2016 film from A24.

Cast out of their colony for their grievances with the religious practices of the commune, father William leads his family out into the Massachusetts wilderness to find their own sanctuary. The strings in the score give way to the chilling spiritual screeches of a choir as they drop to their knees and thank God for their new home. They will live on the mercy of the land around them.

They are on their own.

 

22. Evil Dead

Fede Álvarez, 2013

A stylized, blood-drenched opening credits gives way to a scared young woman walking barefoot through the woods. She isn’t alone, though.

After being captured by two men, she wakes up constrained to a post in a dark, gloomy basement surrounded by strange people. Dead rabbits hang from the ceiling. An old woman reads Latin. It’s evident that something not that chill is about to go down.

The girl’s father reveals himself, somber and reluctant to do what he must do. She begs for her life up until the last moment when she tells him in the same pleading and pained voice, “I will rip your soul out, Daddy.”

He burns her alive.

The gruesome, unforgiving nature of Fede Álvarez’s film is established in this chilling introduction. Plus, the siren-like alarm in the scene’s musical score is one of the most unsettling sounds I have ever heard.

 

21. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers

Dwight H. Little, 1988

 

After Michael Myers’ absence in 1982’s “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” the fourth entry in the iconic slasher series makes good on its title in the first five minutes.

The opening credits play over some spooky fall scenery accompanied by the ominous ambience of Alan Howarth’s score. Soon, we’re back at Smiths Grove Sanitarium where a severely burned Michael has been in a coma for years. He’s being transferred. You can guess how well that goes.

The mood is made clear from the beginning. The subtle dread of John Carpenter’s 1978 original has been traded for a “Friday the 13th”-style of over-the-top boogeyman violence.  The dialogue is full of sweet expositional cheese, the original theme gets an 80s facelift and one unlucky paramedic gets a thumb through the forehead.

 

20. The Ring

Gore Verbinski, 2002

“I hate television.”

Katie’s opening line in Verbinski’s remake of the Japanese horror “Ringu” is of course meant to be ironic. She goes on to tell her friend Becca about a tape that kills you seven days after you watch it.

Guess what. She watched it. Guess when she watched it. Seven days ago.

To quote Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike: “I’m afraid you’re gonna have to start getting scared immediately.”

As TVs inexplicably turn on and mysterious water leaks through the hallway, Katie begins to suspect that something weird is in fact going on. The opening scene keeps with the grim and gray aesthetic that lasts throughout the movie and is successful in putting you on edge right from the start.

 

19. Return of the Living Dead

Dan O’Bannon, 1985

 

Dan O’Bannon’s cult classic “Return of the Living Dead” is the comedic and meta-commentary cousin of George A. Romero’s prolific “Night of the Living Dead.”

After showing new worker Freddy the ropes of working at Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse, Frank lets the rookie in on a little secret: the events from Romero’s zombie classic were based on real life events that were covered up by the U.S. government and the warehouse was even sent a few of these re-animated bodies by mistake. Eager to impress, Frank takes Freddy to the basement and shows him where the zombies are kept in barrels of toxic chemicals.

“These things don’t leak, do they?” Freddy asks. Frank scoffs and responds confidently. “Leak? Hell no! These things were made by the Army Corp. of Engineers!”

Frank slaps the side of the barrel to prove his point and – well, he immediately proves himself wrong as it sprays the toxic chemicals directly into their faces. It leaks through the entire building as the opening credits roll.

Good puns (“Look alive”), funny characters and an excellent 80s new wave theme song make the opening of “Return of the Living Dead” an effective preview of the undead fun to follow.

 

18. The Conjuring

James Wan, 2013

 

Wan’s film sets out to scare you from the opening frame.

Zooming out from the face of the infamous Annabelle doll, there’s an unmistakable sense of dread present. As two girls explain the supernatural events surrounding the doll in their apartment, the Warrens listen and do their best to explain what they’re dealing with. Wan grabs the audience as soon as he can with this depiction of a real-life Warren case file while also introducing the ghost experts themselves.

The balance he finds between the spine-chilling story of the doll and the comfort of the paranormal expertise the Warrens possess sets the tone for the film and series.

 

17. Friday the 13 Part VI: Jason Lives

Tom McLoughlin, 1986

 

Ridiculous in all of the best ways, the sixth entry in the storied Friday the 13th franchise resurrects the titular villain in the first five minutes.

After being killed by a young Tommy Jarvis in “Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter”, Jason Voorhees has been rotting in the ground for years. Haunted by visions of the machete-wielding murderer, Tommy has to make sure Jason can’t ever return. He doesn’t do a good job.

Like a classic Universal Studios monster, Jason’s maggot-ridden corpse is resurrected by a bolt of lightning. He promptly rips out the heart of Tommy’s friend before donning his iconic hockey mask once again. The opening ends with a James Bond style strut and machete-throw at the audience.

There’s no mistaking it now; Jason is the star.

 

16. IT

Andy Muschietti, 2017

 

For all the clown terror depicted in Andy Muschietti’s adaption of the prolific Stephen King novel, he also injects a good amount of heart. The first scene in the film has both.

In a sweet moment, Bill makes his little brother Georgie a paper boat to sail in the rainstorm. In a unsweet moment, Georgie gets his arm chomped off by a clown in the sewer.

Kids have bitten the dust in horror movies before but maybe not quite as brutally. As blood mixes with rainwater and Pennywise’s arm extends out from the sewer to drag Georgie into the abyss, it’s clear this adaption isn’t going to pull any punches.

Also, Bill Skarsgård’s performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown is one of the most terrifying monster performances in movie history.

 

15. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

Chuck Russell, 1987

 

If there is one thing the “Nightmare” franchise has never been short of, it’s imagination. Russell’s opening to the third entry has this series trademark in spades.

Kristen wakes up in her bed but her bed is not in her bedroom. Instead, she’s in the front yard of Nancy Thompson’s house, the setting of the first film’s climax. The atmosphere is gloomy and ominous. Kids in the yard jump rope, toss a ball and ride a tricycle in a slow, dreamlike state while they recite the infamous “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you” rhyme.

Following one of the little girls into the basement of the home, Kristen finds herself in a boiler room, a place you generally want to avoid in a “Nightmare” film. The fires erupt and the little girl delivers two chilling words:

“Freddy’s home.”

Floors that become goopy quicksand, a room full of hanging teenagers and sink handles that become razors all follow Kristen in her attempt to escape the burnt menace. Russell even pulls off a dream within a dream fake out long before Christopher Nolan began his love affair with time.

 

14. Sleepy Hollow

Tim Burton, 1999

 

In classic Burton style, “Sleepy Hollow” puts on a clinic for production design.

The atmosphere is gloom dialed up to 11 and its gothic nature is hard to shake. It’s all present early on as we see ghastly fogs and creepy scarecrows before a couple of the village’s upper class citizens are beheaded. The narrative then switches to New York, a locale equally as grim.

Johnny Depp’s Ichabod Crane finds himself outnumbered by the members of the court when he argues his case for further scientific studies in the justice system. The late great Christopher Lee cameos as the burgomaster who commissions Ichabod to travel to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the murders.

Danny Elfman’s haunting score over the creepy scenery set the tone for Burton’s tribute to the horror films of old.

 

13. It Follows

David Robert Mitchell, 2014

 

Featuring a high concept villain that is wisely left ambiguous, the opening of “It Follows” does not try to explain or even reveal the threat but rather illustrate what it can do.

A young woman runs out of her house. She is looking at something, but we can’t see what. We just know she is terrified.

Later that night, she sits at the edge of the water, illuminated only by the headlights of her car. Her dad calls and she leaves him with a heartbreaking goodbye as she waits for “it” to find her. Director David Robert Mitchell builds the anxiety by showing the edge of the forest in front of her, bathed in the red of her taillights. We’re waiting with her to see what’s coming. We don’t see it. We just see her mangled corpse in the morning.

Mitchell’s film is patient, generating dread through the wait for the inevitable. You can run but you can’t ever get rid of “it.” The movie begins at the end of this woman’s story after she has come to this bleak realization. And then the audience, like her, can do nothing but wait anxiously for “it” to show up again.

 

12. A Quiet Place

John Krasinski, 2018

 

Well, Krasinski’s film certainly lives up to its name.

Not a word is uttered by the central family in the opening scene. They use sign language, walk on established sand paths and are careful not to touch anything that might make noise. As audience members we allow ourselves to settle into the nervous silence. This is why when the youngest son turns on a toy rocket ship, the sound it elicits seems louder than it really is.

Krasinski’s Lee Abbott sprints back across the bridge to try and save his son while the rest of the family looks on, helplessly horrified. As the creature lurches from the tree line and takes their son, parents Lee and Evelyn freeze. Their child is killed in front of them and they can’t even scream.

The opening scene of Krasinski’s film expertly sets the table for the family trauma that the protagonists have to wrestle with for the rest of the film while also establishing just how dangerous these creatures are without revealing what they are.

 

11. Zombieland

Ruben Fleischer, 2009

 

By no means was this the first zombie comedy. In my opinion, it’s not even the best one (“Shaun of the Dead”). But it is the funniest one, piling on loads of over-the-top violence and cynical humor.

After Jesse Eisenberg’s Columbus details his rules for making it in Zombieland (cardio, the double-tap and most comically – seatbelts), the opening credits kick into gear with the foreboding first bell of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. Various shots of ridiculous undead mayhem play out in slow-motion. It’s hard not to get amped for what’s to follow after this initiation.

I mean, come on. It’s Metallica.

 

10. Friday the 13th

Marcus Nispel, 2009

 

The longest opening scene on the list, this remake/reboot goes a full 23 minutes before the infamous words “Friday the 13th” are superimposed on the screen.

Everything that transpires before that title card could pass off as a short film, complete with a beginning, middle and end. There’s a prologue sequence depicting Mrs. Voorhees and her deadly fate at the hands of the camp counselor she was trying to murder. We’re introduced to a new set of enjoyable teenagers eligible for slaughter, as usual for the franchise. Their motivations and relationships are established. We think there’s nothing that could possibly ruin their fun camping weekend.

And then like any good story, you have your inciting incident, rising action and climax.

Jason makes it clear that this neck of the woods is already occupied. Bear traps crush legs, and machetes hit skulls. One girl is even put in a sleeping bag and hoisted above a fire. It’s brutal, unforgiving and shocking as you watch these characters get dispatched so quickly. Slashers aren’t exactly a genre known for expectation subversion so this sequence works all the better for it.

At their core, slashers are supposed to be dark entertainment. This opening succeeds with flying, blood-red colors.

 

9. Scream 4

Wes Craven, 2011

 

The franchise’s trademark trait of meta commentary didn’t lose its sharp bite 15 years after the original.

Kevin Williamson’s script is reliably clever, opening the film with a movie within a movie within a movie. The middle of which even stars Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin. After the former comically kills the latter for “talking too much,” the story arrives at the reality of the Scream universe where two teen girls are watching “Stab” movies.

What follows is what you’d expect. They receive threatening calls (and texts this time too, nice 21st century update Kevin) from the Ghostface voice and end up biting the dust in brutal fashion. There’s even a homage to that infamous garage death in the original “Scream”.

More clever dialogue critiquing the slasher genre and some creative expectation subversions make this a fun introduction to one of the more underrated horror sequels out there.

 

8. Night of the Living Dead

George A. Romero, 1968

 

Barbra is scared of cemeteries and she’s visiting her father’s grave with her brother Johnny. She’s already nervous. And like any good brother, Johnny tries to frighten her further.

“They’re coming to get you, Barbra,” he jokes.

Yeah, Johnny, that’s a pretty good assessment of the situation. A ghoulish man has been lurking in the distance behind them during their visit, progressing closer to them as the scene goes on. After attacking her and bashing Johnny’s head on a headstone, he chases Barbra through the cemetery and countryside until she finds herself in an isolated farmhouse.

This opening features the debut of the zombie as we know it. Slow-moving, flesh-eating and contagious members of the undead came from the imagination of horror genius George A. Romero and were brought to life in the first few minutes of “Night of the Living Dead”. But even without the historic cinematic context, it’s a frightening sequence on its own.

 

7. Midsommar

Ari Aster, 2019

 

There’s a lot to make you uneasy in Ari Aster’s sophomore feature. But the driving theme throughout is the fear of being stuck in a toxic situation.

The beginning of “Midsommar” introduces us to Dani and Christian separately while they both deal with their own current anxieties. Dani is stressed about a troubling email from her sister. She’s also worried that she’s driving her boyfriend away. Christian is out with friends, grappling with his own unhappiness. He doesn’t want to be with her, but he can’t seem to admit it.

What happens next is nothing short of bloodcurdling.

Aster brings us slowly through a dark house full of paramedics. Depicting the scene of an unnerving tragedy, the visuals are accompanied by a string arrangement capable of raising the hairs of even the bravest cinephiles. Dani has been dealt a crushing blow and Christian realizes he will be unable to leave her now, even if he wanted to. As the camera slowly zooms out the window into the snowstorm and the title cards are displayed, the audience is already feeling just as trapped and uncomfortable in this relationship as the characters, for better or worse.

 

6. Halloween

John Carpenter, 1978

 

In an iconic opening credits crawl rivaled in popularity only by “Star Wars”, Carpenter delivers his prolific “Halloween Theme” over a slow zoom into a jack-o’-lantern.

The audience is then thrust into the voyeuristic POV of someone stalking a teenage girl through her house on Halloween night. This mysterious individual grabs a clown mask and a butcher knife. He moves through the rooms deliberately, staying out of sight until he finally enters Judith Myers’ bedroom. He stabs her repeatedly, even turning his gaze to watch his arm swing up and down, as if he is in awe of what he’s doing. Leaving her dead, the individual walks downstairs and out the door where it is revealed that it was just a six-year-old boy in a clown costume.

In this moment, one of the most famous villains of movie history is born. Evil incarnate, Michael Myers has become the face of Halloween.

 

5. Dawn of the Dead

Zack Snyder, 2004

 

The remake of George A. Romero’s original “Dawn” feels like it puts the audience in a canon and shoots us into a world of chaos before we can even put a helmet on.

Finishing her long shift at the hospital, Ana doesn’t see the signs around her. The bite victim in the ICU, the paramedics being called and the emergency broadcast on TV all allude to a society on the brink of going over the edge. And once it goes over – a free fall into crazy zombie violence.

Snyder’s directorial vision of high adrenaline action-horror is realized fast and it doesn’t slow down because Ana can’t afford to slow down either. Once the sweet roller-skating girl she passed on her way home returns with half of her mouth missing and a craving for human flesh, there’s no time to stop running.

At once exhilarating and scary, “Dawn of the Dead” rides its classic virus breakout scene through a dope opening credits spectacle accompanied by Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around”.

 

4. Scream 2

Wes Craven, 1997

 

Only a year after his 1996 meta horror hit “Scream”, epochal horror director Wes Craven followed it up by getting even more self-referential. At a premiere of “Stab”, a movie based on the events of the first film, the opening scene from the original is played out again on screen with Heather Graham playing Casey Becker. The film within a film comes complete with bad dialogue and typically over-the-top horror direction.

It’s perfect.

Following in Drew Barrymore’s footsteps, Jada-Pinkett Smith is the star of this opening sequence. She didn’t even want to see a slasher movie but her boyfriend made her see it, making her outcome all the more tragic. As the rowdy theater audience sees what’s happened to her, their cheers stop. The onscreen violence they’ve been reveling in has become real right before their eyes.

Another dose of smart genre commentary with visceral scares makes the opening of “Scream 2” a more than worthy follow-up to the original.

 

3. Jaws

Steven Spielberg, 1975

 

I know people have their gripes on whether or not “Jaws” is a horror flick but can we all agree the first three and a half minutes are?

Chrissie wants to go skinny dipping and even recruits one lucky drunk dude at the party to accompany her. Our dude gets even luckier when he finds he is too drunk to take off his clothes and instead rests on the shore. He’s lucky because something lurks beneath Chrissie in the ocean. As John Williams’ ominous score builds in pace, the POV of the audience is also that of the shark.

It doesn’t just pull her down right away. It nibbles on her a couple times first before violently thrashing her back and forth. Chrissie’s transition from scared confusion to utter terror as she screams for God to save her is hard to shake off. It brings her down one last time. The screaming stops. Our drunk dude on the beach doesn’t notice a thing, staring at the sky as the sun rises idyllically behind him.

We never see the shark but it doesn’t matter. The damage is done. Movie audiences would never go in the ocean again without at least thinking twice.

 

2. 28 Weeks Later

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007

 

In a barricaded cottage outside London, a small group of survivors live by candlelight. All of the windows and doors are boarded up. There is a sense of unrest among them.

When they hear a young boy banging on the door outside and screaming for help, they hesitate before letting him in. What follows is one of the tensest sequences in horror history.

As a horde of infected swarm the cottage and farm, the group is separated as they try to escape. Cut off from his wife and the young boy she’s trying to save, Don instead runs to save himself, leaving her for dead. Screaming his name, her fear and hurt in that moment are even more affecting than any of the merciless “zombie” violence. Being chased from all angles, Don is able to make it to the motorboat and escape by the skin of his teeth. The sole survivor, he is alone with his guilt.

The return of the rousing music and guerrilla style of filmmaking from “28 Days Later” work in tandem to make the audience feel the loss of control as they witness just how quickly things can fall apart.

 

1. Scream

Wes Craven, 1996

 

Could the top spot really have gone to anything else?

Although the phone calls from a mysterious stranger to Casey Becker begin as innocent questions about her favorite scary movies, they take a turn at one chilling moment. She asks him why he wants to know her name. He responds with a calm malevolence.

“Because I want to know who I’m looking at.”

The scene escalates as Ghostface (chillingly voiced by Roger L. Jackson) makes it clear she’s playing with her boyfriend’s life as well as her own in his sadistic game. Answering trivia questions about the genre, Kevin Williamson’s script establishes the reality that these characters know all of the horror movie tropes. This fresh and self-aware perspective combined with director Wes Craven’s knack for expertly raising the tension throughout the sequence lock in the audiences from the start. A shocking and unforgiving fate for A-list star Drew Barrymore’s character in the first 15 minutes make it clear no one is safe.

The opening to Wes Craven’s slasher classic not only references multiple horror franchises, it turns the conventions of those films on their heads. And it does this while still being scary in its own right.

– – –

I hope the rest of spooky season is great for y’all. Carve jack-o’-lanterns. Eat candy. Watch horror movies. Thank you for reading.

 

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