The horror prologue—almost a matter of necessity at this point, a short film in itself to introduce the terror, make you jump, serve as a reference point for a third act call-back.
As cliche as they may be, the opening jump scene is still handled more effectively and more memorably in horror than in any other genre. (I’m looking at you, James Bond.) They can become iconic cinematic moments and pop cultural touchstones like Scream or The Ring. They can, without the aid of the rest of the film, haunt your dreams: It, Martyrs. They can amuse you while setting up the rules for the film: Zombieland. Or they can be just astoundingly beautiful, like Rear Window.
We want to thank Brandon Thomas for joining us this week to count down the six best (fuzzy math!) opening scenes in horror. Listen to the full podcast HERE.
6. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
The flick begins strong with one of the best “things seem fine but then they don’t” openings in film.
And finally! A strong female lead who seems like a real person. Poor, overworked Ana (Sarah Polley) just wants to get off her nursing shift—a subtly brilliant way to introduce the facts of the infection without beating you about the face and neck with it.
Then on to a quiet ride home with “Have a Nice Day” on the radio—one of many brilliant musical choices by director Zack Snyder—and our first aerial of the tidy suburban landscape that is about to be destroyed.
Cut to ordinary, comfortable wedded bliss, then Vivian in her bloody little nightgown, then a rabid husband, a bloody escape and the second pan around the neighborhood gone insane.
5. The Reflecting Skin (1990)
It isn’t often when documenting horror cinema that you have the need to mention an art director, but for The Reflecting Skin, the work of Rick Roberts deserves a note. His gorgeous, bucolic Idaho is perfectly crafted, with golden wheat and decrepit wooden outbuildings representing both the wholesomeness and decay that will meld in this tale.
Writer/director Philip Ridley has a fascinating imagination, and his film captures your attention from its opening moments. A cherubic tot walks gleefully through wheat fields toward his two adorable little buddies, carrying a frog nearly as big as he is. “Look at this wonderful frog!” he calls out to them.
What happens next is grotesque and amazing – the casual but exuberant cruelty of children. It’s the perfect introduction to this world of macabre happenings as seen through the eyes of a little boy.
4. It Follows (2014)
David Robert Mitchell wears his fondness for the genre on his sleeve. His startlingly realized prologue not only sets you on edge for one of the strongest new genre films in a decade, but it announces that Mitchell, like many of us, is a very big John Carpenter fan.
As Mike Gioulakis’s camera circles this comfortable suburban street, following poor Annie (Bailey Spry) in circles as she decides her next panicky move, Mitchell’s inspirations are clear. It’s both clever and ballsy: drawing comparisons to the genre master in your opening scene can very well set you up for tremendous failure.
But not if you’re about to follow this pristine piece of horror set-up with one of the most imaginative, well-crafted and terrifying films in recent memory. Well done.
3. Halloween (1978)
Speaking of John Carpenter, here’s a guy who knows how to open a movie. The Thing, for instance, brilliantly and almost wordlessly sets up the entire film with an economy and visual style that tells you all you need to know about the harsh environment, isolation and, if you’re really paying attention, the danger that’s afoot.
But it’s the prologue to Halloween that has been the most inspirational of any of his film openings. Backed by his spare and perfect score, the spooky chanting of children sets the mood: black cats and goblins and broomsticks and ghosts/covens of witches with all of their hosts/ you may think it’s scary/ you’re probably right/ black cats and goblins on Halloween night!
Switch to the now-famous killer’s pov through the eye-holes of a Halloween mask—an iconic image clearly inspired by Bava’s devil mask pov shot in Black Sabbath—and then the blank face and bloody knife of the jester-suited Michael Meyers and your masterpiece has taken its first steps.
2. Get Out (2017)
Opening with a brilliant prologue that wraps a nice vibe of homage around the cold realities of “walking while black,” writer/director Jordan Peele uses tension, humor and a few solid frights to call out blatant prejudice, casual racism and cultural appropriation.
Lakeith Stanfield is just trying to find the party, but he’s lost on McMansion avenue in a suburb. When a sports car slows down next to him and then stops, Peele has introduced utterly perfectly his method of subverting genre expectations to make terrifying salient points about America.
Backed by Flanagan and Allen’s utterly terrifying golden oldie Run Rabbit Run, we watch the age-old genre scene unfold: a vulnerable innocent alone in the dark with no one coming to the rescue. But suddenly it’s not the beautiful co-ed, not the helpless victim we’re trained to worry for, accustomed to seeing as prey. It’s actually the image we’ve been trained to see as the aggressor, the villain, the reason to fear.
And yet, what happens here feels far, far too much like reality.
1. Jaws (1975)
Poor, drunk Chrissie and her stupid, wasted suiter.
Steven Spielberg, 29-years-old at the time, was about to cause a tidal wave of pop culture defining terror. But first, a late-night beach party, a couple of wholesome if drunken revelers, a late swim and our first taste of John Williams masterpiece of a score.
No, Chrissie does not look like she’s having a good time, and actress Susan Backlini seems to have gone through enough of an ordeal to come away with PTSD. Bill Butler’s camera switches from the disturbing shark’s-eye-view to the even more disturbing close up just above the water line—that line Chrissy keeps crossing, up and down, up and down, and then back and forth and back and forth.
The result was a lingering terror of the water that not only kept you hoping against hope that every member of Amity stayed off that beach, but very likely caused you at least a little anxiety the next time you want for a late night dip.
d: Steven Spielberg; w: Peter Benchley