It’s October, and therefore the month of scary movies! Horror and Pumpkin Spice Lattes are what make this month worthwhile. There are so many scary movies that you can binge on so many different streaming platforms that it’s hard to decide where to begin, so it’s critical to decide what makes a scary movie scary. Is it the cast? The gore? The music? So many options!
But one fact applies to the entire genre of horror– the opening scene is the most integral part of the film. It sets the tone and prepares you for what scares you have ahead of you. The five films below have what critics and fans alike agree are the most iconic opening scenes in scary movies.
Scream (available on Amazon Prime)
This 1996 classic contains a slasher film formula that is almost impossible to replicate. Up until this point in cinema, characters in horror films were mere pawns in the hands of the killer. They had no awareness of how to truly survive a Slasher film because they never once considered that they were in one. The late, great Wes Craven threw that idea out the window. Every character in Scream is so self-aware that it borders on satire. From Sydney Prescott to Randy Meeks, they are all horror aficionados of some form. This is the foundation that sets this film apart from any other horror movie that came before or after it. In what could only be seen as a coping mechanism, there isn’t a single murder that doesn’t include joking and speculation on what will happen next based on their knowledge of older scary movies. So how could an opening scene possibly convey this meta complex idea to an audience that thinks they’re walking into a standard horror film? FOUR WORDS: “Let’s play a game.” They are uttered to the legendary Drew Barrymore in the first scene of the film when she gets a phone call from Ghostface.
The first time the phone rings, she’s making JiffyPop popcorn. Wrong number. Or at least that’s what she thinks. But the calls never stop and the tension grows every time the phone rings. The musical score stays subtle to the point where all you can hear is the fear in her voice and the JiffyPop bursting out of control, a metaphor for the rising tension. He taunts and teases her while she snubs him, hoping her boyfriend arrives soon. It’s only after we hear those words that we truly understand the seriousness of this call. Someone is going to die, and fittingly, it is all dependent on her ability to answer trivia questions about scary movies. That opening scene is one of the longest in horror movies, standing at 12 minutes and 55 seconds. With each of those minutes, the audience feels stress, anticipation, and terror. Gutted, even. The tone for the entire film is set, and phone calls will never be the same again.
Halloween (available on Shudder)
When does the introduction of Halloween begin? Is it the eerie opening titles where we hear the creepy score with the pumpkin on screen? Or is when we finally see a house appear in where we’ll soon learn is Haddonfield, Illinois? Apart, they leave a sense of intrigue. Stitched together, they build a sense of discomfort, a feeling that we need to have to be able to see things from the perspective of Michael Myers. He’s just a small boy in the opening scene of Halloween. Things in the house seem normal. There is no discernable motivation for the darkness that inhabits him. In other horror movies, the killer has a sinister backstory that almost permits them to kill. They’re either neglected or abused. Sometimes they’re abandoned. But from what we can see in this opening scene, Michael is loved. It’s Halloween night, and his sister stayed home with him. His parents at the end of the scene are visibly worried about him. This moment is imperative to see and understand because without knowing how he grew up we don’t know that no one in this film is safe.
As a child, he just randomly decided to kill his sister. We don’t know quite how young he was until he walked out of the house with the knife and a blank stare on his face after the murder. His parents run to him with worry and unease when they see the blood on his hands. They don’t know what they’re about to see because they weren’t expecting it. Unlike the parents, for a brief moment, we got to. A few minutes earlier, we saw his young hands grab a large knife with that unnerving score in the background. Why was he going to kill? We didn’t know. But from that moment on, we knew he was going to kill someone, and it was going to be his sister. From there, we got to hear and see the images that would recur countless times throughout the entire film. Screams. Nudity. Knife thrusts. His heavy breathing. Relief.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (available on Starz)
The 1974 film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is a horror masterpiece, but it’s the opening to the 2003 remake that stands out when it comes to opening scenes. Starring Jessica Biel and R. Lee Ermey, this remake takes the carnage to a whole new level. But it’s the narration by John Larroquette that creates the genuine feeling of horror that lasts throughout the film. The intro isn’t the hippie van full of people heading to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. It’s old footage of a crime scene and this resounding narration:
“The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected, nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them, an idyllic summer afternoon became a nightmare. For 30 years, the files collected dust in the cold-case division of the Travis County Police Department. Over 1,300 pieces of evidence were collected from the crime scene at the Hewitt residence. Yet none of the evidence was more compelling than the classified police footage of the crime-scene walk-through.”
Opening scenes don’t get much more visceral than those words we hear. They evocatively tell us exactly what’s about to happen, spoilers and all. We are about to witness relentless death and horror. It’s a torment knowing that there is little hope for the people that we will soon be going on a journey with. The fact that this opening makes you think that crime scene footage is real only adds to that anguish.
Nightmare on Elm Street (available on Amazon Prime)
Yes, another Wes Craven classic has made it onto the list. Craven knew better than any other director that without a forceful beginning, a horror film would just not be that frightening. Stress and anxiety are feelings that the audience needs to be feeling at all times throughout the film. If it isn’t felt right away, the viewer might not gain enough empathy for the characters that is needed to keep them invested throughout the entire film. In Nightmare on Elm Street Craven gains the audience’s empathy quickly by setting the opening scene in the one scary place where every person has been: a nightmare. That’s what makes this film so terrifying and sometimes even harder to watch than other horror movies. We’ve all been there and we all fear it. Tina Gray has the first nightmare in this film. She acts in this film as a false protagonist. Similar to Drew Barrymore in Scream, her role isn’t to live. It’s to show us just how scary and capable the killer is.
The killer in this film is Freddie Krueger. From the beginning, we can only see that he’s a man with a menacingly burned face wearing a fedora and a gloved hand with razors. We meet him in the boiler room, but it’s painfully obvious that Tina has already met him somewhere else. Like all the other characters, Freddy haunted her dreams for days before finally killing her. The disturbing reason behind why he waits is because he could. He wants to haunt and toy with his victims before killing them. When someone can control your dreams, there’s no escaping them, and he knows that. As we follow Tina into the boiler room in this nightmare of hers, we hear the sounds of machines dragging. Dense mistiness is seen on the screen, providing us with a sense of unease and intrigue about what they’re shrouding. Haunting sounds reverberate off the walls of our subconscious as we witness Freddy’s iconic knives rip through fabric like skin, and then… she wakes up. Her mother checks on her and points out the inexplicable slash marks in her nightgown. It wasn’t just a dream.
It (available on iTunes and Sling TV)
The last film on this list is also the newest and the opening scene is probably the most iconic. There have been several iterations of It throughout the years. It’s based on a book by Stephen King and was adapted into a campy miniseries before it was made into a movie in 2017. Aspects of the story change in each version of this horrifying tale, but the beginning is always the same: A little boy comes face to face with an unnerving clown. His name is Georgie, and the day he met Pennywise the Clown was the last day of his life.
All someone needs to say is, “Hiya Georgie!” and the scene flashes before their eyes. It’s that memorable. It’s a dark and rainy day. Georgie’s older brother Bill doesn’t want to play with him, so he makes Georgie a paper boat to play with instead. Aside from the weather outside, there is no sense of danger. Georgie is glad to be splashing in the water with his boat and chasing it as it races down the street in a gush of rainwater. As background music grows more menacing, the tide of water picks up speed and Georgie loses pace. The boat goes where all rainwater goes: down the storm drain. His stress is felt and he fears disappointing his older brother by losing the boat made for him. So he goes to retrieve it. What he doesn’t know is that a dark entity that’s been haunting Derry for centuries is also in that storm drain. He has taken the shape of a clown but is capable of taking on the shape of whatever scares you the most. Clowns are the most terrifying to children, and children are what Pennywise loves to kill most. Nevertheless, Georgie goes to that ill-fated drain to retrieve the boat and meets his demise. The clown has his boat and won’t give it back to Georgie unless he reaches in to take it. Georgie almost knows better, but in the end, refuses to disappoint his brother. Sadly, Bill never sees Georgie alive again.