We all know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. So, it stands to reason, we also should not judge a film by its poster. But we have to judge these damn things somehow! Synopses are not always trust-worthy. Reviews can be subjective. What are we to do? Openings. Films, and specifically horror films, should only truly be judged if they are worthy to be watched in their entirety by their opening premise. With that in mind, we are counting down Five of the Greatest Horror Film Openings.
Let’s start with number 5 and work our way to the absolute best.
While the opening to John Carpenter’s 1978 classic slasher Halloween doesn’t have a clearly established protagonist, it checks (slashes?) off all the other criteria for a truly great Horror Film Opening. The tense, voyeuristic tone of the film is established with the score and camera work. We are introduced to the character of Michael Myers. It is actually reminiscent of Jaws in a lot of ways. We have similar perspectives used.
Our interest as viewers is piqued by the mysterious reveal of the child killer by the end. We know this film is going to be about suburbia no longer being safe. We know it’s going to be about children and sexuality and monsters just outside your window. In keeping with Joseph Campbell’s writing on classic heroes’ journeys in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, an important boundary is crossed to get the plot moving. The door to the house, a sacred, safe space, is violated.
From the opening moments of the film, we know that suburbia is no longer a refuge from the violent realities creeping up to our front steps. Something M. Night Shyamalan also explores years later in The Village.
4. It Follows
Man, if horror film openings need to pique the interest of the viewer, creating a mystery they just have to stick around to solve… It Follows is a master class in how to open a movie with this objective in mind.
Still suburban street — wait who’s this weirdo running around? Why is she dressed this way? Why is she taking this weird pattern in her flight? No one is chasing her… right?
It’s an opening unlike any I have ever seen. The type of protagonist we are going to meet is established, if not the exact young lady. The monster is hinted at, the tone of the film, the themes, the stakes… it’s all there. Right down to the sort of existential “Why bother” ending of the opening (That feels oxymoronic to say).
And I think in this modern era of horror film making a certain existential mystery is necessary to differentiate your movie from the rest of the pack. Think of Get Out, The Babadook, The VVitch, or Hereditary; all of these film frighten but also create a sense of existential dread in the viewer in how they ask us to search inward. It Follows works in this same mode. Seriously, try to imagine any other way to open this movie. It’s impossible.
3. The Ring
Come on. Do I even have to defend this one? Oh, what’s that? I do? I can’t just show you a picture and be like “I’m right, trust me!”? Apparently that is what a writer has to do: write. Well, you are being unreasonable, but I beg you to picture the sheer perfection of terror that is the opening of The Ring. I chose The Ring here over Ringu simply due to a slightly better “scary face” effect at the end of the opening.
We have an adorable back-and-forth with our viewpoint characters to start with. We very quickly know their archetype and feel protective of them. They are school-aged girls still dressed in their uniforms, innocent and full of life. Then, boy, does the mood change fast.
Like that overture I mentioned earlier, we get the “themes” to come sampled fast and furious. (NOT Tokyo Drift). Static televisions, unexplained deaths, unstoppable, inevitable punishment.
Oh wait, is It Follows just The Ring, basically? Makes sense why both films are so strong in their openings. Though, I do think they achieve that near perfect horror film opening in different ways: the former uses mystery and intrigue with the latter creating a connection and sympathy to character.
Ultimately, I give the 3 spot to The Ring due to its more effective scare towards the end of the opening, as well as its superior work establishing likability and sympathy for the characters
2. 28 Weeks Later
I very nearly gave this one the top spot. Even though I think 28 Days Later is actually the superior movie, probably in my top 5 horror films of all time, 28 Weeks Later clearly beats it out as far as horror film openings go. This might actually be the only aspect of Weeks that tops Days — one could argue cast; Weeks boasts Poots, Renner, Carlyle, Byrne, and Idris friggin’ Elba.
But out of that impressive cast, only Carlyle shows up in the opening. And what an opening it is. It really is the Carlyle show. The tense, opening minutes of the film tick off nearly every box on the “how to open a horror film” checklist. We establish character, stakes, setting, tone, and even get a good deal of status quo work done in just seconds. We know what these characters’ lives are like and understand what it means immediately when a new character shows up looking for succor.
We know the stakes when the child is let in, when Carlyle chooses to run instead of sacrificing himself for his wife. The score, the themes of survival vs. family, the atmosphere of dread and guilt hanging over all the survivors… its all there. All tragically, beautifully, realized in those final moments featuring Carlyle’s mad dash for his own life.
We all know what I’m talking about here. I’m specifically pointing to the IT 2017 remake. The pacing here is exquisite — with the storytelling even capitalizing on the foreknowledge expected from the viewer regarding this scene.
The opening can be broken up into 2 distinct parts. The first being the status quo section where we see the two brothers in their relatable, likable familiar environment. This film excels here over every other film on this list in creating a sense of dread for the viewer — knowing what is about to happen. These adorable boys, who love each other, who remind us of our own children or brothers or nephews… are going to be devastatingly harmed.
And beyond creating simply likable characters, this first among all horror film openings sets up children as protagonists, teasing themes of the horrors of a normal suburban adolescence. The terrifying unknowns lurking deep underneath your own home, where you should be safe.
Then Georgie goes to sail his boat.
He crosses moving water, slowly at first. We have a transition into the unknown from the known. He leaves the safe threshold of his home and passes into the street, and finally descends into the underworld of the sewers. The place alligators grow to be giants. Where our imagination can run wild.
The monster is revealed, but only in shadow, only in one form. We see the surreal aspects of his movements — his jaws and arms. His uncanny humor and terror — made doubly uncomfortable due to the uncanny nature of clowns themselves.
I mean, is it really any wonder IT takes the top spot here? Would anyone fight me on this? Please do, because I am fascinated to learn what could supplant IT as the greatest horror movie opening of all time.