Some horror movies opt to lull viewers into a sense of comfort or complacency before ripping the rug out from under them; films like Alien, Rosemary’s Baby, or Psycho take a while to introduce the world and its characters before unleashing the horror. Other horror movies prefer to go straight for the jugular right out of the gate, delivering an attention-grabbing scene before unwinding the narrative.
That opening scare not only serves as a memorable introduction but it establishes the film’s overall tone as well. It’s long since become a staple in horror. Whether the rest of the film holds up to the opener is an entirely different story, though. For those memorable, attention-grabbing opening scenes that elicit jolts, chills, and thrills, here are 10 of horror’s best.
When a Stranger Calls Back
1979’s When a Stranger Calls has a fantastic opening spun from the urban legend about the babysitter and the caller within the house. The rest of the film? Not so great. But this made-for-cable television sequel is surprisingly much better and the opening scene is an all-timer. This time the babysitter, Julia, is played by Jill Schoelen (The Stepfather, Popcorn). While Julia is on duty at her regular gig, the kids are fast asleep upstairs when a stranger knocks on the front door. He pleads to use the phone to call in help for his broken down car. Julia refuses to open the door to let him in (she’s smart), but offers to make the call for him. Except, she finds the phone is dead. It’s the beginning of a very intense cat and mouse game, especially when Julia notices stuff within the house has been moved around.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
How do you follow up one of horror’s most vital classics, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? If you’re Tobe Hooper you approach the sequel with pitch-black humor, and you announce it to your audience with a great opening hook. Set 13 years after the first film, the opening sequence not only introduces us to final girl Stretch (Caroline Williams), but reacquaints us with Leatherface in an unexpected way; a crazy car chase. Leatherface dances in the back of the pickup before gleefully dispatching his victims. It’s a scene that screams this is going to be nothing like predecessor in the most entertaining fashion.
James Wan’s film featured an opening so strong that it earned its own spinoff series. It’s easy to see why, too. Not only does it effectively introduce the Warrens and their paranormal submersed world, but the self-contained story of Annabelle plays out like a perfectly conducted symphony of scares. The dread building, music, timing, and camera angles all work in tandem to escalate Annabelle from throwaway creepy doll to menacing demonic presence in mere minutes. It’s a great bookend to the Perrons’ haunting, and the true birthplace of the Conjuring universe.
Whether we’re talking the 1990 TV miniseries or the 2017 adaptation, take your pick; they both open the same way. After Bill makes his younger brother a paper boat while sick in bed, little Georgie takes it out into the rain for a test drive. When the rain carries the boat down into a storm drain, he finds Pennywise the Dancing Clown offering to retrieve it for him. The TV version isn’t nearly as bloody, but both have a terrifying pointy-toothed Pennywise and the demise of little Georgie. So, team Tim Curry or team Bill Skarsgard? Either way, we come out a winner with this fantastic opener.
It’s difficult to imagine anything that followed this scene could have lived up to the high bar that was set. Opening on a luxury cruise ship in 1962, wealthy passengers enjoy an elegant dance on the deck with music by an Italian lounge singer. Everyone is enjoying their evening, and there’s even a cute moment where a young girl accepts an offer to dance by the ship’s captain. This is the precise moment where an unseen person presses a lever that releases a wire trap. One moment everyone’s dancing and happy. The next they’re bisected with their guts spilling out. Gloriously gory and shocking, it remains an all-time best opening scene.
Dario Argento unleashes an onslaught of sensory overload in the opening minutes of beloved classic Suspiria. Unsuspecting Suzy Bannion arrives at the German dance academy late on a stormy night, while frightened student Pat flees. Both Pat and the audience know someone, or something, is after her. We just don’t know what. The vivid color scheming against Goblin’s frenzied score builds along with the tension, a supernatural mystery grabbing hold of the viewer and refusing to let go. Even after the opening scene ends with the brutal hanging of Pat.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
By 2004, the zombie apocalypse had become a bit formulaic and stale. We’d long been accustomed to the fall of civilization by way of zombie outbreak since George A. Romero broke the mold in 1968. This remake gets all that stuff out of the way in the opening scene, beginning with a subtle bite victim in a hospital to waking up the next morning with the world in flames. It’s fast and unrelenting. Also fast and unrelenting? The zombies. From the vicious death of Ana’s husband to his near-instant turn, Dawn of the Dead ushered in a faster, meaner brand of zombie.
So much can be said about Wes Craven’s film and its game-changing effect on horror, but we’re specifically talking opening scenes here. It doesn’t get much better than this one, either. An intense 13-minute standoff between teen Casey Becker and Ghostface killer is a master class in horror on its own merit. Clever writing, effective suspense, and quotable dialogue that pervaded pop culture since, it all culminated in one of horror’s most shocking deaths of all time. No one ever suspected that the character belonging to the film’s biggest star, Drew Barrymore, would die in the opening scene, let alone that she would be viciously disemboweled with her parents just seconds away.
A continuous tracking shot that places the viewer in Michael Myers’ point of view as he walks through the Myers house, puts on a clown mask, get a knife, and then murders his post-coital older sister on Halloween night. It’s chilling in both its atmospheric dread and that it’s clear that this murderer is an emotionless killing machine. The opening scene ends with a shocking twist; the killer is just a child. Brilliantly shot and choreographed, John Carpenter sets the tone right out of the gate and establishes that this killer is someone to fear long before he set his sights on Laurie Strode. He really is the Boogeyman.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the film credited as the first ever blockbuster has a killer opening. By now it’s well documented that the mechanical shark “Bruce” malfunctioned to the point where director Steven Spielberg had to get creative. It worked in the film’s favor with Spielberg crafting sequences and shots that forces the audience to rely on their imagination, rendering a far more terrifying film with a mostly unseen apex predator lurking beneath the water’s surface. The opening scene exemplifies this, when a young woman sneaks away from a beach party to skinny dip. The underwater POV of the shark looking up at its prey treading water is powerful; the audience knows the woman is in danger long before she does. Even when the shark clamps down on the woman, we only see her body being thrashed about as she gurgles and screams for help. Alone and far from shore, no one hears her violent end. It’s pure horror.