The opening scene of a movie is crucial. They have to set up a world, character or premise in a tantalizing manner that will grab the viewer's attention and get them to stick around, both mentally and/or physically, for the remainder of the film. Sure, endings usually serve as a better barometers to whether people come out "liking" the film or not, but openings need to engage enough to get you to that point. Due to the high concentrate of crap in horror films, engrossing starts are paramount. With that in mind, below are five horror films that begin on the right foot.
This list is not meant to be definitive, or even a best-of variety for that matter. Some of these are not great films, but that's besides the point. I eliminated any films that made my Top 20 Favorite Horror Films list (link), so the shocking reveals of Halloween's prologue and the unsettling Iraq section of The Exorcist, both worthy candidates, are not on this list. It was not my original intent, but it worked out nicely that one film from each of the past five decades (1960s-2000s) are represented.
Black Sunday (1960, Mario Bava)
My father who was about 13 years old when Black Sunday received an American theatrical release, said this was one of the most frightening viewing experiences of his youth. I can only imagine. Bava, most noted for his mastering of utilizing color, was also a hell of a director in black and white too. The framing and editing here seem to show more that they really do in the film's prologue, which shows witch Aja Vajda (Barbara Steele) being punished by not only being burned at the stake, but also receiving a spiked mask hammered to her face!
Here's a link to the opening from the censored American International Pictures release, it's not embeddable.
When A Stranger Calls (1979, Fred Walton)
An opening so strong and memorable that most people forget that there's a mediocre hour plus more following it. The classic campfire urban legend story gets a retelling as a babysitter (Carol Kane) begins receiving threatening calls from an unknown caller imploring her to check on the children. I wonder where the calls could be coming from?
Here are the first six minutes from the opening section (click on the Youtube link to watch the rest):
The Changeling (1980, Peter Medak)
Dr. John Russell (George C. Scott) moves to an old Victorian house in Washington which is haunted by the spirit of a murdered child in Medak's ghost story (my review). Russell is particularly responsive because he too lost loved ones previously, as we see in the opening prologue, when he watches helplessly as his wife and daughter are killed in a snowy traffic collision.
Here are the first ten minutes of the film (with French subtitles!):
Scream (1996, Wes Craven)
After all the rip-offs, diminishing returns sequels (part 4 of the trilogy coming April 2011!), ubiquitous Halloween costumes and parodies, it's hard to remember what a breath of fresh air this witty slasher film was in the horror dead zone of the mid 1990s. Both a meta commentary and new spin on the genre, Scream pays a debt to Psycho by killing off the biggest name in the cast early (I guess you could make an argument that that was a mid-Friends run Courtney Cox, but Barrymore was more prevalent in the marketing), a development that thankfully wasn't ruined as the internet was still in it's breast feeding phase. Full of well researched references to such perennials as Halloween, Friday the 13th and even Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, and a playful take on the When a Stranger Calls opening, the film's opening scenes begin benignly enough before taking a deadly turn.
Here you go:
28 Weeks Later (2007, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo)
The sequel to Danny Boyle's not-zombie but "infected" post-millennial 2003 horror film 28 Days Later lacks the depth, characters and atmosphere of the original, but does trump it in one department: the opening scene. A couple (Robert Carlyle and Catherine McCormack) who have formed a fortress to blockade the infected in their idyllic farmhouse, take pity on a child, but open the floodgates and an attack ensues. What's so brilliant here is that it plays with our perceptions, we're so programmed to seeing film characters acting heroically, that we are shocked when the husband makes a selfish, and all too human, decision to leave his wife and fend for himself.
Here are the first three minutes of 28 Weeks Later (link).